Against the Takedown

New on Splice this week, there’s a vexed review of Helen Phillips’ The Need by J.S. DeYoung. I’m proud to be able to publish it. It articulates a mixed-to-negative response to this novel, running against a lot of other responses (eg. The Guardian: “one of this year’s most necessary novels”), but it’s no single-minded takedown. I know that Jason wrestled with it a bit, I think his discomfort comes through, and I’m glad that it does. It’s a mark of respect to an author’s labours and intentions to seriously think through the issues they raise, and to seriously consider one’s own limitations, even if one finally finds something lacking in the work. I also think Jason gives the book a fair hearing, showing sympathy to its premises and appreciation for Phillips’ other work; and his misgivings are sober, on-point, and reasonable.

How to write a generous negative review? I’ve been thinking about this question intensely for the better part of two years now, which was when I first started writing the review of J.M. Coetzee’s Late Essays that I published in April 2019. Last December, the question arose for me again when I published Alec Dewar’s unfavourable take on Bragi Ólafsson’s Narrator.

It’s such a difficult thing. I don’t like to write negative negative reviews, because I think that at bottom I really only write reviews and essays for myself. Doesn’t matter if they end up being published elsewhere. I am my own audience, and I use the essay or review format to clarify my own thoughts on whatever I’m writing about. In fact, I often don’t have any thoughts on what I’m writing about until I start writing, or talking it out. All I have, to begin with, is an inchoate feeling that gradually assumes the form of expressible thoughts. Which means that if I have a negative negative reaction to a book — if I just flat-out dislike it — then I feel like I’ve made a loss on the investment of my time. So I wouldn’t write a negative negative review, because ultimately I just want to cut my losses and move on. I’m not against negative stuff per se, and I’ll happily dole it out in conversation, but if I’m going to put my energy into writing about something, then I’m pretty much in an exploratory frame of mind, not an advisory one; hence, no pressure to warn other readers away from a bad book.

But occasionally there are books that I don’t like, or I don’t admire, even though I value in some other way — for the contrast they provide to still other books, or for their unrealised potential, for the suggestions of what they could have been. That’s the territory on which I feel comfortable writing a negative review, because it still allows me to work my way into the book deeply and give respect to some part of it. A la Coetzee.

This year, some months ago, the question of the value of negative reviews arose anew when Bookforum published Andrea Long Chu’s incandescent takedown of Bret Easton Ellis’ White. We all had fun reading it, didn’t we? I did, at least, and I happily agreed with most all its conclusions. But I felt rotten afterwards, greasy, and both Jason and I wanted to make sure that his review of The Need didn’t have that effect on its readers, didn’t come from the same fierce and declamatory place as the Bookforum essay. Writing a negative review is always something of a tightrope walk, and Jason’s is one that maintains its balance — even when Jason holds up a mirror and wonders whether his misgivings aren’t more a result of his position. Obviously I’m hoping other readers agree with this! But even if not, I think this is a good example of how to make a less-than-positive review work well. Don’t be afraid to come to a negative judgment. Do be aware that the credibility of the judgment — to not be written off as anger or snark — rests on careful thought, and a clear identification of where the problems lie, and why they are problems on the book’s own terms. Which might require a slower, more in-depth reading than a book that gratifies with pleasures you can pinpoint easily.