Negative reviews are more fascinating than positive reviews -- dismally so. I've just been reading through lots of reviews of various books on Goodreads, both positive and negative. I've written, or have tried to write, several times about negative reviews before this (which now, with OD gone, is less embarrassing, or it should be; I ought to feel that the world is new and fresh and that I can now set out fresh on a pure, unmarked sheet of paper).
As I read a collection of negative reviews, I always feel that there, burgeoning in front of my eyes, is a Clear View Of Error, error writ large, going beyond the bounds of the reviews themselves and even of popular reviewing itself -- where you could show the same series of reviews to an impressionable young student and just point: See, there? This is a Tendency. This is something to watch out for.
Except that it probably doesn't work like that, in transference; the message would be obscured in the details of the books and movies the reviews were about, it would get complicated, the vision wouldn't happen... And the difference always turns out to be hard to point into words.
But there is a difference. What shall I say of the grand denunciations that are oversure of their conclusions about the books or the authors (in cases in which I know by other evidence that their conclusions are off or are questionable but in which the review writers didn't have access to the same information), or are simply completely and directly mistaken, at length, about matters that are actually dealt with in the text? Or that are simply argumentative matters that are brought to the subject by the reviewer alone, which do not originate with the book, which the books have nothing to do with, but which are taken to be an absolute central matter where the books are horrible examples or actual dedicated polemics on the opposing side?
(I'm laughing at myself. The way to do this right would be to show snippets of some of the examples I've been looking at and talk about them. But I don't want to get into it. So I'm paying the price in clarity for doing this on the cheap...)
And it's complicated. I do not want to point at a class of types of criticism that are unacceptable or wrong across the board (are there some? that's a different question). And specific examples would risk that implication. It's more a question of the way they're being done or handled. It's a question of the special...
Egocentricity, I'll say. The special egocentricity that is to be found among the negative reviews. From the long complicated denunciatory argumentative ones to the ones that just say, "I wasn't interested in this," or, "this didn't grab me."
I could have started there, with the latter, at the simplest end. When a person writes a review, for others to read, what is the... importance... of telling others that you were not interested, or grabbed?
I don't mean to imply an answer; more like going to a different question: When you review something, with a book or a film or what have you, what are you assuming a review is? Saying whether you liked it or didn't like it, is one answer. Possibly. But what significance do you attach to that when you say so?
(I'm aware of eliding part of a point there: whether you didn't like something is a different kind of opinion about the subject, with a different sort of content, than whether you were not interested. A Philosophical Interlocutor in the room might make much out of that. It might be important, but I'll pass it by... with a backward glance...)
Positive reviews are less revealing than negative ones. Whatever I'm pointing at will apply as much with good reviews as bad ones. But good reviews talk about the thing they're happy about ... and (this hypothesis open to contradiction; I'm deep in seeming territory) they do not seem to get wrong what's in the books/movies/whatever, as much. But of course they are not in the mode of contradicting. They are more describing, or recounting. Enthusiastically.
Both positive and negative reviews are self-portraits, but negative reviews are self-declarations at length. The negative reviewer is challenging the subject; the challenge must become the subject. Certainly. There are good and poor ways to handle that. Gaps in our awareness of what might be poor ways to handle it show up. The blurs in our vision show up.
It is difficult to know where I can generalize usefully beyond that... because everything I think of seems to throb with significance. There is the business of simply grading the subject work according to a fixed roster of absolute social sins -- where, again, it's a question of how the grading is handled, for example with thoughtless, nuanceless rigidity where certain elements are unacceptably present or absent (and here the related controversies and the actual merits of such rules would probably overwhelm the topic). There can be the further business, an extension, where the review becomes a discussion of how society needs to have more stories with the proper elements, with the review, and the particular work being discussed, being merely a status report in that schedule of deliveries -- this priority and schedule being the important part. (The story itself, in all its complexity and individuality and new encounter-with-the-Other impact, not mattering -- and I've seen reviews of this kind that were written of books or movies upon seeing a report that something was in it/was not in it, with no reading it/seeing it required or now likely. But maybe I have wandered into a new subject, something about attitudes about stories and encountering them.) ... Enough.
In a negative review you are seeing the reviewer, and his or her personal twitches and molehills and dogmatic insistences. As at few other times.
Ha. I really should have included a couple of examples at least. A rogue's gallery. That one I gabbled at. (How did you come to pull that complicated argument out of the air, what does it even mean, and what in the world is it supposed to have to do with the book you think it destroys?)
I think, in the end, here I am recommending more than I'm describing. Maybe I'm asking for help. Because once again it has squirmed away from me. What I'm really doing is saying: try it. Go into Goodreads, or into IMdB.
Read through a lot of the reviews of some works you know.
Tell me if you see what I mean. (And can you say more about it than I have?)
I had to laugh as I started writing that. The thought about OD disappearing... I have been hearing a lot lately of the "grown-up advice" to "foolish teens," specifically about how Once Something Is On The Internet It's Forever. So don't sext!, or whatever.
(Unrelated: We know little of the brain, really, or how it functions, or its function in the young, or its function in the older. Another thing I've heard repeated endlessly is that teenage brains are still developing, or haven't finished developing. This said as a precise and revealing fact, with an exact functional meaning. All I'm sure of, and all I think I'd be sure of after I spent a few hours reading up on brain morphology, is that it sounds exactly like something that people who are older than twenty would say endlessly.)
Anyway. It's not just Open Diary. How many valuable web pages, how much information have you seen disappear in your time since you first got online? I'll bet any of my readers can remember lots of painful examples, and could dredge up more on reflection. It's not as if somewhere all of that fragile, vulnerable web content has been being inscribed in microscopic code on the side of a city-sized emerald. It never has been. There is no giant emerald project.
"Once something is on the internet it's forever?"
Good God. I wish!
I have meant to write about some things, but I haven't been writing.
And that's all there is to it, of course. That's how it happens, in my experience at least; barring the great convulsions that are never guaranteed to come or to keep coming at all, you have to be writing in order to write about the stuff that you Should Write About. And you do. Because you're writing. If you're not writing, you just periodically think you should write about that important business. But you don't, because you're not.
The way to write the important stuff is to be writing unimportant stuff.
I know. I know, I know, I know.
I've also had the tabula rasa writing-on-water impact of OD's disappearance mollocking around my head -- does ProseBox have a backup function even now? -- but, no, that's just background coloring that claims it's demoralizing. That's not it. I just haven't been writing. Fool.
(There's a terrible unplugged trapped isolation in not writing, too. Not good for me. Even if personal writing is ... all the minimizing things that you can say about personal writing, it is -- everything that it is. Quite mad, not to be writing. It's like smothering on the inside of a pressure hatch where the touch of a hand on the wheel would bring you into the open air.)
Did I post that short piece, "On lack of interest," that I wrote awhile ago? On Facebook (quixotically), yes, but in here? I am realizing that this longtime peering at reviews was a contributor to that line of thought. Another was back in university, reading in the periodicals room in the library and trying to figure out how truly impressive Ph.Ds could sometimes write as if they had never heard of basic logic, in little acute attacks, without noticing at all.
I'll have to check whether I posted that in here; if I didn't I'll tack it on here at the end...
I see that I didn't post it! So, here. This is more of an omnibus edition than I expected. But what follows is certainly not a new line of thought. It was another stab at explaining something quite old.
On lack of interest
(May 10, 2014)
Lack of interest sounds like a passive-voice thing, where interest would be the positive quantity and this is just an absence, but that is wrong. It's really a misnaming -- except that in another sense it's perfectly and transparently phrased. Lack of interest is one of the most powerful forces in a mind.
(Lacks of interest are not intelligently chosen, even if they're right next to something else that was. They are not that kind of thing.)
Lack of interest will masquerade as an opinion anytime it feels it might need to.
(We do have real ideas and opinions -- but lack of interest is likely to invisibly guard their borders.)
Opinions that are really lack of interest are defended differently than other opinions. Lack of interest masquerading as an opinion will say anything; it will say unfair things without caring; it will say completely illogical things without noticing; it will pick focuses and ideas like you would shape a piece of Silly Putty. Even when the person is someone who under other circumstances would be very unlikely to act like this, or as severely.
Lack of interest defends itself - it defends a picture under which one's particular lacks of interest, and the landscapes of plausibility and priority and proportion that surround them, are simply and fully justified and have been all along.
These defenses are good at being completely convincing to oneself. That's primarily what they're for. Their shoddiness and naked chicanery and often extraordinary gaps in reasoning tend to be much more evident to other people who do not have the same lack of interest, who are often astonished to the point of incredulity. This shoddiness happens precisely because one is not interested in those things, one is thinking in those directions absolutely as little as possible, and so one is simply picking up any surface thing that might make that whole vein of things just go away. So, what is picked up is mostly attempted across-the-board nail-in-the-coffin slam-dunk whoompher bombs, that very often show only the most crude and cartoonish and mistaken comprehension of the subject, or that are actually about entirely different subjects, again without noticing or caring. The word-brain may then fill in good and beguiling phrasings, but what those phrasings are serving is as intelligent as a blind groping for the Sleep button on an alarm clock.
Lack of interest is like a demon in the mind. I think that, if a person does not understand this, in this light or in some other light that amounts to the same thing, and if this understanding is not deliberately held in the mind, then the other things we call critical thinking skills are to a great extent beside the point -- or worse. A person who is very interested in something won't very often make these mistakes, or will be likely to quickly correct them, even without training -- he or she has sent out his or her entire ant colony to swarm over the business and all its sides and angles. A person who is not interested in something may send one ant, or no ants at all... while the critical thinking training has given the person a whole arsenal of flaws to triumphantly and often heedlessly wrongly diagnose in the opposition.
Lack of interest is the great enemy, the unseen enemy that is bigger than the ones you can see.
I felt the urge to put something in Facebook that was really important. This is it.