For a long time I have tried to refrain from writing negative reviews. My thinking has been that it’s nicer to be nice than to be nasty. I don’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings, and rather than send some poor author or software developer into a tailspin of depression, I’ve often decided to simply not give the product any publicity.
Occasionally I will vent my spleen, such as in my review of The Making of a Digital World, in which I quoted Dorothy Parker:
“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
Similarly, I am afraid I laid into the launch of the Year of Code, in which I discussed the hidden messages I detected therein: see The hidden messages behind the launch of the Year of Code.
But even in those two instances I found some positive things to say.
However, I have started to feel uneasy about this “Mr Nice Guy” approach, for two main reasons that are expressed very well by two writers in the New York Review of Books:
Francine Prose says:
“… it’s a question of what gets under my skin, and of trying to understand why. I’ve begun to think, if something bothers me that much, life is too short not to say so.”
She goes on to make the important point that (and I’m paraphrasing here) if you really care about an industry, you’re obliged to say where you disagree with something that undermines its integrity. It’s also a matter of intellectual honesty.
I think these points apply to youngsters as well, in two ways.
First, I don’t think we do anyone any favours, ultimately, by praising them for effort and, because we want to be caring, sensitive people, not say too much about the fact that what they have actually achieved with that effort is rubbish. If, for example, they have created an app to display your Twitter feed in large print, and it doesn’t display your Twitter feed at all, I would say that that has not been an unqualified success. The harsh reality is that nobody gets paid for their effort, they get paid for what they achieve – and those who do get paid in a way that is directly correlated to effort will probably find that their job has been automated before too long.
I realise I am exaggerating for effect – but only slightly.
I have to say, at this point, that I don’t much care for the current trend of saying it’s ok to fail. No it isn’t. Try failing in your job or your business, and then tell me it was OK to do so when you are collecting your Unemployment Benefit. Failing doesn’t make the person who failed a failure, that’s true; but that doesn’t mean that to fail is some kind of higher goal to which we should all aspire.
Second, it’s important to furnish youngsters with the tools with which to criticise effectively. For example, saying that something is “rubbish” is not especially helpful. It’s much better to say how and why it fails to achieve what it set out to achieve, whether that is a romantic novel or a computer program. What they need to be told is that whether something is good or bad in their opinion, we need reasons, we need specifics. That’s why having some kind of rubric can be useful. See, for example, 23 factors to consider when evaluating digital resources
The other article in the New York Review of Books I was impressed by is one by Zoe Heller, in which she says:
“Writers are not kindergartners making potato prints for their parents; they’re grown-ups who present their work to the public.”
So, even if you’re nice to kids, why pull your punches when it comes to adults? I believe (though cannot say for certain at the moment) that changes in the UK’s libel laws make it easier to write honest bad reviews without fear of being sued for libel. (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so don’t take that as legal (or any other) advice!)
In conclusion, people keep accusing me of being a grumpy old man. I may just start living up to my reputation, even though I’m not old at all!
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