What’s a “negative review”? – On Smarm and Snark

by on Dec.10, 2013

Read a somewhat interesting little piece on “Smarm” at the Gawker, in which the writer, Tom Scocca, identifies “smarm” as a feature of contemporary literary culture:

Stand against snark, and you are standing with everything decent. And who doesn’t want to be decent? The snarkers don’t, it seems. Or at least they (let’s be honest: we) don’t want to be decent on those terms.

Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed’s Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

I think this guy makes a good argument. In the past on this very web site I have talked about how anybody with an other point of view is immediately identified with “hate” or even violence (for example, see my discussion of the reaction to Seth Oelbaum as the extreme example of this). And that’s why I keep quoting this little nugget of wisdom from everybody’s favorite troll, Zizek:

Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this other is not really other… In a strict homology with the paradoxical structure of the previous chapter’s chocolate laxative, tolerance coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.

This kind of dynamic comes up in discussion for/against what people call “negative reviewing”. It seems nobody wants to write anything critical in poetry reviews; the instance you do, it becomes a “negative review”.

I would much prefer to be negatively reviewed than not to be reviewed at all! In fact reviews that dares to be critical or negative are often very provocative and interesting. I remember when someone at Coldfront wrote a negative review of my book A New Quarantine Will Take My Place: it spawned a lot of good discussion on this blog, including the blog post in which Joyelle coined the phrase “ambience violence”

There’s something far worse going on when reviewers or editors make value judgments but do cloaks them in some positivity schtick. When they choose not to review, or not to mention, writers they don’t like, editors and reviewers are not being critical but also erasing different perspectives. The result is not just the erasure of different views but also a literary discussion that is boring and stranglingly conflict-less and calm.

This is why I am always urging people to write reviews that includes writers they don’t like or perspectives they feel are wrong. I’m really tired but I wanted to point this out today or I think I may never get around to it.

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Nada Gordon

    Hi Johannes,

    The problem with writing critical reviews in the poetry world is that the critical reviews that are/would be most interesting would not be of those poets who are “easy targets” for their idiocy/boring poems/lame poetics. The interesting critical reviews would be of those writers who are closest to our own aesthetic. Since we consider those people our allies, it is obvious that critical reviews can be counterproductive, or worse, relationship-destroying. We can’t afford that in a world that is “always already” hostile to what we do. So…while I agree with you that an overly calm sea of literary discussion does not help us to think through and beyond whatever poetic state we find ourselves, the risks to community and the emotions are very real. That is why it is better to critique poets, if one must, behind their backs, at a bar or over dinner with like minds, instead of in the stinging, reproachful medium of print. It is just a question of EQ, and kind of of self-preservation, too. Note that even when one writes a mixed review, or a review with some ambiguity embedded into its value judgment, the writer is likely to glom onto the negative/ambiguous points and hold those against the reviewer to the exclusion of any positive commentary. Know what I mean?

  2. Johannes

    I totally know what you mean. I agree with everything you say except your conclusion (that we should talk to people) because I still think… hope… wish… for some more exciting critical discussion… perhaps it’s that we need to alter our views as the reviewed as much as reviewers?

  3. Johannes

    Nada,
    I thought about your comment some more. Why do you think that the most interesting reviews are of those who are “closest to our own aesthetics”? I think taking into considering writers who are very different could be just as interesting if not more so. Or one can write about both people with whom one feels an affinity and writers one doesn’t and account for their difference. Or have some affinity with.
    I also think that I often don’t know (or even dislike!) writers I share some aesthetic affinities with. Very often they live in other countries and I’ll never meet them. I don’t know if that makes it easier to be critical of them…
    Certainly the friendship bond has led to a lot of back-scratching. Or popularity contest. Everything seems to me to be about networking and building up consensus. It makes me tired.
    Johannes

  4. Nada

    Good thinking, Johannes. Indeed my “closest to our own aesthetics” comment was a bit unthought-through. I just mean that it doesn’t really serve me or serve poetry to write about writing I just simply think is execrable; I don’t think the results of such exercises is interesting. I have tried to write about I don’t know Addonizio or Brock-Broido or Mary Oliver but I can’t get past a kind of simple distaste or even revulsion. I guess it would be a good “critical exercise” but I am not invested in being a critic so I don’t really see the point. I prefer lampoons, pastiches, and parodies as a response to such works.

    I do think, though, that looking at writing with which I feel some commonality lets me see it more critically, even as if I had written it myself. I can’t imagine writing a poem anything like a Mary Oliver poem, but I CAN imagine writing one like one of Adeena Karasick’s or Bob Perelman’s or Catherine Wagner’s or Joyelle McSweeney’s. That’s why when I read poems I resonate with in some way, some kind of “edit function” switches on in my brain. That creates a desire to read more closely/deeply, etc. I suppose I am reading from a maker’s perspective in the same way that a furniture maker doesn’t merely sit at a table but notices its materials, how it is put together, etc.

    Those differences from “how I would have done it” might be the stuff of a kind of…I don’t want to call it a “negative” criticism, exactly…but an investigation into those (sometimes slight) differences of motivation in poetics/world views. I was reading Percussion Grenades the other day and thinking how in many ways it is like my Folly, but where I am, in that book, absurd and frivolous and burlesque, she is tough and intense and somewhat more invested in the visceral or grotesque. These differences make themselves known in form: in metrics and word choices and combinations. As I am reading along I find myself sometimes admiring the work for its differences and sometimes objecting to them.

    Since most criticism, indeed, is written by poets, I wonder how much of it is a way of saying either “I wish I had written it that way,” or “If I had written it, it would have been X.” This may be a somewhat un-intellectual or pre-copernican theory of criticism…I don’t know.

  5. Johannes

    Nada, I think that sounds like an interesting review or essay or whatever.
    Though “parody” seems somewhat part of the same idea of criticism in which you imagine writing the poems.
    I guess I’ve made the same mistake on this blog – I’ve mainly written about things that interested me and occassionally I’ve been critical of certain figures that set up reductive frameworks (Hoagland, Silliman etc). But then this is a blog I started in part because the poetry I am interested in is seldom written about in other, more official venues. I don’t think an Action Books book has ever been reviewed in say Boston Review or Publisher’s Weekly even though such journals pretend to be objective and thus never have to articulate their aesthetics; and my books have absolutely never been reviewed in there. (Imagine my shock when Swedish newspapers, radio and even TV started discussing my work and work by people the US critical establishments have tried their best to avoid.)
    But perhaps if I get back to writing on this blog I’ll try to write about people I’m not directly charmed by. Walk the walk or whatever that saying is.

    Johannes

  6. Ryan Sanford Smith

    “The result is not just the erasure of different views but also a literary discussion that is boring and stranglingly conflict-less and calm.”

    Amen to that. Reminds me of grad school and most workshops I’ve ever been part of.

    I think there’s (at least sometimes) a legitimate issue of poetry’s insanely small bubble frequently making it hard for some to write anything critical (particularly of those close to their aesthetic tribe) because like all art it’s personal and vulnerable in one way or another & a tiny bubble means both sides of the review often know each other / are friendly and people learn quickly not shit where they eat. If you’re criticizing an established writer you’re going to be accused to going for low-hanging fruit (because if they’re popular you’re just trying to look pseudo-subversive and/or it’s lazy because they already have detractors (Oh you hate Billy Collins too? Let’s be friends.) and if you’re criticizing someone less well known / a debut book then you get told you’re needlessly stifling a new voice / picking on the new kid, etc. And either way there will be swarms of defenders who suddenly decide it’s actually more intelligent and ‘productive’ (whatever the fuck they think that means) to discuss why the negative reviewer is being negative etc. etc. etc. and in this day and age it just means absolutely inane reciprocating flame wars on one of the Important Blogs or whatever.

    Which is sad, because negativity can be illuminating & a flame war beats obscurity any day — as you said, you’d be happy to have someone write a negative review rather than no review at all.

  7. Johannes

    Ryan,
    It was disappointing for me to witness the discussion of “Kill List” for example – a lot of people couldn’t accept its existence and others couldn’t accept any possible criticism of it. Lots of people got pissed at Joyelle for even writing about it even though she hardly praised it to the skies. I was also disappointed a few months ago when Beth Towle on The Actuary wrote something that was somewhat critical of Ben Kopel and instead of engaging with the criticism all his facebook pals started insulting Beth on Facebook. I don’t know if I’m offering any solution. Just throwing my hands up I guess.

    Johannes

  8. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Johannes,

    Well put — I can see why that’s particularly frustrating. I think I perceive your main desire be that positive or negative a review / conversation is only worthless when there’s no engagement, which sounds about right to me. A scathing critique can be immensely ‘useful’ / whatever, but lazy dismissals don’t do anyone any favors. And it does go both ways as you point out, defensive / positive commentary that also doesn’t bother to engage is just as bad.

  9. adam s

    I like this:

    I do think, though, that looking at writing with which I feel some commonality lets me see it more critically, even as if I had written it myself. I can’t imagine writing a poem anything like a Mary Oliver poem, but I CAN imagine writing one like one of Adeena Karasick’s or Bob Perelman’s or Catherine Wagner’s or Joyelle McSweeney’s. That’s why when I read poems I resonate with in some way, some kind of “edit function” switches on in my brain. That creates a desire to read more closely/deeply, etc. I suppose I am reading from a maker’s perspective in the same way that a furniture maker doesn’t merely sit at a table but notices its materials, how it is put together, etc.

    I especially dig “I suppose I am reading from a maker’s perspective in the same way that a furniture maker doesn’t merely sit at a table but notices its materials, how it is put together, etc.” This is perhaps the primary reason I fell fond of Perloff–her essays, at times and I like these times, read to me like a maker’s perspective–or one more rooted in choices of construction than evaluation which assumes art is all noun and no verb, no nexus of decisions.