The Pressures for Positive Reviews

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Here’s the second installment on the subject of reviews and what’s expected from the contemporary book or film critic. There were a few more interesting opinions that came out of my recent readings on the subject, generally related to those explored in the last blog.

Writing for Salon, Laura Miller describes the traditional model of literary criticism where critics pretty much made the classics by pointing out which books should matter for a cultivated, educated audience. This meant the critics were the arbiters of taste, and the audience took their advice because they wanted to be seen as cultivated and intelligent. Publishers were also, presumably, swayed by these critics’ opinions which slapped down anyone unsuitable who thought they could write a novel. Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom. Her view of the critic’s role is to point out the books he or she likes in particular so the audience can find them.

Of course, the problem with this is that authors and publishers quickly get the idea they should offer inducements for critics to point out their books. Writing for The Baffler, Rafia Zakaria calls reviewers an “extended marketing operation” who are expected to “arrange the book in a bouquet” like blooming flowers to help attract an audience.

Writing for Slate, Ben Yagoda gives us a current classification of critics:
• Over-intellectual nitpickers – Try to rate popular books as something they’re not.
• Soft touches – In the pockets of publishers.
• Quote sluts – Write notices for display ads.
• Chummy logrollers – Relentless enthusiasm for the blogosphere.
• Careerist contrarians – Try to stand out with unpopular opinions.
Yagoda also suggests a reason for large audience vs. critic discrepancies in ratings. He thinks this means the work is unpleasant to sit through in some way. In other words, reviewers will hold out because they’ve got to write a review, while causal readers or film viewers will take off and find something better to do.

Also writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman describes the “safe space” atmosphere of the Twitter/blogosphere where all books are wonderful and every writer is every other writer’s fan. He calls this shallow, untrue and chilling to literary culture. After all, he says, what critic will write an honest review in an environment where authors are valued more for their social media following than for what they write? What he doesn’t say is how fast this social media following can turn into trollish attack dogs. Silverman says it’s not publishing that’s threatened; instead, it’s the body of reviewers who are trivialized and endangered by this system.

Another issue Silverman doesn’t identify in this analysis is generational characteristics at work. Everyone likes praise, but a constant need for it is fairly well identified with millennials. Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Alex Williams points out some of the tendencies we can expect from Generation Z (aka post-millennials), now displacing the millennials as the largest, richest and most sought-after generation of consumers. Gen Z is generally the children of Gen X, who are coming of age post Millennium. Compared to millennials, this group has grown up in uncertain times, so they tend to be more conservative than millennials and heavily concerned with privacy, risk and safe spaces. They tend to be less binary and more biracial, are heavily oriented toward technology and social media and tend to lose interest in things more quickly.

Is this the group Silverman has identified as so intolerant of critical reviews in the Twitter/blogosphere? When will the upcoming Gen Z start to change what sells in the marketplace?

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Are critical reviews an outdated idea?

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Since we had a recent discussion here about reviews, I’ve been doing some reading on the issue, and I’ve made up made up a short series on the subject of critical or negative as opposed to strictly positive reviews. Here’s the first installment.

There was a time when artists put their work out there in front of the public and held their breaths, hoping for a positive review from critics that would encourage sales. However, unless you’ve annoyed some group that will trash your work on Amazon, the big issue these days seems to be getting someone to review your work, and not the question of what they’ll say or how many stars they’ll give you. There has been a recent trend toward highly positive reviews, to the point where it’s getting hard to find a negative one, or even one that provides a real critical analysis. So, is this a problem for the literary community?

A discussion about this demise of critical reviews seems to have broken out into public view just lately. This may have been provoked by a statement from Isaac Fitzgerald, new editor of BuzzFeed’s book section, that in order to “promote a positive community experience,” he will only publish positive reviews. Responses were varied. Sarah Miller re-reviewed a few “classics” for the New Yorker in response, using the contemporary warm, vapid style, starting with Moby Dick. Ha, ha. Very funny.

Other articles on the subject were more thoughtful. Jacob Silverman, writing for Slate, suggests this the trend to “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm” has to do with the growth of authors’ social media communities. He points out that writers and fans are trying to build communities that are completely safe, comfortable environments. After all, everybody worked hard on their book. Shouldn’t they get praise for the result?

Ben Yagoda, writing for Slate, and Laura Miller, writing for Salon, suggest that the content of reviews really doesn’t matter. Miller writes that most writers now are, and will remain, obscure and poorly-rated in the grand scheme of things. “No one needs middling reviews of mediocre books,” she says. Yagoda quotes Sturgeon’s law, named after SF author Theodore Sturgeon, who observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” Yagoda notes that the first part of this quote is generally left off. So, if everything is crap anyway, does it really matter how we try to sort it out?

More on this in the next installment.

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