Without reviews – even the scathing ones – we’d be left with a paltry, loveless cultural landscape

To apply the concept of “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” to cultural criticism is to accept that art is created solely to fulfil the ego of the artist.

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I was once a baby critic. I wanted to write, but the agonised poetry I produced about my nostalgia for an adolescence that had taken place, oh, all of six months ago, did not seem likely to be published on a wide scale. I liked watching films and knew that many freesheets would let me review for them – so long as the only payment I expected was the grand privilege of sitting in screenings alongside those actual journalists who were being paid, whose weary faces I recognised from newspaper bylines. This was enough excitement for me; to ask for money would have seemed obscene.

I believed I knew very little about anything. I was stung by a university lecturer once who wrote that my essay about a Palestinian doomed romance film read “like a woman’s magazine”. (I dropped out shortly afterwards.) I decided that instead of writing like someone in a woman’s magazine, I would be arch and sneering whenever possible. It was difficult if I liked a film, because I had very little insight into my response to it, why it made me emotional or happy. I felt as though I had little to offer other than “Very sad, looked nice” or “Funny, made me laugh”. But with a bad film there was no shortage of amusing observations I could wheel out. I may not have known a lot, but I had read enough Bret Easton Ellis to affect a pastiche of detached, withering, ironic bewilderment.

When I was older and trying, ham-fistedly, to make some sort of creative work of my own, I became ashamed of my past self, and felt tender and remorseful thinking of those whose work I had been snide about, as though directors of major studio films were combing regional events listings authored by 18-year-olds. I decided that critics were a sorry lot, to be pitied if not condemned. I thought often and piously of a Dave Eggers quotation, which read:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.

Now, I read that quote and cringe. I cringe almost as much as I do thinking of my performatively rude film reviews. Both approaches seem absurdly childish now, and equally as likely to result in a paltry, loveless cultural landscape. I was told once by some literary bloke not to criticise a book until I had written one, and the day I sold my novel, I was tempted to trawl through my online interactions to years before and respond that I finally had – so was I now allowed to speak? Having written a book and experienced that particular endurance test of agony and joy, I can definitively say I don’t want it to be only commented on, positively or negatively, by other authors.

Last week, a minor Twitter storm erupted after the new novel Ghosts, by Dolly Alderton, was reviewed negatively and with a decent amount of gleeful relish in the Irish Times. Alderton is a very popular columnist and memoirist, and many of her fans have eagerly awaited her fiction debut. I have no doubt it will sell remarkably well, and its reviews – Irish Times aside – have been largely favourable. Alderton seems to be a lovely and well-liked woman, and I think a combination of those two facts meant the reaction to this single bad review was wildly disproportionate. Alderton didn’t comment (which made me think of an author I know who once told me they’d silently cringed when their defenders became publicly irate at the appearance of a bad review or ambivalent profile), but many were outraged not only by the Irish Times piece but by the existence of bad book reviews in general. “I don’t get why critics seem able to say whatever they want when they want,” went one tweet. “I think if a book has gotten to publication stage then there is most likely merit in it, even if it’s not to your tastes,” went another. “Just no point hurting someone to ‘have your say’.”

Isn’t there? It seems to me that to apply the concept of “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” to cultural criticism is to accept that art is created solely to fulfil the ego of the artist, and perhaps also to amuse other artists in their circles. It negates the role of the audience and relegates those people who will never and have no desire to write a book. The whole point of making something is for others to engage with it. It cannot belong to you only once you have put it out there, and why would you want it to? Certainly, I would question any editor who uses up precious review space to destroy an unknown, first-time author, but it makes no sense to use this as an argument for forbidding the existence of bad reviews in general. To permit positive or neutral reviews alone means no criticism, no discussion, finally, only PR. And those with a wide enough reach to have a fiercely devoted fan base are rarely in need of free PR.

Reviews can hurt, but they aren’t for the artist. They’re for the potential audience, and more broadly for the good of the culture. I’m not claiming reviews always, or even mostly, succeed in this, but that’s why they exist – to reflect on and enrich the form they engage with. I once wrote a long review of a book I admired, but that I found had serious flaws. I was nervous about the author reading what I had written but, when she did, she was utterly gracious and grateful that I had spent the time thinking about her work, even if those thoughts were not entirely glowing. It’s easier said than done, of course, but if criticism is legitimate and considered, then the artist may learn something from it. If it’s malicious snark for the sake of it – and it’s always obvious when it is – then we must merrily discard it. 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning

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