Whenever I encounter the argument that reviewers ought not to speak negatively of any book they didn’t like, but should instead say simply that the story, while not to their taste, might well be to someone else’s, I experience the overwhelming urge to tear out my hair by the roots. If all reviews were necessarily positive, there’d be little point in reading them: the mere fact of their existence would tell us that the reviewer liked the book, and while there might be some residual interest as to why, after a while, I suspect that the lack of contrast would render the whole endeavour redundant. Individual taste is undeniably a subjective thing, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong to feel strongly about it, and it certainly doesn’t moot the function of criticism – and subjectivity aside, there’s still such a thing as quality. For instance: if a restaurant served me overcooked steak, flavourless gravy and limp vegetables in a filthy environment, then my best and most useful response is not to swallow my objections on the basis that someone, somewhere might’ve enjoyed the meal, such that warning my friends to eat elsewhere would unfairly endanger the chef’s livelihood.
The point being, it’s incredibly disingenuous to pretend that individual taste is only composed of positives, or that what we enjoy matters more than what we don’t. To stick with the food metaphor, if someone wanted to gain a complete understanding of my palette, my strong dislike of bitter flavours, aniseed products and raw vegetables would be equally as important as my love of good cheese, wine and sashimi. It’s contrast that gives the full picture, and when it comes to book reviews – or reviews of any sort, for that matter – it’s the balance between negative and positive opinions that allows the reader to fully compare the critic’s taste with their own. Read More »