October 22nd, 2011 / 2:03 pm

What is the most valid piece of negative criticism you’ve read (links appreciated)?


  1. bartleby_taco
  2. Drew Lerman

      I like this question, because I find good bad reviews so rare.  

      I remember when Laura Miller published her review of Chuck Palahniuk’s Diary, I felt some strange glee, because he had been an important author for me as a teenager, and book by book I’d begun to really dislike his work to the point I couldn’t finish Diary.  Her thing’s here.  http://www.salon.com/2003/08/20/palahniuk_3/

      And here’s Palahniuk’s letter to her.  http://www.salon.com/2003/08/26/chuck_3/  I find it funny he calls her Laura Nelson because I feel there’s literally no way to know whether the misspelling is intentional or not.

      But I couldn’t even re-read the Diary review (I just attempted to), because Palahniuk’s right — she is mean-spirited.  More and more she’s a critic who doesn’t really review stuff, but just kind of complains about how much she hates the pretentiousness of books, authors, and the literary world.

      Another person I’m thinking of is Joshua Cohen.  All I know of Joshua Cohen’s fiction is from a reading he gave, which I enjoyed.  But all I’ve actually *read* of his work are his book reviews, and it seems like they tend to be negative and not super illuminating.  Plus there’s the air of pontification.  The book I most want to read a great piece of negative criticism about is Super Sad True Love Story.  Laura Miller loved that book (http://www.salon.com/2010/07/25/super_sad_true_love_story/), and Joshua Cohen did, too (http://www.observer.com/2010/culture/love-time-dystopia).  I get that Laura Miller liked it because she’s a middlebrow hack, but I was pretty surprised by Cohen’s praise.  

      Does anyone who knows Cohen’s work better find that unexpected?  What’s the deal, are they friends?

  3. Felix

      Thanks for pointing out and linking to that Miller/Palahniuk exchange. I agree with both of them. His fiction does seem like Edginess for Dummies and she seems like a mean-spirited cunt.

  4. Lilzed
  5. Darby Larson

      that one day when my drill sergeant called me a pathetic fuckwad. it was totally valid, i thought, so i replied, yes drill sergeant.

  6. mimi

      ha ha  
      my 8th grade english teacher mrs. weems telling me i wasn’t ‘cutting the mustard’  
      totally valid

  7. Fggg

      JOSHUA COHEN: Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarn

  8. deadgod

      Kenner’s ridicule of Amy Lowell’s Chinese translations (aided by Florence Ayscough) on pp. 291-298 of The Pound Era:

      Not a mistaken theory, not a theory ridden too hard, not even “inaccuracy,” makes Fir-Flower Tablets unreadable today, but Amy Lowell’s impregnable vulgarity[.]

      Kenner is a meticulous historian (to the extent that he’s any kind of historian; pretty large, in my view), but what makes the demolition as thorough and certain as it is, is Kenner’s own artistry of phrase, paragraph, and concinnity.

      (Let me say that there’s plenty in Kenner for me, anyway, to disagree with; that criterion – a horizon of agreement between critic and reader – is only a small part of the value of useful, attractively written criticism.  –but I agree with him about Lowell’s versions of Chinese poems and about her own unaccountably (to me) respected poetry.)

  9. alan

      Really? Have you read the novel? I have and, believe me, it’s not the same book Cohen reviewed.

  10. Neil Griffin

      Cohen’s of Tao Lin was the funniest. On book forum. I also thought N+1’s review of Pitchfork made me rethink that website (although I had my problems with the smugness of the review). http://nplusonemag.com/54

      Great prompt by the way. 

      Oh, I guess all of Cohen’s reviews are pretty badass. Even when I disagree, like with The Instructions, where I felt like he was an awkward choice to be the reviewer. 

  11. Neil Griffin

      I also enjoy A.O Scott’s negative reviews. He can be a real bitch when he doesn’t like a movie.

  12. Ryan Sanford Smith

      ‘It was boring.’

      Often surprisingly valid, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  13. cvan

      Palahniuk doesn’t matter, really.  But…I vehemently disagree with you about Cohen’s reviews.  Whether in Bookforum or otherwise, his reviews are smart, thoughtful, and illuminating.  There’s no air of pontification, only a strong voice that expects something from writers.  In fact, I find him so strong that I can’t disagree with you any more strenuously.

  14. Anonymous

      Thanks for those links, Drew. I agree. I feel like there are lots of bad good reviews, and lots of bad bad reviews, but not many good bad or good good reviews. Good bad reviews are rare. It’s too bad because they’re pretty fun to read. 

  15. Anonymous

      I feel like some longer, more detailed version of “it was boring,” is the best way to write a negative review. Maybe the best way to write a positive one, too.

  16. Anonymous

      None of this criticism seems valid unless applied to a specific mom. 

  17. Matthew Salesses
  18. Drew Lerman

      Yeah, it is a bummer.  I think the problem with some of the most pointedly scathing reviews is that they come from critics who have made a niche out of that, like Dale Peck and B. R. Myers.  Since it’s so obvious they have an axe to grind, their criticism doesn’t feel like it’s “about” the books in question.  They’re just using whatever book they’re bashing as Exhibit X of What’s Wrong With Literature Today.

  19. Tatertots23

      Not to mention that B.R. Myers is one of the dumbest, most tin-eared, and straight up dishonest (you often get the sense he didn’t even read what he attacks) critics in existence. Not to mention he is a horrible writer! Still can’t believe that guy has a platform. 
      Dale Peck is at least a smart critic, even though he lets his shtick overwhelm him. 

  20. L.

      Dear god, don’t link to a B.R. Myers review. Even when he has a correct target, as he does here, his reviews are brain dead. 

  21. Cesar Bruto
  22. Anonymous

      any links to good bad poetry reviews?

  23. Rob
  24. Fggg
  25. Lilzed

      I linked to a B.R. Myers review too. Why do you say his reviews are brain dead?

  26. Trey
  27. L.
  28. Anonymous

      O man. I love this.

  29. mimi

      this reminded me that the _only_ thing i _really_ liked in ‘everything is illuminated’ (and i _did_ read the whole book) is ‘flaccid-to-utter’ in the opening passage

  30. jnagy
  31. M. Kitchell

      are you twelve years old 

  32. Ned Vizzini

      Not even a question! “Toastyfrog.com: Compendium of Useless Information : Games – Zelda 2 browse” http://bit.ly/qGJkCu

  33. KKB

      If you don’t knit, bring a book.

      – Dorothy Parker, reviewing a play

  34. George Alden

      Look how quickly it slips away, Ben.  You ask a simple question–and all of a sudden it’s Chucky P and people touting their favorite critics.  I guess the answer is that most people who read The Gint have never received valid negative criticism because, you know, they’re all fucking geniuses.  I had a teacher a few years ago who kind did an erasure of my poem.  This was at Emerson College.  At least that’s what it looked like–no comments really, just–he erased like 70% of the poem.  At first I was very pissed, like–seriously, dude?  This is what I get for 30 grand?  but, then i read it and I liked it, the poem.  Still my words.  Then I read it a few times, and I started to understand why he had chopped like that.  So it worked.  

  35. Doug

      thank you for everyone who contributed to this thread. It was a very enjoyable and thought provoking way to spend the morning.

      For what it is worth, I think it is easiest to write a bad bad review followed by a bad good review and good good review. It takes considerable skill to pull off the good bad review, the least of which is convincing the reader why you care so much about something you think is so terrible beyond, of course, ‘everything that is wrong in today’s writers, etc.’ After all, well written negative review is probably going to inspire a person to read the damn book.

  36. mimi

       I had a teacher who did an erasure of my poem –no comments, just –he erased like 70% of the poem.  At first I was very pissed, like–seriously? but, then I read it and liked it.  Still my words.  Then I read it a few times, and started to understand why he had chopped.  So it worked.

  37. c2k
  38. Tatertots23

      Which is exactly why Myers is a buffoon. His reviews rarely make you believe he understood the book he critiques and his criticism is mostly of the “old man yells at cloud” school of complaining about “today’s writers.”

  39. Lilzed

      “Tatertots” ? lol

      Okay but his review of Franzen was right-on in my opinion

  40. deadgod

      “I’ll cut some cheese for ya, Missus Weems.”

  41. deadgod

      The “simple question” concerned “the most valid piece of criticism you’ve read“–not [your] “received”.  –hence:  “links”.  (–but, unread by you (?), people will play – with or without instruction.)

      Look how quickly your comment slips away, George–running the gamut of reading comprehension from A to fucking B.

  42. mimi

      ha ha  
      alas, not quite my style  

      i gave her my best ‘larry sellers’  

  43. Rob

      Uh oh, Kitchell, are you upset that your chapbook isn’t selling very well, so you feel like lashing out at an author you see as too “mainstream” because he sells a lot of books? I’m not a Palahniuk fan in particular, and I don’t own any of his books, but whenever I read him, I’m always expecting the writing to be awful because people like you give him flack all over the internet. But the writing is actually pretty damn good. I doubt you would give him shit if he was a struggling writer getting published through indie presses. 

  44. Cvan

      Rob, surely you’re kidding.  The quality of the writing (of that at the link) is poor, embarrassing in fact for someone of certain reknown, and of value only to someone like you who spends your evenings whittling carrots.

  45. Cvan

      The Times Book Review has gotten really terrible, other than the occasional decent essay.  It’s become no more than a hack rag to prop up the NYC publishing biz.  Frankly, the rest of the paper isn’t much better anymore, little beyond a doctrinaire stance or annoying tone. 

  46. Rob

      I actually prefer cucumbers. And I know I’m certainly in the minority for not hating on Palahniuk, but the guy writes a tight sentence, explores issues of masculinity in thought-provoking and humorous ways, and hasn’t let his success turn him into an asshole. Like I said, I’m not a huge fan, but I think those qualities of his are admirable, and rare.

  47. M. Kitchell

      if you honestly think that “guts” is a well written story then… i don’t even have any snark to respond to this with

  48. Rob

      Fair enough.

  49. Anonymous

      Thanks for those links. I enjoyed reading the John Beer one. Also, I think it suffers from the problem that most negative criticism suffers from, which is a lack of charisma or like some kind of technique that shows the piece was written for the reader and not for the writer’s embittered constitution. It’s like a quarter of the way through, the pedantic tone, the name dropping, all makes me feel like dying. Like I don’t even want to stick around to hear what the writer has to say, like his entire thesis can be summed up in his tone, which can be garnered from the first paragraph. All that being said, I stuck around because I liked the headiness. Beneath the acrid tone, it’s really interesting, even if I think John’s book was rad and a joy to read.  

  50. Anon2

      What’s funny is that his style is similar to a lot of writers publishing through indie presses–the same sort of flat, plodding, staccato style that’s magically “experimental” if the book is published by Goose Turd Press with a press run of 50 limited edition copies.

  51. ML

      Joe Wenderoth’s essay eviscerating Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” (it appears in Wenderoth’s book of essays).  It articulated in a way I never had been able to do for myself something about the ways a poet can go wrong–in this case, JW makes the case that Hass’s poem is all about celebrating the poet’s own sensibility at the expense of any real engagement or risk.  It’s masterful…