There was a time when the American literary world grew its own hatchet persons, and could rejoice in the thoroughness with which Mary McCarthy dismembered the reputation of Lillian Hellman. But among young writers, there seems a shortage of critics unhampered by excessive good manners.
Let's put aside our feelings about McCarthy and Hellman for the time being — my sympathies are far more with the latter than the former at this point — and think instead about the art of the negative review. I've written more than a few of them, and I expect more than a few of them to be penned about my own work (in fact, a few already have been).
It's as hard to write a good negative review as it is to write a good positive one. The latter can descend into hagiography; the former into poison-penmanship. Both are dead ends. But a good negative review is the kind where there's some degree of empathy for the creator, where the critic says: I know you can do better than this; I've seen you do it; what happened?
Such things, I think, are written less for the author than for the audience. If a prospective creator sees a spirited level of interplay (read: argument) between a creator and one of his critics, he may well walk away from that with some better idea of what works and what doesn't. Not in the sense of taking specific direction from the critic — lockstep imitation gets you nothing — but more about how the critic can sometimes see things the creator himself didn't account for.
When Roger Ebert went after David Lynch's Blue Velvet, he did so because he felt Lynch was being emotionally cavalier with material that deserved a less wink-wink approach. He had been offended, and not merely on the level of easy moral outrage; he was genuinely dismayed that Lynch was sinning against his own talent this way.
For me, the most important moment in Ebert's criticism was when he said:
Having talked to Lynch about his film, I am inclined to believe that he takes it more seriously than many of his defenders do. It is an intensely personal film, and here's the catch: It is personal for reasons that Lynch has not put in the film. Therefore, it means more to him than it ever can to us.
Defenders of the film talk of it being about how the innocent and the terrible can coexist side-by-side, sometimes in broad daylight, etc. I see what people say when they mention such things, but the way the film embodies those elements makes you question Lynch's attitude towards his own material, and not in a good way.
Ebert did not want to simply applaud Lynch for having pushed all the right buttons in his audience, because he felt that was demeaning on multiple levels: demeaning to himself (for he felt he would be betraying his own feelings by simply falling in line with his colleagues), demeaning to the audience, and demeaning to Isabella Rosselini, whom Ebert felt had put herself through a level of degradation on camera that the movie hadn't proved itself worthy of. I too was annoyed with the way the movie kept falling back into mere Hitchcock-homage territory, without even the guidelines of the pre-MPAA filmmaking era to keep him creative.
In the end, the core issue wasn't whether Lynch or Ebert was more in the right. What mattered to me most was how each made their case, and to what end. Most striking of all was the point Ebert made: you can't put any old thing into a movie, justify it by saying "it's personal", and expect everyone to nod and follow gamely along.
So, ultimately, a good negative review is about unearthing such an insight and making a case for it.