Big meanies

On the writing of negative reviews

by Julia Keller

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

11 November 2010


Everything I believe about the art of criticism, give or take a few aphorisms and a stray platitude or two, I learned in the course of an elevator ride in the summer of 1997 in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, Calif.

I was a television critic for another newspaper. Congenitally insecure, I kept a close eye on the veteran critics from other publications — especially the confident ones, the swaggering ones, the ones who always spoke with authority.

Did I say “spoke”? For accuracy’s sake, let’s make it “pontificated.”

Like me, these critics had been sent by their editors to cover the networks’ unfurling of the new TV season. During the elevator ride, I listened with increasing dismay as a critic who was employed, then as now, by a major newspaper entertained his colleagues by ripping apart a new ABC series. How wickedly witty he clearly considered himself to be, how brilliantly acerbic, how fearlessly incisive. Ah, the cut and thrust of his rapier wordplay, the devastating cleverness of his takedown! The man nearly levitated from the sheer diabolical force of the negative energy he was generating.

By the time the elevator doors opened on my floor, I thought: Not me.

I instantly decided that I never wanted to be the kind of critic who reveled in the chopping-up of somebody else’s work. If it has to be done, fine; but you don’t have to cackle happily and smack your lips with gusto while doing it.

We’re heading into the most important moment of the literary year: the holiday book­buying season. And I realize that my mini-manifesto makes me sound like a wimp, a softie, a sap, a pushover. Critics are supposed to be tough­minded taskmasters. We’re supposed to be pitiless in our opinions, stingy in our praise. We’re supposed to be big meanies.

But there should be a small part of every critic, I believe, that grieves quietly each time a creative product is less than it ought to be. Every so-so TV series, every half-baked movie or underachieving book is a lost opportunity.

To be sure, a critic’s job is to point out just how and why the entity in question falls short. Yet if you don’t find yourself ever-so-slightly saddened by the gap between what is and what might have been, you might want to feel around and make sure you still possess a soul.

I don’t like to write negative reviews. I do write them, of course; I didn’t care for the new Ken Follett novel “Fall of Giants” and said so (whereupon it promptly shot to the top of many best-seller lists). I much prefer writing positive reviews. I’d rather tell you how splendid, funny and insightful I find Jennifer Egan’s new novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (Knopf) than how repetitive and unenlightening I find any novel Philip Roth has written in the past decade or so. (Quick, all-purpose summary: Getting old stinks.) As the space for book reviews in virtually every publication shrinks back shockingly, hard choices must be made. I can use this corner to show you how fiendishly clever I am by a take-no-prisoners attack on a book I don’t like, or I can tell you about a book that may move you, inform you, entertain you.

If choosing the second option makes me sound like a weakling, then fine. Pick somebody else for your side in dodge ball.

Naturally, I don’t dispute any critic’s right to see the job another way. Critics get famous by being big meanies. Novelist John Banville is one of the cruelest critics I’ve ever read — he’s also one of the smartest — and I’m sure he would snicker at my reluctance to tear into a faltering novel’s tender rump the way a lion does its prey.

Yet I can’t help but recall that obnoxious TV critic in the elevator, the one who took such delight in trashing somebody else’s creative effort. In our smackdown culture, one that thrives on insults and zingers delivered at the top of the lungs, maybe the most important voice of all is the one that simply whispers, “Read this.”



The acting “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

—Dorothy Parker, referring to Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the Broadway play “The Lake” (1934)

“We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody­goody songs.”

—Pauline Kael on “The Sound of Music” (1965)

“‘Saturday’ is a dismayingly bad book. ... The characters ... drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy.”

—John Banville, reviewing Ian McEwan’s “Saturday” (2005)

“Musically the group is intentionally crude and aggressively raw. Which can make for powerful music except when it is used to conceal a paucity of ideas, as it is here. Most of the songs are barely distinguishable from each other in their primitive two-chord structures.”

—Lester Bangs, reviewing the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” (1969)

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