Earlier this week the Irish Times published a review of writer Dolly Alderton’s debut novel Ghost. The review was negative and its tone caused some major controversy on social media. There were plenty of people who believed the review shouldn’t have been published and was overly harsh. Something that was deemed even worse considering the novel was her first fictional release. I wasn’t planning on discussing it all because I haven’t read the book in question. In fact, I’ve not ready anything written by Alderton so I wasn’t exactly emotionally invested in the saga. This week, something happened to change my mind. Something that wasn’t linked to this story in anyway but certainly got me thinking about it.
It all started on Instagram when I discovered that an author had blocked me. They’d been tagged in a post by someone I followed but, when I went to check out their profile, it didn’t seem to exist. Although, it was there when I used my personal account. Now, I don’t care that this person blocked me. I did give their book a negative review. I didn’t tag them in any posts about it but I did post it to Goodreads. They have every right to block me. Although, on a side note, I do think it was slightly petty and over-the-top. I posted my review and moved on. It wasn’t as if I was going to search them out and target them with vitriol.
Although, going back to my review, it’s apparent that I didn’t really pull any punches. It wasn’t as if I was being hyperbolic or lying. I really didn’t like the book and it did leave a very bad taste in my mouth. It’s not as though I would write a review in an attempt to tarnish a good book. That still doesn’t mean it’s the kind of thing a writer would want to read about something they spent a lot of time writing. You could ask why someone who reacted so badly to a negative review would put themselves in that position but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about the review itself.
It also brings me back to the Irish Times. The review, written by Barry Pierce, is quite a read. He really lets rip on the novel and uses some incredible imagery to get the point across. The prose, we are told, is “thick like mayonnaise”. It’s the kind of writing that some people will really appreciate and others will read as unnecessarily cruel and spiteful. Something that becomes apparent when you see the social media fallout. Alderton has a lot of fans and they were very vocal in their disgust at the Irish Times’ decision to publish the review. Many of her defenders suggested that only positive reviews be published or that negative reviews should offer constructive criticism instead of simple complaints.
Which begs the question: who are reviews for? There’s a reason that I don’t ever tag author’s in posts about my reviews. The main one being that I don’t know them so why should I think they give a shit about my opinion. The other is that I don’t write reviews for the authors themselves. Reviews, as I see it, are for readers. It’s a chance for me to express my opinion so other potential readers might find it illuminating. Criticism has never been about constructive advice. It’s never been about showing the author what they weren’t quite successful on and offering tips for the future. That would be massively condescending. It’s an opinion.
People complain that critics shouldn’t exist because it’s all subjective. Yes, a review is a subjective thing and one person’s opinion won’t match up with another’s. However, reviews exist to give an unbiased view on something. An author will, obviously, recommend their book because it’s their book. A publisher will recommend it because of financial gain. So, you need to get unconnected people to offer their opinions. Of course, this means that you won’t always get a positive response. You can’t expect everyone to like it. But should you really only give your opinion on something if you like it? No. People suggesting that only positive reviews be made public is insane. It’s censoring someone to save face.
There is the question of how far you push it. Should Barry Pierce have tempered his opinion? Should I have held back to save this author from being hurt? Again, it depends on how you see criticism. Yes, on one level, a review is meant to be informative and helpful to potential readers. On another, it’s also meant to be entertaining and readable. People have made art out of their reviews and many critics are incredible writers. I love reading work by certain critics because they offer humour, expertise, and great writing in a short piece. And yes, we do have a kind of morbid fascination with negative reviews. They’re the most fun to write and the most fun to read.
That’s not to say that I relish writing bad reviews either. I used to publish a “Worst Reads” of the year list as well as my “Best Reads” but I no longer do that. It seems unnecessarily cruel. There’s a morbid element to them and it feels as though anyone who compiles one is taking delight in their dislike of something. I’ve already critiqued something once, why should I keep reminding everyone? There’s also a sense of self-importance in listing your most disliked reads of a year. Giving your opinion is one thing but ranking them in order of most hated is another entirely.
I don’t write them because I enjoy being hateful but simply because when you hate something, and I mean really hate it, you can be filled with more passion than you are when writing about something you love. My negative reviews are the ones that I remember writing and the ones where I let my creativity run wild. I also think it’s easier to explain why you dislike something than why you love it. So why should a potentially engaging and interesting piece of writing be censored to spare the feelings of somebody they weren’t written for? I enjoy writing and this blog is my chance to be creative. The fact that I choose to be creative in a critical setting shouldn’t change anything.
It also hasn’t helped that a lot of this outrage has come out because of who the author is. Alderton has been hailed as the “voice of a generation” and has amassed a lot of fans. She is a successful and well-loved journalist and podcast host. She’s the kind of figure who people start to see as a friend because social media offers a pretence of familiarity. Her fans adore her and will fight passionately for her. Yet, where is the outrage at other negative reviews? Where were these people when Martin Amis or Maaza Mengiste were recently torn to shreds? Should Alderton be treated differently because she isn’t an established author? Because she’s not a typical author?
Or is negative criticism just a consequence of putting your work into the public sphere? Yes, it won’t have been nice for Alderton to have read the review in the Irish Times. Yes, maybe I am filled with regret at the image of this author reading what I wrote. However, that was my honest opinion at the time and that was how I chose to express it. Barry Pierce chose to express himself the way he did and has been harassed by a group of people online. For what? Not liking something that, in all probability, a lot of them won’t actually have read. Negative criticism has existed for as long as literature has been freely available to the masses. There are dozens of occasions in history where famous writers tear apart other writers in the press. Why should this suddenly stop?
I admit that I’ve been feeling a little guilty about my review since I made the discovery but, if I’m honest, I really like that review. I think it’s well-written and follows a reasoned, if passionate, argument against the novel. There’s nothing incorrect about it because it’s based on how I feel. How I interpreted it. I guess writing reviews on this blog, it’s easy to forget that writers are real people. Mostly because I never think of them reading what I write. I just never imagine that they know I exist. I guess it’s always worth remembering that they put time, passion and love into their work and are proud of it regardless of how I feel. So, while I won’t stop writing negative reviews, I’ll possibly stop posting them on Goodreads.