Oscar Wilde was when he said of Nobel Prize winning playwright George Bernard Shaw: “An excellent man: he has no enemies, and none of his friends like him.” Mark Twain was when he said of Jane Austen, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!” The scathing negative review with its use of over-the-top metaphor and smug derision is a time-honored art form and I refuse to watch it go quietly. I’d say these new-wave positive only reviewers would have to take me down kicking and screaming but I have the feeling they’d rather hug me and have a chat about my anger issues.
So yes, negative reviews exist for the sake of entertainment. But that does not mean they are entirely useless. Consider the amount of work that goes into writing a book and editing it. An author could go through an infinite number of drafts before he or she even shows it to a test audience. Then if it even makes it to a publisher’s desk it’s more than likely to be sent back with red lines through half the manuscript. Editing is a brutal, tortuous process that can take months or even years (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin). Are we really going to pretend that after all of this work and heartbreak that an author wouldn’t want to know what we think of their book if we don’t like it? That they’d rather we just forget it ever existed and let it fade into obscurity? I can’t speak for everyone but personally I’d rather know why my book failed so I don’t make the same mistakes with the next one. Heaping praise exclusively on an author leaves no room for improvement and there are very few books that cannot be improved upon in at least some small way.
I am acutely aware that I am writing from a place of no authority. I have never written a book, let alone published one. All I can lay claim to is a handful of (not all negative) reviews and essays and several unpublished short stories. I’m slowly working my way towards writing the next great American novel. Maybe this is why I feel no qualms in penning the occasional hatchet job; I know I’m insignificant and can’t cause any real damage. I do know that when I eventually write and publish that novel, I’ll sure as hell want to know what people dislike about it so I can improve as a writer. Besides, a literary landscape bereft of the witticisms of the Oscar Wildes and Mark Twains of the world strikes me as incredibly boring.
I love negative reviews. They exist in a place where snark and biting wit are the chief weapons in the writer’s arsenal and welcome a sort of authorial-gallows-humor that few other forms of writing readily lend themselves to. Maybe I’m just a pathetic misanthrope who enjoys deriding his fellow human beings. Maybe I really am the master of witty sarcasm I imagine myself to be. Regardless, I’ve noticed a very strange trend in the realm of negative reviews; namely that they’ve been disappearing.
This makes no sense when you take into account that more books than ever before in history are being published today. Self-published books hit a new record of 391,000 in 2013 in the U.S. alone, more titles than were traditionally published as recently as 2010. On top of that a good 80% of these titles are fiction. Yet amidst this title-wave (sorry, couldn’t resist) of new fiction large publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post have sounded a general retreat from negative reviews, with BuzzFeed leading the way by banning them from their website altogether. All have recently published articles by repentant authors and critics apologizing for past hatchet jobs they themselves wrote and preaching the new gospel of “if you can’t say anything nice, elaborate”.
Madeline Crum, associate books editor at the Huffington Post gives voice to this new phenomenon. Her article refutes a couple of points usually cited in defense of negative reviews; mainly that they do not impact book sales and due to their brevity of about 300 words they do not promote discussion. She concludes:
This leaves us with one final, indefensible purpose for penning a negative book review: to hear ourselves talk. If you're not encouraging discourse, and you're not preventing a bad book from being read, then it seems you're that guy at the dinner party: the one blathering about his various opinions, but falling silent when pressed for evidence.
Well, yeah. One person’s crowing over their dislike of a book isn’t going to stop many people from buying it and I doubt anyone has ever set out to contribute to the philosophical discussion surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey. Negative reviews are about entertainment. Most forms of writing are about entertainment. That guy at the dinner table blathering on incessantly is the life of Crum’s boring little party. I love that guy. I’d be the guy sitting next to him pouring him another drink. Some of our most lovable and quotable authors in the English literary tradition were “that guy”.
 Myles Lawrence-Briggs
Vhcle Books, Issue 14
Johnny Get Your Hatchet life design music photography home us film art fashion global notes archive >books
Marc Ingber – Disrespecting the Life Cycle - When Pop Culture Comes Back From the Dead
Tim Sunderman – The Real Zombie Survival Guide
Jamie Thunder – The Quiet American
Emma Davies – The Goldfinch
Myles Lawrence-Briggs – Johnny Get the Hatchet
Vhcle Man – Benjamin Schwartz
Andy Denzler
Suhita Shirodkar
A 24 year-old recent graduate from CU Boulder in English literature, Myles has moved back to the wine country to start a wine label with two childhood friends. He manages the estate vineyard and in his spare time reads far too much and writes far too little.  
Read other articles/reviews by Myles
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