How (and When, and Why) to Write a Good Bad Review

By Ann Glaviano

Last year at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, I attended a panel discussion on how to write a good bad book review, facilitated by my pal Dan Kois. In the land of books, as in the land of concert dance, we have a lot of anxiety about providing critical/negative feedback to others in our artistic community – why to do it, how to do it, when to do it, and what the possible consequences are. We probably all agree that real feedback – about the good and the bad in our work – keeps us honest as artists, and more importantly, keeps our art moving forward. And we probably all agree that someone needs to speak up (just as long as it isn’t you…). If you feel intimidated by the idea of writing a negative review, or even a review with a negative sentence or two in it, here are three points to consider.

1) When is a wholly negative review warranted?

Most of the panelists agreed that negative feedback in a review should be in proportion to the hype and resources at the artist’s disposal. The popular analogy in use here is don’t bring a gun to a knife fight. The review writer ends up looking like a jerk and the artist like a victim.

To use an example from book land: a slim poetry volume by an obscure author published as a labor of love and charity by a tiny indie press probably wouldn’t warrant a scathing review, even if you think the book is awful. Why? Because most people would never have even heard of the book otherwise, and because you risk killing the author’s chances of selling that book or any other book, ever again. Conversely, if there’s a book written by an extremely well-known and widely read author that is getting major hype by the media machine – if everyone you know is probably going to read this book and it’s going to have reviews in every paper, large and small – and you have read this book and you think this book is problematic, mediocre, undeserving of the hype – this book might be worth tackling in a “bad” review. Why? In the words of one of the panelists, because a reviewer’s job is to clear away the mediocre and overhyped so there is room for work that actually deserves our attention.

In a small dance community like New Orleans, few companies and collectives have resources, in terms of money and media attention, that would warrant a slam. If few people even know or care that a particular group is trying to make work, why bother writing a slam review? It doesn’t clear space for better work to get attention – the work wasn’t getting attention in the first place. One could argue that even the better-funded local companies and collectives would suffer real damage by a scathing review – that there is not a sufficiently broad base of support for local dance, period, and therefore we cannot afford to publicly present a negative response to local work.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer any negative feedback. A review that attempts to understand the artist’s project, acknowledge what elements of the work were successful in the context of this project, and note some areas that weren’t as successful, with some ideas regarding why they weren’t as successful – this is constructive critical feedback. It helps the artist move forward. (For a healthy local example of how this can work, see any article by Gambit food writer Sarah Baird, who virtually always offers a point or two of negative feedback alongside many paragraphs of glowing endorsement. Her philosophy seems to be that we always have a little room to grow.)

And remember, plenty of well-funded work comes through town on tour. A local review with negative feedback is small potatoes to an internationally renowned touring company – it does them no damage – but it might help guide our local presenting organizations in their selection of touring companies in the future.

2) A good bad review: It’s complicated

In another discussion of reviews at the same conference, a panelist noted that we typically think of reviews as “thumbs up” (an endorsement) or “thumbs down” (a slam) – in short, the review is a judgment. But the point of the review – and the value in reading it – is insight into the process of judging, not the judgment itself. The key question in a review becomes “what does this work do for me” – not “should you buy a ticket to this performance.” At present, virtually all of our local media coverage of dance performance is, in essence, promotion. That’s great; we need all the promotional help we can get. And this also means that, as reviewers, we’re off the hook in terms of dissuading or convincing people to see a particular show. We’re left with the opportunity to instead offer reflection – what does this work do for me?

In the “good bad book review” panel, Dan Kois pointed out that the internal response on which a negative review is predicated is usually pretty complex. He offered an example of what he called a “bad bad review” – an unsuccessful or unhelpful bad review – in which the reviewer expressed displeasure with a book by saying it was “disappointing.” Disappointing, Dan noted, is a word that contains a multitude of complex emotions. Unfortunately, the reviewer didn’t bother to unpack her feelings of “disappointment”; she did not offer her process of judging but only the judgment itself. A “good bad review,” on the other hand, would have done the difficult but interesting work of untangling this complicated response. The same principle holds for dance reviews, good and bad.

3) Putting negative feedback into broader perspective

Reviews don’t have to be short pieces that focus only on one dance presentation. Reviews can be embedded into essays that tackle any number of topics, where the reviewed work is merely one example and serves as a springboard into the discussion of a larger issue. The review/essay can critique not (just) the work itself but also what the work represents, buys into, or tries to promote. A review/essay is capacious enough to put multiple works in conversation with each other. It’s also a great opportunity to offer historical context or to identify and analyze trends. And because the focus of the piece isn’t on one specific “bad review,” it’s much less likely that the review/essay will be perceived as a slam.