Pushcart XLI: Jane Lancellotti, “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Write a One-Star Review” (non-fiction) from Narrative, Winter 2015

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: "La Critique" (c. 1830)

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: “La Critique” (c. 1830)

“The highest Criticism,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous essay “The Critic as Artist,” “is more creative than creation.” What he meant, of course, is that the riches of the imagination are as crucial in judging art as they are in creating it. Notice how the godlike capital C for Criticism is working here. How it makes you wish that Wilde himself could show up next to the reviewer’s desktop and cover the whole darn keyboard with his paisley cravat to prevent the cynic from posting that he would rather scoop out an eye with a rusty spoon than read Great Expectations.
Through the ages, there have been major thinkers, such as Matthew Arnold, whose fluency and insight elevated the ways in which we talk about art. Only now, instead of Arnold of Great Britain, we have Arnie from Massapequa, who misguidedly equates Jane Eyre with “another of those cheesey love novels written by Danielle Steel.”

Complete essay available online at Narrative

When a newly-published friend found himself squeamish about facing Amazon comments, Lancellotti read the online reviews for him, and discovered the universe of haters. They’ve always been there, and not just since the Internet. They’re the Monday-morning quarterbacks of the creative arts, the people who sneer, “My five-year-old draws better than that” at the museum, who want books and movies about good guys and bad guys, not ambiguity and symbolism and structural amplification of effect. They’ve just become more visible in the past ten years. I used to follow “Least Helpful”, a compendium of less-than-insightful negative reviews. They mostly do movies now, but their Classics Revisited section makes the point of this essay. Or you could just ask the next teenager you see what he or she thought of The Scarlet Letter. I happen to think the way literature is taught in most schools has something to do with it, but that’s just a hunch.

But so what? Maybe I’m speaking as a non-writer who doesn’t have to deal with the issue, but there are plenty of serious literary reviewers out there (like the NYT and Washington Post, both of which gave the friend’s book positive reviews, not to mention dozens of literary websites and journals), and chances are, readers who are considering buying a serious book take those reviews more seriously than what’s on Amazon. Isn’t there room for everyone? BuzBo and ChaCha have a right to their opinions, too, and as long as they’re not writing for Kirkus Reviews, why shouldn’t they express those opinions? I doubt Jane Austen is losing sales because of them.

Who are these people? Are they online versions of the bully who kicks over bicycles? Or the kid who gets his bicycle kicked over? Or are they, more likely, past-hopeful writers whose thwarted ambitions propelled a spite-filled review of Philip Roth?

The more important issue is: why do we get so nasty? Lancellotti wonders if internet reviewers would be as harsh to the author if they met face to face. I doubt it; consider road rage, where cars offer some kind of protection. Maybe there’s a clue here as to the nasty turn political discourse has taken. Maybe we’re all just getting meaner, because we spend hours a day in consequence-free jousting on media like Twitter where the snarkiest comment wins. Nastiness inflation, if you will. I have to wonder if it goes back to the first “My kid beat up your honor student” bumper stickers.

Another issue the essay mentions is the function of criticism, of the book review. The word “critic” comes from the Greek word meaning “judge”. That implies a set of at least partly objective standards to which a work should be compared, rather than a tongue-lashing. But the word has a definite negative connotation, so much that we soften it as “constructive criticism”. And criticism goes much deeper than book reviews; it’s often an analysis of an entire approach to literature, and a description or proposal of guidelines for that approach. But that isn’t the kind of criticism that’s happening on Amazon, nor should it be.

If I may, ahem, criticize – I don’t think this essay adds much to the ongoing discussion of  why anonymous internet reviews are so negative, and it brings even less to a clearer understanding of the genre of criticism. At first I thought we were getting a more personal view from the writer’s angle, but that’s dispensed with quickly in the opening and closing paragraphs in favor of what might be called “ain’t it awful”: the conflict between popular taste and artistic vision. It is, however, an essay about art: the impact of art, various views of art; and that seems to be the focus, so far at least, of this year’s Pushcart. Personally, I preferred how Dominica Phetteplace explored the issue – or, for that matter, Vi Hart’s video essay. But that’s only my opinion, as a reader, based on my personal taste – not as a professional literary critic. I’ll leave that to the people who are trained. People like the editors of Narrative Magazine and the Pushcart series. And I’ll try to learn from what they see.