Why I don’t write negative reviews

Many of my writer friends — especially those in academia — are shocked when I tell them I don’t ever write negative reviews. Who, they ask, will protect the reader from all that terrible writing out there?

Writer and critic Lee Siegel addresses this question in a recent column in the The New Yorker, and does a much better job setting it in a larger literary context than I ever could. One interesting point he makes is that with the advent of e-publishing, it’s more possible than ever before to make a living as a writer, so we should be more conscious of the likelihood of a negative review to cause financial harm.

While Siegel seems to be shocked at this turn of events, it sounds more like the voice of academic insularity to me. Writers of commercial fiction have been publishing electronically — and making money at it — for years. In academia, publishing has only an indirect impact on money. Academics don’t publish for royalty checks — they publish so they can say they did it, which helps make their case for tenure and job security. A negative review in some obscure journal is more likely to damage a writer’s prestige than his ability to pay the bills.

For me, not writing negative reviews isn’t so much about money or politics as it is about respecting the worth of the writing process — and the writer. If I sour on a book, I quit reading it and move on. Life’s short, after all. If I enjoyed a book, I like to tell my friends about it, because odds are they’ll like it too.

If I don’t enjoy a book, what’s the point of telling the world? To make myself look good? To sound clever? To make myself feel better about myself? To make myself feel better about my writing because I’m afraid, deep down, that it completely sucks? I think a lot of negative reviews are coming from these dark places.

I like to look at writing as a spiritual practice. It helps keep my focus on the process instead of the finish line. Like Anne Lamott says, writing feeds the soul. When I remind myself of that, it makes it much easier to be compassionate not only about my own writing, but that of others as well. It helps me to see other writers not as competitors, or better or worse than I am, but simply as fellow pilgrims.

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