Last night I attended Jay Rayner’s (the Observer’s food critic) discussion My Dining Hell at the Ilkley Literature Festival. It was a really good night and I can happily attest that he is as funny in person as he is in writing. The talk discussed our perverse obsession with negative reviews and that fucking awful compulsion we all have to take enjoyment from other people’s tales of woe. You know, that same mentality that drives you to stare at a car-crash or laugh when people fall over. As a not-so-secret bitch at heart, I’m always guilty of having a chuckle when someone does something embarrassing in public despite the fact I’m really fucking clumsy. Humanity has moved to a point where we get bored hearing about people’s happiness but can’t get enough of their misfortunes. Basically we’re all just terrible people.
You have to admit, there’s something comforting about being filled with murderous rage. Sharing tales of personal misfortune can bond people in a way that sharing good news just can’t. I don’t give a shit about how happy you are with your partner. I want to know how crappy your job is. Whether right or wrong, as a species we love to hate things. It’s the reason why I invested in a copy of Mama Mia. That film has to be one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I can think of no redeeming features for it but that doesn’t stop me having a secret desire to watch it every now and then. It’s my film-based brush with masochism. I get a great deal of pleasure from subjecting myself to a film I truly detest. Fucking 50 Shades of Grey? Pah!
Deep down we’re all still just animals at heart. We share that love of conflict that is so rife in the animal kingdom even if we try our hardest to suppress it. Conflict comes down to power and the way we view ourselves. We take pleasure in negative reviews and awful films because we can feel better about ourselves in the process. Bad reviews let us bask in the warmth of someone else’s humiliation or unpleasant experience. One of my favourite film critics is Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian. He is a really talented writer and always manages to put his point across in an elegant manner. He’s a constant source of inspiration and incredible jealousy. His review of Savages, Oliver Stone’s 2012 crime thriller, is one of the best pieces of criticism I’ve ever read. It’s a vicious and unflinching attack that never lets up. It was a fucking joy to read. You see, you don’t remember the good reviews. There’s nothing really memorable about a critic telling you that an actor’s performance was good or a narrative was complex. Why would you remember the lyrical way in which someone praised the cinematography or the original score? No, it’s the hate-filled attacks that stick with you. All of us must have our favourite damning review from the inimitable Roger Ebert (it’s so hard to chose but mine would be a toss up between Godzilla or Armageddon). We love to see these people stick it to the man.
However, there must be more to it than that. From a purely creative point of view, negativity just has more potential than positivity. In terms of reviewing, writing about something you hate is always much better than writing about something you love. As someone who would describe themselves as a writer (probably only in my own head though), I’ve had much more fun writing about films and books that I’ve absolutely hated than about the films I love. Coming up with analogies to describe how fucking angry something made you is the gift that just keeps on giving. You can only take love so far before you sound over-effusive. There’s nothing worse than reading a writer’s endless, gushing praise for something; it can sound childish and, even worse, false. Maybe we’ve just become so jaded that we can’t believe anything that sounds too good to be true. If a writer is overly positive about something they’re reviewing then I’m sure there will be an endless stream of people shouting about foul play. Of course, on the opposite side, there is every chance that really hating something can turn into a petty tirade of hyperbole that can’t be taken seriously. However, we all have to be honest, reading reviews isn’t really about getting that one person’s opinion about something; it’s about the writing. Hearing a grown adult have a fucking tantrum over a meal, book or film they’ve consumed recently is one of the most entertaining things you can do with your spare time.
Maybe my out-of-control cynicism is getting the better of me again but there are so many more options with hate. When I love something I just let my myself get carried away. You’ve probably experienced some of my seemingly never-ending analyses of films I’ve loved. I just never fucking stop. Going on and on about every tiny detail that I enjoyed. Reliving the plot scene by scene. I hate some of my past reviews because of it. Hate just seems to keep me more focused. Maybe that should be a source of concern for me? It’s just easier to get your thoughts together and provide a coherent argument about something you didn’t like. It’s the reason I so rarely wrote my University essays on my favourite works. It’s easier to find things to say about something you aren’t emotionally invested in. Now I realise that I’m starting to sound like Emperor Palpatine here but, when it comes to my writing, my hatred really has made me powerful. Although, it’s not something I’d recommend embracing in all walks of life of course. Let’s never forget what Master Yoda taught us.