Scathing Reviews

320px-Le_Duel_Achille_EmperaireLike every other published writer I know, my work has garnered rave reviews and anti-rave reviews. (Or perhaps that is rave anti-reviews?) Both ranged from insightful and well thought out to haring off after irrelevancies (like the reader who posted a negative review “not very good” on GoodReads of an unreleased anthology I’d edited and that no one, not even the publisher, had yet seen).  I try to be philosophical about such reviews, keeping in mind that most of them are from amateur reviewers, many of whom have their own axes to grind, as it were. This is not to say that non-professional reviewers cannot produce thoughtful, worthwhile reviews, only that there is no filtering mechanism or gatekeeper to sift out those reviews from the noise. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have a wider discussion of books and other media, one that includes more people. In fact, conversations about books are a good thing! Sounding off for its own sake, seeing how mean-spirited and provocative you can be, is another. We call folks who do that trolls, and trolls write book reviews, too.

That said, I recently noticed my own reaction to a scathing review of a movie by a professional reviewer. “Scathing” was the term of the friend who pointed out the review. My friend thought the way the reviewer savaged the film was highly entertaining. I suppose this is what movie reviewers are paid to do – to entertain. But why is it entertaining to show off how clever one is, as if there is a contest to see who can produce the most sarcastic commentary? We don’t tolerate hate speech or bullying, so why do we applaud viciousness in this form?

I don’t believe for a moment that the directors, producers, actors, and all the other folks are deflated by such reviews. For one thing, they make big bucks, even for a film that gets panned. Then there’s the point that any publicity, good or bad, drives sales. Yet I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the line, some of those people loved this project and did their very best. And that some of the folks who saw the film just loved it, too. Or…would have loved it if they had seen it? Or would have loved it if they had not seen it through the lens of a scathing review?

That’s the point that bothers me. I can accept that some find a review that goes out its way to be nasty to be entertainment in itself, but all too often such malice promotes an elitist sense of superiority (“anyone with any taste abhors this movie, so if you liked it, that only means you’re a dim-witted peon”).

When we talk about “spoilers,” we mean revealing something about the movie, usually the plot, that “spoils” the experience. It’s one thing for a reader to choose to flip to the last chapter to see how it all comes out; that’s voluntary. And quite another for a person who wants to savor each unfolding moment to have that “spoiled.”

Scathing reviews “spoil” the reading or movie-going experience in a different but no less powerful way. The social pressure to appear cultured, knowledgeable, “elite,” is powerful. We can indulge in “guilty pleasures” but it’s a lot harder to allow ourselves to enjoy “only a stupid, ignorant, tasteless person would go for this” pleasures.

What’s the big deal? Such reviews do not rise to the level of hurtfulness of online harassment/threats or noisy, abusive picketers who manage to turn even an innocuous gathering into a violent confrontation. And scathing reviews are nothing new. Folks have been writing them since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and doubtless before that. Maybe someday an archaeologist will translate one in cuneiform or Linear B. Given the hatred-fueled violence in the headlines, who cares about mere words?

It’s not a big deal, compared to the harm done by hate-fueled violence, of which there is far too much in the world. It’s only a deal when someone’s delight in a creative work, no matter how trite or flawed, is impaired by someone else’s pompous, self-aggrandizing words. Given how much pain there is in the world, shouldn’t we look for ways to make each other’s lives happier, instead of killing their joy in even this small degree? How is my life diminished if a friend has a wonderful time seeing a movie that is not at all to my taste? Can I be generous enough to be happy that they loved that movie?



Scathing Reviews — 2 Comments

  1. I can understand the melding of disappointed-in-a-thing-that-could-have-been-so-much-better and finding-all-the-sharpest-pointiest-words that can create a scathing review. Dorothy Parker’s book and theatre reviews still amuse me, and sometimes, even now, I’ll read a snarky piece of reviewing and be amused by it. But it adds nothing to the maker’s ability to do better next time. That may not be the primary point of reviewing (which is, I thought, to evaluate a piece of art, for the benefit of potential audience members) but I don’t think it’s invalid.

    There are times when I read/watch/hear something, and feel that it’s a squandered opportunity, and get testy about it. I understand that part of a harsh review. But often there’s a sort of Hey, Look at Me! quality to a scathing review that can make me uncomfortable.

  2. This is why I don’t read Michio Kakatani’s reviews in the NY Times. She is so vicious about most books that I find I don’t trust her judgment about the ones she praises. Michael Dirda, on the other hand, is able to convey disappointment in a book without being nasty.