Why write bad reviews?

Roger asked me an interesting question via email:

When is an appropriate time to write a negative review?

This was in response to a comment I left on his post in which he talked about “reaction videos”, which he’s not a huge fan of but which I actually enjoy greatly. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:

I embrace the IDEA of the videos more than the OH-MY-GOD-THAT’S-INCREDIBLE reactions. After seeing a few in a row, I find them exhausting. To be sure, I’m not the target demographic.

This Reddit post speaks to this. “There’s some psychology behind why some of us enjoy watching people react to hearing music for the first time- music that viewers know to be great. We like having more information than the people we watch, whether that’s in movies, tv, etc…

“My problem is that most reaction videos I’ve seen are positive 100% of the time. It takes away some from the enjoyment and the feeling of authenticity when the youtuber is superlative with every song, maybe because they don’t want to lose viewers who love that song.” Yeah, it’s just too much for me. Too hyper, and often too hyperbolic.

And here’s part of my comment:

I don’t watch many reaction videos for time reasons, but I tend to love them precisely because of their positivity. On today’s Internet–and honestly, on just about ANY iteration of the Internet pretty much ever–negativity is generally the rule rather than the exception, with the only real difference being how vicious the negativity is. If these folks are truly reacting positively to certain things, I’m fine with it. I also suspect that many of them aren’t reacting positively to everything, but rather they are only showing the videos of them reacting positively. I understand that impulse; it’s much the same reason why I almost never review something badly on my blog or elsewhere.

Actually, that is my entire comment. Why excerpt myself? Sheesh!

Anyway, the question led us to discussing bad reviews, when they’re appropriate to write, and so on. Roger noted his own negative experience at a recent concert he attended, and it got me thinking about why I avoid writing bad reviews.

Well, I generally don’t write bad reviews for a number of reasons, so let’s run through them! These are in no particular order.

1. I avoid writing bad reviews because I can avoid writing bad reviews.

I’m not a professional, or even an amateur, critic; I have no real obligation to review anything that I don’t want to review, and usually I’m much more motivated to write a positive piece about something I loved than a negative one about something I didn’t. Now, I wasn’t always this way, and if you really want to, you can find a lot more negativity from me probably in the ancient archives of this site, or if you really want, you can track down my Usenet postings, though I have no idea how you’d go about doing that. But why do I mostly choose not to write bad reviews? Well:

2. Writing bad reviews doesn’t make me feel good.

There are some critics, pro and amateur and self-appointed, who obviously get a visceral thrill out of being negative. And yes, there are times when negativity helps produce some good writing! But generally, I don’t get a good feeling from having ripped some work, no matter what it is, to shreds. And I am a firm believer in “Do what makes you feel good and don’t do what doesn’t.” If you’re a pro or if you can write negatively without feeling bad about it, fine! I’m not in either of those camps, though.

Now, reading bad reviews by professionals is something I’ll enjoy doing, sometimes especially if they’re negatively reviewing something I think is terrific. It’s fun to challenge my own thoughts or analyze theirs, sometimes. And sometimes the bad reviews are a delight, such as those by Roger Ebert, who really had a special way with movies he didn’t like. But there are other critics out there whose negative reviews have a mean and sadistic feel to them; those critics I tend to ignore completely. (John Simon is a good example here.)

3. There are enough people writing negative reviews in the world already.

Sometimes the chorus really doesn’t need another voice.

4. Bad reviews require you to know your shit.

Yes, all reviews require this, but it seems to me that bed reviews require it more, if you want to be taken seriously. You have to know the history of the genre of the thing you’re reviewing, you have to know what context it is aimed for, you have to know what the artist is trying to achieve, and so on. It’s not enough to be able to artfully say that a thing is bad; you have to be able to describe and illustrate why the thing is bad. Again, if you want to be taken seriously in your positive writings you have to do this stuff too, but it’s easier to be motivated to really plumb the depths of why I love a thing than why I do not. In terms of James Bond movies: I would be much happier to prattle on for an hour about why I love On Her Majesty’s Secret Service than to talk for sixty seconds about why I dislike Live and Let Die.

5. If I don’t like something, I don’t finish it. And fairness dictates that I don’t review something without having experienced all of it.

This is mainly about books and music. If a book or an album or a classical work or whatever isn’t doing it for me, I put it away and don’t write about it. I think it’s wildly unfair to assign a star rating on Goodreads to a book I didn’t finish, which is why I don’t do that. Many folks over there would disagree with me on this; I know quite a few who rank “DNF” books (Did Not Finish) with one star, which then gets added into that book’s rating average. I have a real problem with assigning a rating of any kind to a book I did not finish (or an album I stopped listening to, or a movie I turned off, or whatever). What I might do is note why I put something aside, if there is a specific reason (I once started a graphic novel that opened with a dog being killed, and that was it for me), but more often than not, I can’t put my finger on something specific that turned me off and it’s more of a “mood” thing.

And that’s not even taking into account the fact that many books that have become beloved to me over the years were books I laid aside the first time I tried reading them. Bad reviews feel “permanent” in a way that I don’t like.

So, back to Roger’s question: How do I decide to actually write a bad review? It comes down to completeness and conviction, I guess. If I grapple with an entire work or something and I don’t like it and I’m pretty sure of why, then yes, I might very well give my thoughts. If it’s something I’m known to generally know well and have opinions of, then the chances might go up…say, a new Star Wars or James Bond movie comes out that I end up disliking. Or I may attend a concert that doesn’t work for me…or a particularly favorite author has a book that I think is a clunker. But honestly, these days? More often than not I might just note “This didn’t do it for me,” and move on.

I’m currently working on a book of essays about Star Wars, much of which is culled from the many years’ worth of posts I’ve written on this site and its predecessor. But I’m about to run into a problem when I have to write about The Rise of Skywalker…which is a movie I seriously disliked. The problem? I never wrote about it here. Star Wars movie that so frustrated me that I never blogged about it. So I’m going to have to watch the damned thing again and come up with new thoughts…


…what if I end up liking it?

(I won’t.)

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