Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.
That said, the truth is that no matter how tough you think you are and how accustomed you are to the terrain, ugly reviews are never easy to read. I’ve published two novels, which has meant that twice in the past two years I’ve sold a book to a publisher and gone through the edits, and then the publication date is scheduled, the lead-up begins, and the first pre-publication reviews trickle in. It’s a nervous, hectic, mostly pleasant time, filled with anticipation and exclamation-point laden emails from booksellers and publicists, and then Publishers Weekly weighs in. By “weighs in”, I mean that Google Alerts delivers the literary equivalent of unexploded ordnance into my inbox. The next few hours are always a little rough.
A negative review is never pleasant, but PW reviews have a particularly heart-stopping quality for purely financial reasons: there’s a moment when it dawns on you, as you’re reading all about how your book’s clumsy, lukewarm, bland, awkwardly constructed, and stocked with characters who resemble cardboard cutouts, that this thing’s going to appear on your Amazon, Powells, and Barnes & Noble pages. Which is, practically speaking, frankly kind of a drag when you’re trying to move units.
But the sting wears off after a day or two, and then the review recedes into the hazy territory of tedious-things-that-must-occasionally-be-managed, like the laundry and grocery shopping. The major bookselling e-commerce sites can be persuaded to add other reviews to their pages, and positive customer reviews help balance PW’s tone. I’ve heard of tragically sensitive types who get a bad review and spend the next week in bed, but that kind of thing’s hard to pull off when you’ve got a day job and I find that bad reviews are usually not particularly agonizing once the initial shock wears off. Especially given that PW reviews are anonymous, and after fifteen years on the Internet I have a hard time taking anonymous snark very seriously.
The repeated experience of being swiped at by PW’s nameless ghosts has made me think, though, about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.
Vanity Fair, January 2007. Norman Mailer’s Proust Questionnaire:
Q: What is your greatest fear?
A: That I will never meet Michiko Kakutani and so not be able to tell her what I think of her.
Whenever a writer brings up the subject of bad reviews, a chorus inevitably pops up to point out the obvious: that bad reviews just go with the territory. Sure, and we all knew that going in. Speaking in sweeping generalizations, we are aware of how lucky we are to be in this position at all. Most of us aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected from the slings and arrows of our chosen profession, or if we are, we learn how to hide it in public.
But it’s hard to read a take-down of a work you loved, isn’t it? Let alone a work you actually wrote. I encountered proof of this a few months back, when I had the fascinating experience of watching a group of presumably reasonable adults fall to pieces over a negative review of a series of books that they hadn’t even written.
I’m referring, of course, to my Millions colleague Janet Potter’s piece on Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. The piece has accumulated more than eighty comments to date, more or less evenly split between people who agree with her and thin-skinned Larsson fans who seem just about ready to come after her with torches:
“Well said. You have aptly made your point that we, the unwashed masses, are unabashadly attracted to escapist drivel. And while I respect your contrarian impulse, I question your self-serving need to broadcast it. Why bother, other than to provoke, sully, and snark?”
“Laughable review. I do enjoy Literature Snobbery.”
“I’ll have to defend Stieg by point out the many ways in which this review sucks”
All of these commenters were, of course, entitled to their opinions. But what I kept thinking, as I read through page after page of vitriol, was “But you didn’t even write these books.” I found it difficult to shake the uncharitable suspicion that several of Janet’s more vehement opponents would last about five minutes as novelists.
I think sometimes about the increasingly blurred lines between writer and critic. Those who can, write, the worn-out cliché goes. Those who can’t, review.
It’s a convenient phrase to hide behind when either your ego or your favorite Swedish crime novel is getting bruised, but the economic realities of being a writer have long since rendered this obsolete, if indeed it was ever particularly accurate. There are dedicated book critics, but we’re reviewed quite frequently by a jury of our peers. It’s really, truly, unbelievably difficult to make a living writing fiction, which is why almost all of us have day jobs and why so many novelists write reviews for websites and newspapers in addition to working on our own books. (There are interesting implications for book criticism in this, I think, but that’s a topic for a different essay.)
Jennifer Egan, whose fiction has been praised effusively on this website and just about everywhere else, is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The New York Times. Hannah Pittard’s exquisite debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was recently reviewed in The Times by Jennifer Gilmore, whose Something Red was one of my favorite novels of last year. Something Red was reviewed in the same paper by the novelist Susann Cokal.
Suggesting that any of these people are reviewing because they can’t write would be demented. The 21st century update, then, goes something like this:
Those who can, write.
Those who can write but who don’t happen to be among the 1% of novelists who manage to subsist on their fiction alone, also review. We’re just trying to pay our rent here.
A much-celebrated performer of my acquaintance received an unfortunate review in a major paper last year. Let’s say that this performer is an actress, in Toronto, and let’s say it was the Toronto Star. I found the review unfair—my personal opinion was that her show was brilliant—but I was stunned by her response. A day or two after the review came out, she sent the Star reviewer a long email.
She told the reviewer he was “full of shit”, made various vague statements that a reasonable person might interpret as a threat (“I guess I was due for a hatchet job from the Star given all the praise I’ve received over the years, going all the way back to my debut solo show ‘Toronto Star Theatre Critic Found at Bottom of River’”), suggested that the reviewer was racist—it happened that the actress and critic were of different races—hit send, and then forwarded it to her email list. Fortunately for her career, no one sent it to Gawker.
The day after the most recent and more vicious of my Publisher’s Weekly reviews came out, I fell into a conversation with a writer friend about this actress and her rebuttal. I’d found it appalling; my friend, who’s also had to deal with a bad review or two in his time, had liked it. I said something about how I understood how hurt she had been and I understood the temptation to respond, but that the actress had pretty much confirmed my long-held suspicion that arguing with bad reviews is a truly terrible idea.
“But why,” my friend asked, “should the reviewers always have the last word?”
Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you: we switch jobs all the time—see above, section no. 4—but at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.
But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.
This, at least, is as close as I’ve come to a coherent position on the matter. The question of how and if to respond remains troubling: I spent a long time writing and rewriting a letter to a major Canadian publication a few months ago, when I came across a lukewarm review whose reservations seemed based on such a complete misreading of the plot that I seriously questioned whether the reviewer had actually read the book. I didn’t really mind that the review was lukewarm, but I did mind that the reviewer had made two or three fairly major factual misstatements about what I’d actually written.
In the end I didn’t send it, because I couldn’t quite figure out a way to word it that didn’t come across as sour grapes. Better, I thought, not to respond at all. Better to ignore the review than to be graceless. This may possibly be cowardice on my part.
There are cautionary tales. Alice Hoffman’s 2009 Twitter meltdown has been immortalized for all time on Gawker. Richard Ford once responded to a negative review by taking one of the reviewer’s novels outside and shooting a hole through it. The novelist who gave him a bad review? Alice Hoffman.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the admirable Joanna Smith-Rakoff, who told me at a writer’s festival last year that she doesn’t read her reviews. Any of them. Positive or negative. She seemed, I couldn’t help but notice, considerably more serene than most writers of my acquaintance.
I wonder sometimes what Mailer would have said to Kakutani, if by some horrible slip of social planning they’d ever ended up in the same room. What do you say to the person who wrote terrible things about your work? It’s an awkward question. On the one hand, Richard Ford again: he waited two years before he encountered the fellow novelist who’d published a negative review of one of his books, and then spat on him at a party. (This is exactly the kind of behavior, incidentally, that leads to what marketing consultants refer to as brand damage: every time I hear Richard Ford’s name I think “guy who spat on other guy at party” first, “writer” second.) On the other hand, it might be oddly satisfying to remain impeccably polite.
But then, what if one were deserted by the power of speech? It’s a concern. I know I said in the first section that bad reviews are usually not particularly hurtful once the initial sting wears off, but the key word here is usually. There are some that get under your skin—either because they’re violently stupid, or so viciously personal that you find yourself Googling the reviewer just to see if maybe you inadvertently stole her boyfriend in high school, or both—and these are difficult to shake. If I ever encounter the lit blogger who gave me my first and so far thankfully only non-PW takedown, I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to breathe. I certainly couldn’t for the first few minutes after I read what she wrote about my first novel. Speaking might be entirely out of the question.
I did meet her editor. He turned out to be lovely. I was standing at my publisher’s booth at Book Expo America last spring when a man approached, holding a copy of my second novel. I glanced at his nametag, and I’ll confess that my heart sank a little when I saw the name of the blog he edited. The blog’s name always makes me think of old-school Usenet flame wars, partly because of the name of the site and partly because of the tone of the review they gave me.
“Emily, hi, I edit [redacted because name of blog gives me unpleasant flashbacks].com,” he said. “We reviewed your first novel.”
“I remember,” I said, as sweetly as possible.
“Uh oh,” he said.
Do bad reviews matter? There’s a school of thought that they don’t, but the thing about them is that they’re just so horribly memorable. Norman Mailer received countless laudatory reviews; but we’ll remember these less vividly, I think, than we’ll remember his decades-long feud with Michiko Kakutani.
“It does take three good reviews to overcome a bad one,” he wrote in a 2003 letter to the publisher of The New York Times, “if the bad one is a potential reader’s first acquaintance with the work.”
Mailer understood that negativity draws public interest, in the same way that blood in the water draws sharks. We’re naturally drawn to vicious reviews, to train-wreck actresses, to personal catastrophes and public feuds. His letter was scathing, but not intended for public attention: “I would rather keep all this in camera than disseminate it to the teeming raptors of the Internet,” he wrote. “Did I say raptors? I mean raptures, teeming raptures.”
I think bad reviews do matter, if only from a financial standpoint. I think we have to ignore them anyway. Kakutani’s habitual hatchet jobs on Mailer’s work were more memorable than the countless good reviews he received, but above all of this towers the body of work. He spent a certain amount of time doing battle with his most relentless critic, but he spent far more time perfecting the writing.
(Image: Broken Glass Shards Urban Exploration April 19, 20101 from stevendepolo’s photostream)