Friday, July 3, 2009

I Will Hate You Till The Day I Die

So, in the last week, a couple of well-known and popular writers have responded with surprising venom to negative reviews. Well, can you blame them? What with the publishing climate as iffy and spooky as it is right now, a negative review must feel like that first snowflake felt to the Donner Party.

Part of me thinks this refreshing honesty is awesome. I wish we heard from more writers about what they think of reviewers. Because though I do a little bit of each, writing and reviewing, I identify with writers. And man, it grates, to think of those critics -- with their day jobs and their regular pay checks -- ruining the careers of us creative types because they feel like it, because they can, because it's cool!! (Hold on, I need a drink.) Also, who doesn't love a good dust up?

But at the same time... what exactly are those writers thinking? To react like that, to argue with a reviewer, you kind of have to think that the critic has no right to an opinion and is, in effect, a lesser being. Even if you secretly think that, you'd think it would be embarassing for people to know that about you. In the days before blog comments and Twitter, there would have been time for Good Judgement to sail in and prevent this sort of thing.

Writers: the solution is Don't read reviews! The time for feedback, positive or negative, is before the galleys come in. Yeah, it's probably impossible not to read the New York Times Book Review, but if you're lucky enough to get in it at all, you have to cowboy up and take it like a hero. And thank the gods for blessing you with a such a career.

Anyway, positive reviews can make you feel almost as bad, if they like the wrong thing, or if they think you're something you're not. And what happens if you go around believing your good reviews? Then you become an insufferable jerk. You can't win, reading reviews.

And do we really want a world where critics are nervous about writers' reactions? Cripes, no, we don't. While we could do without bitterness and backstabbing in critics, we also don't want timidity. Give reviewers the space for passion, craziness, mistakes, love, and hatred. It's a wonderful thing that they're taking books seriously at all, these days.

14 comments:

LemmusLemmus said...

I think I could muster a little more sympathy for the writers in the links if I learned that they also write to the authors of rave reviews to let them know that they love them and will forward them a tenner each week until they die.

Gary said...

Good post - de Botton seemed totally insane, and it certainly puts the 'Consolations of Philosophy' in a new light. He later said, i think, that expressing ones anger is occasionally therapeutic, which is a nice philosophical excuse for a very unphilosophical outburst. de Botton prefigured this whole thing in a column he wrote for the Sunday Telegraph a few weeks ago when he said that the prospect of a bad review was a nightmare capable of leaving him awake and sweaty for nights at a stretch - and in the same edition of the paper he got a distictly cool review from Anne Billson. It seems to be his 'thing'. Of course one of his other books is called 'Status Anxiety'. Part of the problem is that we here in the UK often tend to use the review pages as a sort of gentleman's club in which authors review their chums, and we don't have many career 'attack dogs' like Kakutani.

christianbauman said...

Lemmus, well said. Indeed.
No doubt, though, you have to shut up and take it, otherwise you just look silly. But no question it can be maddening on the receiving end. Even more so once you're long enough in career to realize what it's like in the reviewing salt mines ($25 for a Publishers Weekly review; legions of wannabe reviewers in the world with questionable credentials; even lofties like NYT shipping out novels to reviewers based on snap decisions on parallels or genre with little thought on whether that might or might not be the best person to actually review a novel, ANY novel...). Based on all that you might think I'm grinding a little bitterness. In fact, though, I've been relatively fortunate and most of my head-smacking at the reviewing world has been based on witnessing the experiences of friends and colleagues. But I certainly can relate. The worst review I ever received (as far as I know) was one for my second novel, Voodoo Lounge. It wasn't the scathing dislike of my book that bothered me so much (her arguments were subjective and hard to argue with), but the fact that is was completely clear that she hadn't finished reading the book. And she didn't say that. But what could I do about it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Except this: I don't review. It's not moral, it's not holier-than-thou. I have no problem (rhian and JRL) with novelists who do. That would be equally as silly. I just don't. I reserve the right to change my mind on that someday, perhaps. But in the seven years since my first novel was published, I've declined to review the work of others, except in vague and sweeping ways within other pieces I write.

jrlennon said...

I don't really review for money very often. Occasionally in the London Review of Books (though not lately, and not fiction). This blog is different, I think, because the entire point of it is to have a dialogue--authors responding to our comments is exactly what we want.

But as for my own work, I decided this spring never to read reviews again, unless it's in a place (NYTBR, New Yorker) where it's going to get dropped on my doorstep anyway, and living in my house. And wow, what a relief. This recent pub cycle was the most enjoyable I've ever had, and I think the reason is that I have paid no attention whatsoever to the books' public reception. I understand there were a few semi-lousy reviews, but it's easy not to care when you don't read them.

The problem with reading good reviews, of course, is that you might end up believing them. That's perhaps even more dangerous than being insulted by bad ones.

christianbauman said...

Couldn't agree more, JRL. In retrospect, the happiest I've ever been following publication was when life forced me to pay the least attention. Anyway, I try to remember the best reflection I've heard on this subject (paraphrased): A bad review will ruin one's breakfast but rarely one's lunch.
Re-reading my comment above, I DO sound holier-than-thou, and a little more black and white than the reality. Because anyone who knows me knows that I can be a catty mean gossip and sometimes that crosses into my writing. Perhaps that's why I stay away from official reviewing; I worry about my impartiality.

jrlennon said...

Right--I am totally uncertain that I would be able to prevent myself from disliking a book because, say, eight years ago, when I was on a failed book tour, the author's previous literary blockbuster was selling in droves at every store I went to. I don't think I'm that petty, but what do I know?

The more informal format of a blog allows for a certain degree of personal bias, which readers are more than happy to call us on. and of course hardly anybody reads it, compared to the Times. This is how I prefer to discuss new books--as part of a running conversation.

Dawn White said...

I love this idea, to review [books]as part of a running conversation. Thank you for this forum! It brings to mind the following idea, and it applies to my writing as well as my life: Is it possible for me to read/hear a review -- of a piece of writing or any other thing I call mine -- and not take it personally? Is it possible for us as writers, as humans, to allow the opinions of others -- even when they have a broader audience than say your partner's thumbs down on your choice of socks with sandals -- to roll off our backs? Maybe this could also apply to our lives in general -- and incrementally we could allow these reviews in and bit-by-bit we could make the choice to see other people's opinions as just that: their dream, not ours.

jrlennon said...

Hi Dawn, welcome on board! I think it's a matter of knowing the difference between constructive and useless criticism, and listening to the former, and ignoring the latter.

And LemmusLemmus, FYI, I have indeed occasionally written to a reviewer to thank them. It feels kind of weird, though, and I suspect some of them dislike the contact.

Forget the tenner, though!

sjwoo said...

Don't read the reviews...that's like asking Lot's wife to not look back. Maybe for the next book, I'll be able to ignore them, but for first-time novelists, reviews mean a lot. Even if they don't. I'd be the first to admit that a good review isn't the beginning of the world (i.e., a bad review isn't the end of the world, either). At this point, I'm just glad for any sort of review (thank you, Christian Science Monitor). I think that's the worst possible scenario of all, that your book gets no reviews.

jonathan evison said...

. . .man, JRL, i gotta' say, i love your outlook on, well, just about everything . . .have been enjoying the ongoing discussion with my associate JR at 3 guys, 1 book, as well . . . me, i can't help but read my reviews, but i totally take them with a grain of salt (especially the bad ones!) . . . just happy to get the coverage, and as you said, happy that novels are on somebody's radar . . .

jrlennon said...

Yeah it took me years to get off reviews! The first couple of books, one is desperately seeking validation...I was anyway...especially if you go to grad school, you become accustomed to everyone around you giving a crap when you write something...and that all disappears when you graduate.

In the end, getting reviewed is great! But reading them is iffy.

LemmusLemmus said...

"I have indeed occasionally written to a reviewer to thank them. (...)

Forget the tenner, though!"

Ah! Cheap talk! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain, writers, but if you met the reviewers that I have met, you would calm down.

-Nancy

Tiara said...

I've always thought that people who critisized my work were merely jealous that they weren't the ones who wrote it. Maybe I'm incredibly egotistical (which I am) and delusional or it's the truth. Either way, life is too short to worry about the critics. Laugh at them. All the way to the bank.