The "negative" book review in Canada - its utility, ethics and cultural politics - is one of those perennial subjects that keeps on giving to essayists and columnists. As the discussion is typically framed, it begs the question. A "negative" review is, well, negative - a quality that rebounds from the book being reviewed onto the review itself and, not far behind, the reviewer: It's not a sensitive, well-written review of a bad book; it's the review that is negative, and in all likelihood it is perceived as the work of a bitter crank with some kind of sinister personal agenda. Obviously, positive or appreciative reviewing sounds more like what well-heeled custodians of culture should be doing.
Now, change the terms of reference, and for negative substitute "critical." This word has suffered a shift of meaning over the past century, from signifying the exercise of judgment and informed analysis to its present sense of censoriousness and nit-picking, which gives some idea of how far we've devalued critical thought. But by "critical," I still mean what Northrop Frye meant by an active response to literature. The opposite of a critical review would then be one more akin to what Frye identified as either advertising or propaganda. The kind of thing that, in a book review, sounds like "Buy Book X now," "Buy and read Book Y," or "Don't buy a single copy of Book Z - get at least two." (And these are paraphrases of actual reviews.)
The spectre of criticism becoming nothing but advertising and propaganda raises another question. What is it about books that makes us think they should be held immune from negative reviews? Do people complain about negative film reviewing? Should every movie, even that one with all the robots, get a thumbs-up, or at least be rated four stars out of five? Expanding the list of cultural products, should car columnists be warned against writing negative car reviews? After all, we might have saved a lot of good manufacturing jobs in our auto industry if we had only raved about the latest offerings from GM.
There's the same sort of view of political criticism. Who are these people who keep wanting to "go negative" on Stephen Harper? Sure, he's the kind of guy who doesn't mind going a little negative himself with out-of-season attack ads, but does that mean pundits and political reporters need to stoop to his level? Show some respect, you nattering nabobs of negativism!
We have come to the point where it is now openly questioned whether there is any justification at all for writing negative book reviews, which is not surprising. A variety of factors in this country - the small-pond syndrome and anxiety over blowback, our native politeness and deference to authority, the canonization of authors now deemed "too big to fail" - combined with a consumerist culture's inherent hostility to criticism as being bad for business, along with the levelling effect that regular reviewing has (George Orwell: "It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them"), ensures that most of the book reviews you read will be safe, non-evaluative and, on the whole, positive.
As Philip Marchand, one of this nation's few critics willing to appear negative, once put it: "If I have erred as a critic, I have erred by being too appreciative. I don't think there's a single negative word about any author's book that I would take back, but I seriously wonder about some of the praise I have dispensed."
After 12 years of regular reviewing, I have to say this is a statement to which I can fully relate. Which is something to be kept in mind any time you read a review that could be perceived as negative. It is not something a reviewer wants to do. Nobody likes a critic and, contrary to popular mythology, there is no glory or for that matter benefit of any kind in being perceived as a hatchet man. You don't get offered more freelance assignments, or paid any more for the ones you do get. Negative reviews certainly won't get you invited to the best parties.
If you're a writer yourself, far from drawing attention to your own work, you merely cast it into eclipse. Ask Dale Peck, whose famous takedown of much-lauded U.S. novelist Rick Moody - in a very lengthy review in The New Republic, Peck called Moody "the worst writer of his generation" - saw Peck's career "reduced to a one-liner." Or, in this country, John Metcalf. We all know about Metcalf's reputation for harsh critical judgments because they are what get the most attention - to the point where they have, unfortunately, quite overshadowed his own fiction and editorial work.
Then there are all the personal attacks. I mean, of course, on the reviewer. For the most part, "negative" reviews, in their concern to be strictly evaluative, tend to be more sharply focused on the text than the usual "appreciative" variety. For this service, the reviewer is not repaid in kind, but often made the target of what can be downright hysterical ad hominem attacks, including accusations of psychopathology and serious moral failings.
To take one of the most common, and gentlest, examples: Critics in this country are often accused of enviously cutting down our tallest poppies. For the record, I don't see a lot of this happening, but even if I did, I would be inclined to think it good horticulture rather than conduct motivated by one of the seven deadly sins. The tallest poppies are precisely the ones that need the attention of a critical weed whacker. They suck up all the oxygen and take the most nutrients from the soil, crowding out all of the up-and-coming green. Better to pull such plants out of the ground, shake the dirt from their roots and toss them on the weed pile.
Of course that's not likely to happen. I don't think there's any reason to fear "negative" reviewing taking over. For all the reasons mentioned, the bias runs toward being more polite, restrained and non-judgmental in our judgments. Literature in a modern society is, as George Borrow has one of his characters observe, a drug. It is meant to evoke a passive response - like a political speech (break for applause here) or a commercial on TV. Given such a culture, our reviews can hardly be expected to provide much more. Even if we wanted them to.
Alex Good has been known to write negative reviews, but this doesn't make him a bad person.