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The excuses of a mean book critic

28 March 2012

From The Washington Post Style Blog:

A battle-scarred author lashed back at nasty book critics this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Arthur Krystal is an exceptional essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Washington Post and many other places. But 15 years ago, he says, he stopped reviewing books because he didn’t like the supercilious impulse such assignments inspired in him. He realized he was tired of hurting other authors. “Recipients of unfavorable reviews suffer heartburn for months, perhaps years.”

. . . .

Krystal is right, of course, there’s no need to be cruel, but sometimes the exasperation of slogging through a dull, stupid or monumentally over-hyped book gets the best of even the nicest person.

. . . .

Suffering through Jimmy McDonough’s “truly empty, cliche-littered, bubble-headed” biography of Tammy Wynette on a long flight, my colleague Jon Yardley wrote, “I wished the plane would crash, just to put me out of my misery.”

And a dozen years ago, my other Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague,Michael Dirda, endured a romance novel he couldn’t abide. “Sometimes critics lament that good trees were felled to produce a certain book,” he concluded. “In the case of Judith Krantz’s ‘Dazzle,’ I even feel bad for the ink and the glue.”

But when corresponding with Michael this week, he expressed a sentiment that I think anyone in the business would agree with: “W.H. Auden said that writing negative reviews was bad for your character, and I believed him: They are fun to do, and relatively easy as well. Hence, my effort to write about books I’m fairly sure I’m going to like and that deserve wider notice. Still, every so often I let the Devil have his day.”

Link to the rest at the Washington Post Style Blog


22 Comments to “The excuses of a mean book critic”

  1. On reading the full article, it ends with this: “I look longingly at the fist-fights in British newspapers and wish we could roll up our sleeves more often in this country. But that would require aggrieved authors to fight back, instead of quietly enduring critics’ abuse. I can’t quite accept Krystal’s complaint about negative book reviews, but I’m all in favor of his concluding advice to writers: “Make noise. Call attention to the offending review. In fact, write that letter to the editor that everyone enjoins you not to write and in a few deft strokes outline the reviewer’s bias and how he or she misread, obfuscated, and distorted your work.”

    I wish we could fight back as well, but these days it becomes a shrill, hysterical, mob-mentality, trainwreck and does no author good. Would that it would also reflect so poorly on the behavior of the “reviewer”.

  2. The problem with “fighting back” is that so much of reviewing these days is not professional. It’s appropriate for the literati to have public fights amongst themselves — hashing out the nature of art and what it means and what it is — but the world has changed, and very few reviewers of that calibre. That is, few are worth having a fight with.

    Actually, I think the difference is that people don’t realize that there is a difference between a review, and literary criticism. Reviews are between the reviewer and the reviewer’s audience. Criticism is a discourse in which the author can and should play a part.

    In other words:

    Reviews are about whether the audience may or may not like a book — and author interference is, imho, unethical, no matter how foul and inaccurate the review is.

    Criticism is about the part the book plays in the larger culture, and where it fits in it’s genre, etc. Author interaction here only adds perspectives.

    I do enjoy snark myself, especially in movie criticism. On a film forum I visit, there’s a guy who posts “Great Moments in Critical Scorn.” These are some of the funniest posts in the world. I would hate to see anyone try to put a damper on such things.

    • As usual, Camille gets to the heart of the matter. A review is (or at least should be) one reader’s opinion. No matter how objective a reviewer tries to be and no matter how much they try to base their opinion on fact, at heart it is still just an opinion. An opinion can’t be right or wrong although it can certainly be wrong-headed. However, arguing isn’t going to change the reviewers opinion and the author is never going to come out of the argument in a better place.

    • I’ve made a conscious decision never to debate individual scenes or plot points from my stories, even when I know I’m right and the person I’m talking to is wrong. It’s impossible to do this without seeming to be defending your work, and I don’t think that’s an appropriate position for a writer to ever be in.

      All that said, reviews and literary criticism are entirely different beasts, but the two should appear in different formats — one conversational or classroom-based, for example, the other in print.

      • The thing is, the reader isn’t ‘wrong’ either – they experienced your book in that way, whatever it was. Maybe not what was intended, maybe it got way twisted and convoluted, but you can’t argue with a reader about their experience. And I always take stuff like that as a data-point about how to communicate my vision. 🙂

        • I agree with Anthea–someone’s bad reading experience needs to be my lesson as an author.

          As to splitting review from criticism…how? Who reads criticism in that context? Academics and kids forced to read critical interpretations of novels. And “in print” is irrelevant when 90% of what people read about products is on line. That’s like saying book blogs shouldn’t exist unless they’re about lit-crit theory which is useless to the average reader. +1 for reviews and leave the pretensions of criticism to the ivory tower…unless a reivewer is good enough to integrate the concepts in a way that still communicates who the book might appeal to.

  3. Wait. Bad reviews? How is this possible? I thought The Elite Publishers published only “the best of the best of the best (sir!)”.

  4. A bit off-topic, but I’d like to use this soapbox to express my disdain for Kirkus, “The World’s Toughest Book Critics.”

    I will use The Hunger Game as an example. The first book, when looking at reader reviews, appears to be the best of the trilogy. The 2nd and 3rd books get gradually worse in terms of reader reviews.

    However, Kirkus did not star the first book, yet it did star the second and third book. This makes ask several questions.

    Is Kirkus just that out of touch with readers?
    Is Kirkus merely a bandwagon-jumper for a successful series?
    Was Kirkus perhaps afraid of giving the follow up books anything less than a stellar review?

    • I liked the 2nd book better than the first :-P, and thought the 3rd was more complex and better written than the 1st, though I didn’t like how it turned out.

    • I hated the 3rd book (though the subtext about ‘reality TV’ stuff was good, as was the very end). Maybe it’s because I was pulling for the other guy but still – she dropped the ball there pretty badly with how she handled it, imo. And the body count was *way* too gratuitously high, in terms of killing off characters that readers loved.

      I liked the second book very well, maybe a little better than the first – enjoyed seeing the blanks filled in.

      So, it’s all subjective! 😉

  5. This is exactly why I left Goodreads. Not because of reviews of my books but because of reviews there in general, if they can be called reviews. I would call them more like hate rants. Some are so nasty, I can’t even read them. They’re too offensive.

    I agree with critical reviews. What I mean is that critical reviews are necessary but hate reviews are not. I don’t think they are even appropriate, especially the ones that are author bashing (directly bashing the author and not the book.)

    • It’s a tough audience at GR, I agree, and 99% of the time don’t read the reviews there. But I had a review posted on one of my old books this month that was so poignant.

      I see the same “2 Minutes of Hate” thing at Amazon so it’s not exclusive to GR. You do get excellent exposure/response if you do a giveaway at GR so it’s worth it to hang around there.

      • You know what I noticed though – the giveaways there at GR, although they are good for exposure, do not increase sales at all. I saw no jump at all in sales when I did a giveaway. Instead, I just gave away a ton of books.

        On Amazon, however, when one of my books went free (for the KDP free promotion) and hit the bestsellers list at #3 in the free kindle store, I saw a large jump in sales of my other books as well as a jump in sales of the same book after it went back to paid. So, IMHO, promotion on Amazon is much more effective than promotion on GR.

        I asked myself, why is that? My guess is that people on Amazon are there to shop. People on GR are people who read A LOT and are there to write reviews. These are usually people who have book blogs and are used to getting their books for free. So, I don’t know, that might be why.

        • I had 1 book to give away each time and that was fine with me. Then I noticed sales on books unrelated to the giveaways and many people put the books on their TBR lists. Maybe they never will but at least I felt seen.

          I never get a jump in sales from my other books no matter how well a book does in a freebie at Amazon. I feel the opposite of you about the Select experience. People come for the free books and don’t buy anything else. “They take and then they go” as Julius Levin said in the movie Independence Day.

          I’m glad for your positive results. Maybe it’s genres. Some are hotter than others.

          • Oh, duh, I’m sorry. I forgot to say that my books are a series. So when the second book went free, there was a spike in sales of the first book and the two prequels. I’m hoping the same will happen when I get done with the final book – book three.

            So if you are ever thinking of writing a series, this strategy does really work.

            • Not for me. Tomorrow Bad Apple 1 goes off Select–phew. I’ve had all the giveaways Amazon offered and no sales of the other 2 books. 5 star reviews. No sales. And it cut the head off the series at BN.

            • Well, that sucks. I’m sorry it didn’t work out. That’s weird though – with 5 star reviews. That doesn’t make sense. Keep trying different things, though. I know that one marketing strategy may work for one person when another works for someone else. The good thing is, we have choices now. Choices that writers never had before. So, I’m still optimistic, maybe foolishly, but I can’t help it. 🙂

    • Goodreads sometimes makes me think of the great Vonnegut line:

      “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous, like a person wearing full armor attacking a hot fudge sundae.”

  6. As both reader and writer, I take reviews with a grain of salt, regardless of who wrote it. I have learned over the years that what most reviewers adore, I tend to loathe and vice versa, be it book, film, TV show, or sporting event.

  7. I stopped reading newspaper reviews of books when I realised that the reviewer’s by-line was in a larger font than the book they were reviewing — and their habit of plot spoilers didn’t exactly enamour them to me either.

    But looking at what Camille wrote about literary criticism up above, I suppose I might have been making the mistake of thinking it was a simple review for the the prospective audience when it was in fact more academic in nature, but then, since I have a cordial dislike for scholars playing king-of-the-castle with other peoples work, I don’t read literary criticism either.

    Literary theory has bugger all to do with writing.

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