North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

A Children’s Treasury of Negative Reviews

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A few days ago, Slate ran an essay called about the epidemic of nice online book reviews, about how online critics are too gentle and never have anything bad to say about books. It raises a few interesting points: Tumblr’s culture of inclusiveness and friendliness – a culture best documented by the awesome mind behind Tumblr Dot Txt –  and NPR’s reluctance to run negative reviews.

It’s an interesting read and it made me think a little bit about my own work as a freelance critic, which I’ll get to in a bit. But it also overlooked how there’s still tons of negative reviews online, in some cases far more negative than anything I’ve seen in print. Here’s a few of my favorites.

David Foster Wallace: Portrait of an infinitely limited mind By Ramon Glazov, Exiled Online (2011)
A long, detailed takedown not only of David Foster Wallace, but also of Dave Eggers and William T. Vollmann. Worth reading for the insight into Wallace’s most popular novel – “An anti-intellectual (yet amazingly pretentious) Calvinist cautionary tale that makes the same death threats about thinking that Requiem for a Dream made about drugs” – but for a look at the culture surrounding it and the McSweeny’s circle. It’s also funny as hell, too.
The Flip-Flop King – Mark Ames, NY Post (2003)
I once read this piece described as a shotgun blast at Klosterman. It’s something like that, with Ames going at everything Klosterman is, from his prose to his looks.  While it’s over-the-top, it also hits in more than a few places and despite being nearly a decade old, it still relavent: it’s funny that it’s only now people are starting to take notice of these criticisms.
You Are Not the Cosmos – Charles P. Pierce, Deadspin (2009)
A variable broadside by Pierce at Bill Simmons bloated Book of Basketball, which tackles everything from a gimmicky use of footnotes to porn jokes to Simmons weighing in racial issues – “Oh, Lord, reading Simmons on race and/or history is like watching those guys in The Wages Of Fear drive the nitroglycerin down the mountain.” More importantly, it does what I think a good, honest review needs to do: hold the author accountable for his words, especially if they’re as banal as some of the stuff in The Book of Basketball. Also, it allegedly caused Simmons to scrub Pierce from bibliography in the paperback, which is pretty damn funny.
The Problem with Sportswriting – Sebastian Stockman, The Millions (2012)
Nowhere near as negative as the above, Stockman’s essay focuses for a bit on John Feinstein’s new memoir and drops the gloves: he calls Feinstein un-selfaware and points out the hypocrisy Feinstein showed in getting the Patriot league to move games around on his behalf (and especially on the lack of regard showed by Feinstein). It’s a good essay and good proof that yes, even internet outlets do run negative reviews.
When I read the above, then look at some of the reviews I’ve done for various sites, I’m struck by how nice my reviews are. I think the lowest I’ve given a book at The Good Point was 6/10 and while I don’t assign stars to the stuff I do elsewhere, I can’t remember too many negative reviews. I recently slammed a book at Flashfact and I’ve given bad reviews on my own blog, but I sometimes worry I’m just too nice, that I won’t slam a book that deserves slamming.
To be fair, I buy almost all of the books I review, and I’m pretty good at knowing my own tastes: it’s not often I’ll pick something up and hate it. Not that it doesn’t happen – see the two above links – but I’ve been pretty successful at avoiding stuff I won’t like. And that’s pretty much the guide I go by when doing stuff: did I enjoy the book? Would I read it again? And how could I assume the average person enjoy the book?
A good example is the ESPN oral history linked above. It’s a book about something I’m fascinated by – sports media and the personalities that drive it – and it’s a huge tome, packed full of minutiae on ESPN. But I didn’t exactly enjoy it either: I didn’t learn much new from the book, never a good thing when it’s a 700+ page behemoth, and I’d heard some of it’s juicier tidbits elsewhere, years ago – but how many people read Mike Freeman’s book on ESPN or Will Leitch’s God Save the Fan? Certainly not many of my friends, even those I forced Leitch’s book upon. So I tried to balance that in the review: I assume the average person might find these stories new, might enjoy the stuff I found old hat, but still be bogged down by the sheer mass of it all, not to mention the subject matter (I assume not many people are as interested in sports media as I am).
On balance, I said six of ten: it’s a slightly above average read, but there’s better ways to spend your $11 (like on God Save the Fan!). I don’t really want to attack a book unless I really didn’t like it (and I really didn’t like McCown’s Law) and I actually kind of recoil from outright destroying one. Back in my J-School days, I was taught I’m not George Bernard Shaw, so don’t try and write a broadside like one of his. I’d like to think I’m pretty honest in my reviews, but this is something I’m going to keep in the back of mind.

Written by M.

August 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Posted in bigger stuff, other

Tagged with , , ,

One Response

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  1. I must say I have a “negative” review of this blog post: the “en” dash is being incorrectly being used when an “em” dash would be the structurally correct option… j/k (really though, you should be using an “em” dash) a really interesting read, hilariously scathing at points, and well thought-out. I think the internet is not shy about dishing out harsh criticisms, but often the “professional” reviews (especially for literature) are often overly flattering, and not particularly honest because of it. Bravo for your willingness to be critical!


    August 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm

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