Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities) once wrote that the best way to raise one's reputation is to tear down someone else's. I thought about Wolfe's remark the other day when I read that BuzzFeed has changed its policy on book reviews. Seems the popular social sharing site will no longer publish negative book reviews, a decision that has generated controversy, including an op-ed piece in the New York Times.
Is there a place for negative books reviews? Should books and authors be publicly reviled because a reviewer doesn't feel a work is up to scratch? Those are loaded questions. If a book contains a litany of factual errors, or if the writing is egregiously bad, then a reviewer has a duty in telling it like it is. Criticism - good or bad - doesn't need to be sugar coated, but it also shouldn't contain malicious personal attacks.
On Inferior Planet, I purposely avoid writing negative reviews. To indulge in such an exercise is petty, juvenile and unfair. If there are aspects of a book that are irritating or deserving of valid criticism, I'll say so. If I can't find finish a book or can't find enough qualities to justify a fair review, then I won't review it. Period.
A case in point: There is a best-selling author whom I'd never read before and whose novels are universally praised. His work has been translated into dozens of languages and adapted for the movies. This author is frequently interviewed on radio: he is smart, eloquent, thoughtful and engaging. The longer I avoided reading him, the more of a literary ignoramus I felt.
About two months ago, I finally bought one of his novels and began to read it.
After 300 or so pages, I gave up. The characters were bland. There were too many random, unexplained events, and the narrative thread was weak. It was a struggle to finish each chapter. The writing was good, even brilliant in spots, but a novel needs more than good writing to sustain it over several hundred pages.
When I encounter a book that I can't appreciate, I'm not going to slam the book or the author. That's not my style. I'll find another book - there are far too many great ones deserving of my attention to worry about the books that don't measure up.
Writers spend an inordinate amount of time alone with their thoughts and ideas; the effort required to produce a work of fiction or non-fiction is intense. Such intellectual rigor deserves a steady and unbiased eye, and reviewers have an obligation to weigh the good with the bad.
Plus, I believe that a fate worse than being trashed is to be ignored, especially in this digital and mobile age when relevancy and attention are the new currency.
I applaud BuzzFeed's decision to ban negative book reviews. I believe that reviewers can provide honest criticism without resorting to personal attacks and trying to destroy a writer's reputation. Besides, trash talk often speaks more to the attacker than it does about the intended victim, and readers are far better served without it.