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In Praise of Negative Book Reviews


At the Baffler website, Rafia Zakaria decries the state of literary book reviewing, in which negative or critical reviews are eschewed in favor soaring praise or bland description. According to Zakaria, this toothless approach to criticism is partly a result of a misplaced assumption among reviewers that they are in no place to judge the experiences and ideas of authors, especially authors from marginalized groups. To this Zakaria replies, “For those who belong to these marginalized categories—and I speak as someone who does—critical and informed engagement with their work, along with dialectical challenges to it, is a sign of equality or inclusion.” Here’s an excerpt from Zakaria’s piece:

The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.

Image via Chelsea Kay Creations.