Constructive Criticism

05.20.134:45 AM ET

Constructive Criticism: Reviewing the Idea of Reviewing

Some authors get so upset over a negative book review that they want to murder someone. Novelist and sometime critic Ben Greenman critiques the practice of criticism—and admits to having written reviews about books he didn’t care about.

Reviews can be rough on authors, even positive reviews. It’s not easy to put work in front of people, though that’s often the motivating desire of those who make artwork, and it can be difficult for artists to reconcile the many feelings that accompany reading a review: relief, anger, frustration, pleasure, a displacement of the self that is indistinguishable from dizziness. Artists are forced to make strategic decisions about how they digest critical opinion about their work, and these decisions can become central to their survival. This is an extraordinarily touchy subject to address without seeming presumptuous and defensive and possibly shooting myself in the foot, and that is why I recently purchased an iron shoe. But I have a new book out this month, a novel called The Slippage, and I thought that it would be a good time to reflect on this process.‬

Let me start by relating, vaguely, some of the habits of other authors with whom I’ve discussed the subject. I know a woman who has, several times, been driven to the brink of paralytic rage by the way her books have been received. “I’ll never write another word,” she says. “What’s the point?” I know a man who writes down the names of the critics who say positive things about him so that he can remember to be pleasant to them if he sees them in public. And I know a third writer who is unfailingly gentle in all parts of her life, which is why her reaction to ungenerous critics is both alarming and hilarious. “When I get a bad review, it makes me want to murder someone,” she has said. She usually laughs after she says that, but it’s rueful rather than mirthful. She is probably thinking about the prison cell where she will molder. She is certainly thinking about what strange sorcery changes her from a mild-mannered person into an author who wishes harm on others. Is it simply that certain privileged readers, whom we call “critics,” are granted an external authority over her work? That seems almost straightforward.

I would like to say that I have thicker skin than those people. I am not sure that I do. Or rather: I am sure that I do not. But maybe because I know this, I have designed several strategies for dealing with reviews. The first is to not read them at all. When my first book, Superbad, came out back in 2001, I read reviews ardently, excited and a little surprised to be an author. Over the years, I stopped reading them, or at least tried. I know that the river of critical opinion is there, but I try to stand far enough away from it to not fall in and be swept away by its current. The second strategy involves preparatory hedging. When I finish a book, I resist sending it to acquaintances who are writers. They are usually working on their own books, for starters, and some of them may eventually be asked by my publisher to provide blurbs, which is headache enough. Instead, I send drafts of my work to two of my close friends who are not writers at all. I don’t know how many books those friends read in a year, or whether they follow the careers of any other writers, because we don’t generally talk about books. This lack of dossier elevates them as candidates. When I sent my last book to these two readers, one of them loved it. The other did not like it at all. Because they were both close to me and accustomed to honesty, they told me in no uncertain terms. “Your best,” said one. “Eh—doesn’t really work for me,” said the other. That seemed like a good split to me: one thumb up, the other in my eye.‬

But my friends are not critics in any regard. For starters, they read the books only because I have asked them to, and they know me well enough to be able to map my personality onto what they are reading, at least a little bit. Reviewers have a far different, and in many ways far more difficult, task. I know this from experience. When I first arrived in the city two decades ago, I wrote short reviews for various magazines, trade and otherwise. I took books that were suited for me, but I also took books that were not yet suited for me, and other books that could never be. I wrote reviews of most of them—even the ones for which I had no deep feeling—in part because I needed the money, in part because I wanted the byline, and in part because I was learning how to say what I meant about books. And so I went merrily along reviewing books about nonfiction topics in which I had only a passing interest: travel memoirs about countries I did not understand, novels about relationships between people who were making choices I could not possibly fathom. You could argue that a good book will enrich people of any age and background. But shortly after that you’d have to concede that you’re simply being contentious, because many works of literature can work only for a certain kind of reader. The rest will be left cold, and not in a productively negative way, either. They will simply not care. Think of the intense and artificial pressure involved in being forced to have opinions about most works of art. Of all the books you read, of all the movies you see, of all the records you hear, what percent of them truly matter to you? A third? A quarter? Fewer? How, as a critic, do you convey your lack of engagement with a work without also judging it somehow lacking? What is the critical shorthand for indifference, or the best way to characterize a work that simply does not speak to you? ‬

The most satisfying reviews are the ones that wrestle with the work until they are a little sore.

As I got older, as I wrote more criticism and more fiction, I found myself both more bothered by what I felt were critical misrepresentations of work (sometimes mine, sometimes that of friends) and, paradoxically, more protective of the critics who were charged with this task. What, at heart, were they supposed to do? Was their job to assess the formal success of a given work? To gesture outward to an artist’s overall project? To identify the kind of reader who might like the work, whether or not they themselves did? All of the above? I still write criticism, mostly about music, sometimes about books, and every time I sit down to do so, I ask myself these questions, though I am never sure how well I am answering them. There are times when I respond positively to a book or an album and I’m not sure why. Is it the artist’s technique? Is it the distance, positive or negative, between my expectations and what the artwork delivered? Does the work accidentally resonate with events in my own life? When the opposite happens, I am equally uncertain whether the responsibilities lie with the work or with me, or with the imperfect circuit that connects us. I try, if possible, to familiarize myself with the artist’s other work, not just the piece I am reviewing, because it’s almost always part of a larger process. Even then, it seems strange to take only four days to write a review of a record that took four months to make. I’m not sure what the alternative is, or if there is one. A blustery man I met when I was young, a painter, came up with a sentence he liked to say because he believed it was true. He had read a positive review of his own work that nonetheless struck him as reductive and inaccurate. He got on a high horse and would not come down. “Artists,” he said, “can make their peace with critical verdicts if they are in fact verdicts—in other words, when an informed opinion arrives at the conclusion of an engaged and involved process.” I heard a version of what he was saying: Critics should do their worst, as long as they do their best at it.‬

Some springs, I teach a college class on criticism in the age of the Internet. Early on, I ask students to think about the difference between a rating, a recommendation, a review, and a piece of criticism. Most of them locate those four types of opinion on a continuum; the earlier ones, they say, require less time to create. I ask them whether this means that they are less valid as opinions. No, they say. Definitely not. Discussion ensues. One thing they decide fairly quickly is that the validity of opinion does not mean the same thing for different types of objects. A product (a toaster or a smart phone) reveals itself immediately. The only thing you might discover about it later is that it has ceased to perform its central function well. This is not the case with works of art. They do not show themselves all at once. Rather, they unfold over time. They gestate in the minds of viewers or listeners or readers. Why are some reviews, then, written as a reflection of a critic’s first encounter with a film or a record? We shouldn’t forget that the quickest reviews are by definition the least considered—not the least valid, necessarily, but still unripe. I have a friend who asked me once, with what seemed like total sincerity, how long you should stand in front of a painting at a museum. “A few seconds longer than the person in front of you,” I said, joking, because I had no good answer.‬

Vituperative dismissal only stings for a second, and at a remove: it’s like a picture of a fist punched a picture of you in the face.

Later, I thought of a better answer: You should stand there until you get into a discussion. Half the time, that discussion will be friendly. Half the time, it will be combative. And half the time, it will be with yourself. The tension between accepting works of art and rejecting them should be alive within you at all moments. It’s a commonplace to say that you can’t account for taste, that the things you love are often considered worthless by others. But what about those things that you love that you used to consider worthless, or soon will? Over the years, I have gone back and forth on Nabokov. I have switched sides on the Small Faces and Scorsese and Max Ernst and Gertrude Stein. I treasure them all—not despite the fact that I feel both ways about them, but because of that fact. It’s that tension and dialogue that gives them value. Criticism, often, works by formula. A largely negative review will establish its legitimacy by finding a few nice things to say. A largely positive review will avoid the appearance of boosterism by lodging a minor complaint or two. But the most satisfying reviews—and once again, this is just an opinion, my review of the process of reviewing—are the ones that wrestle with the work until they are a little sore.‬

Let’s get back to the concrete. Let’s say a book comes out and it is not well loved. Why would that be? There are several possible reasons. It could too closely resemble the books that reviewers are called on to review all the time, and thus be lost in the shuffle. It could resist the cultural dominant, but not conspicuously enough. It could be the kind of book that’s not understood quickly, making it especially hard for reviewers who are charged with trying to make sense of it on deadline. It could mix tones in a way that it is uncomfortable. It could set a mark and miss it.‬

Once, years ago, I received what I perceived as a negative review of a novel of mine. At first, I was hurt. This is not strange, even predictable. I had spent a great deal of time on something that I then released into the public, and I wanted people to respond to it with enthusiasm and excitement. The bad review made me wonder for a moment whether I was a bad writer. But that seemed like a rickety conclusion. I had written good books before (or so I had been told), and I expected that I would write a so-called good book again. So maybe it was just that one book that was bad. But what does that mean, really? What makes a book bad? That it’s slipshod? Offensive? Boring? Obvious? Not of a piece with the rest of the author’s work? Internally contradictory? Glib? Too foreign? Too familiar? Incomplete? Overdetermined? Too safe? Too ambitious? I’m sure at least a few of those things have been said about every book I love.‬

When the cold sweat of the bad review dried, another feeling followed that was not at all unpleasant. There’s an aphorism that I’ve seen variously attributed: “Despair is a freeman. Hope is a slave.” What it means, at least to me, is that approval puts its arms around you and draws you in, but leaves you yearning for more approval. Despair, on the other hand, creates no circuit of dependency. Despair ejects you from a conversation you probably didn’t want to be a part of to begin with. And even the most vicious, vituperative dismissal stings for only a second, and at a remove: it’s like a picture of a fist punched a picture of you in the face. Then you are returned to the process of creating, which is why you made the thing in the first place. What should happen, ideally, is that the entire process of a work’s reception should return you to the place in yourself that wants to create more work.‬

None of this is to say that reviews are not valuable, or even essential, to an artist’s process. Work, once released, goes in front of people for a hearing, or viewing. Some of those people have pens. Some of those pens produce words that can be invested in an audience’s understanding of work, or reinvested in an artist’s understanding of his or her own work. But reviews are mirrors near the light rather than the light itself: they can amplify or it can deflect the original source, but they do not generally replace it. There have been periods when, because of limited time and curiosity, I read reviews more than I experienced the works of art that were being reviewed. I regret those periods a little. I want to reiterate my solidarity with artists who believe that, somewhere along the way, they have been subjected to reductive, shortsighted, misguided, or otherwise unhelpful reactions—by which, of course, I mean all artists. I want those people to believe in themselves and to forge ahead. Because without them, and the things they make, the world would be a garbage barge.‬

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