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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mome raths outgrabe; or, how to deal with a bad review

Photo courtesy of
and Paulo Oliveira Santos
of Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Every few years a writer (Franz Wright, Alice Hoffmann, etc.) spills the boiling pot of his resentments about some critic or other to the entertainment of readers. This time it was Jonathan Lethem, going on about the perceived failings of James Wood--who had, oddly enough, praised the book in question a good deal. If you like such things, and many people do, you may find the Lethemian dismay and reproach here, along with a passel of comments both barbarous and thoughtful. The essay is also included in just-out The Ecstasy of Influence (New York: Doubleday, 2011.)

No doubt I must sympathize with outrage in the tribe of inksmiths because I don't enjoy getting a negative review. I can remember several: one by an author who complained at length that a book was too short for the price. (The publisher had accepted a novella and nine stories and then decided to do them as two little books.) One who just disliked. If there are others, I have forgotten them entirely. Oh, yes, one who thought there were already enough books about the time period and that we ought to move on.

I have a friend who cried all day over her review in the old version of The New York Times Book Review. I'm not sure anybody still cries over reviews in the new incarnation.

But one should have rules for dealing with a bad review...

1.  Creep off and deal with it, either with a large shrug (followed by later consideration of whether the critic might actually have had a point) or by a bit of self-indulgence--hey, go watch "Travellers and Magicians," why don't you?

2.  Don't read reviews.  Presto. Simple. This method seems to work for writers who can control their curiosity. (I always wonder if they peek.)

3.  Or, don't read a review until three months have passed. As the words pierce your bodkin and outlying areas until you become a profane St. Sebastian, you will know that nobody anywhere will still be reading that review and jeering, chuckling, sneering, enjoying the thought of your howl of outrage, feeling pity at public evisceration, etc. And that's good. You will feel the balm of it on those nasty stings.

4.  Manners.  Courtesy.  Manners are on the decline, so everybody says.  Put them on the incline and then walk up.

5.  Remember, a writer is a person who does a foolish thing and wears heart on sleeve for anyone to mock (or "like" on facebook.) Go on, go on:  be a fool for your art and don't worry about what people say.

6.  A critic is just like anybody else, with a slightly (or maybe greatly) silly backside and the need to commit undignified bodily acts. So recall that he or she is just a person, one who (one hopes) likes books and has just spent a piece of his or her short life with yours. It's fairly likely that somebody somewhere loves them! Astonishing. So give it a week. Give it a month. Is it really going to matter in a month? A year? (Okay, so it has been eight years and Jonathan Lethem is still slapping on quantities of rhuli gel. Make it a round decade. It won't matter by then.  Something else will have come along in a decade...)

7. Go read pig-headed reviews of Melville, Hardy, James, etc. Very consoling.

8.  Be grateful? You have a reader!

9. Have courage.

10. Sing a little.


  1. I think bad reviews are a bad idea.
    If one is trying to protect purchases (of a book, a movie, a CD, or such) then is would be far better to just write on a personal response level. THAT is a curtesy that any critic who does not deem themselves an 'expert' should be doing.
    A reviewer/critic who deems themselves an 'expert' is clearly not. Art is subjective.

    If an artist (writer, sculptor, actor, composer.....) is happy with their own work and offers that out to the world to enjoy - that should be honored.

    I think it bad manners to slam something that cannot slam back, and never intended to slam in the first place.
    But that is just me.

  2. Paul, I am always glad to see that you are against the grain of the way things are done!

    But they do come whether one asks or not, don't they? And without them, a lot of books would still be totally invisible. Of course, a lot of what we have now are blog posts...

    I don't think the review Lethem attacked was a truly "bad" review. It was thoughtful and had a lot of praise. As I recall, Wood didn't like the last quarter of the book and the resolution but loved much else.

  3. I think we have to lighten up a bit (we=writers and artists). In this life, not everyone will like us and what we do/make. It's really ok.

    Reviews of our work don't often make or break us.

    However, when I wrote book reviews, I didn't write negative reviews. If I didn't like a book, I chose not to review it. So I see Paul's point...

    I remember reading what Carolyn See (I think it was) said about negative reviews....send the critic a thank you card (which may scare the bejesus out of them!).

  4. Hannah,

    I wonder if she got any response from those cards.

    I rarely review, though I recently agreed to do one. I just have too much of a mad dash though each day at the moment. Certainly with poetry most books are "reviewed" by not being seen, not being reviewed.

    And there seems to be a general dearth of sense of humor around these topics...

  5. The last is best! And made me smile.

  6. zephyr,

    Making people smile is not a bad goal, is it?

  7. Can't we suck it up, as we are used to doing from workshops where people would body slam the poem or whatever it was? We should know enough to shake our heads sagely and go on doing what we are doing, which will be, if we are lucky, moving on to the next book.
    But then it is so easy for me to talk. I haven't been here yet. When these reviews come, if they do, I guess it will be better than no one paying any attention at all!

  8. Robbi,

    They do say that a bad review is better than no review at all.

    "They" say.

  9. With the kind of stuff that has come down the pike at me in the past year, I don't fear it.

  10. Paul speaks for me here. I think we have to develop something of a tough skin. Art school, writing workshops etc does some of that, doesn't it?

  11. Robbi,

    There have been cases where much happened because of a bad review. I was just thinking about Poe reviewing W. W. Lord and utterly destroying his then-considerable reputation as a poet...

    And I am sure some tender souls could not bear the onslaught.

    But mostly it is not like that...

    Some things must be borne. Good cheer despite all!

    You have already managed a radio show before the book comes out, so I imagine you will get a few...

  12. marja-leena,

    I definitely have a tougher skin than I did once. And I think that I am more cheerful in general. So if a bad one came along, I wouldn't be down long.

    One thing I learned by guest-editing is that everybody says they want feedback but not everybody means it!

  13. The last time I played Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, I was cast opposite a Long John Silver who was very young. The reviewer wrote:

    'Clive Roberts played Cap'n Silver and Clive hicks-Jenkins played cabin boy Jim, and both are old enough to have known better'.


  14. Clive,

    I do prefer it when they are serious and funny, though sometimes that increases the ouch factor...

    You were an adorable Jim!

  15. "In my opinion", or "To this spectator/reader/viewer" would be a very much nicer way of delivering bad reviews.
    No-on expects everyone to like their work, but no-one deserves those who do not, to slam it.
    There are occasions where a bad review is in order (the actor spits or swears at an audience. The conductor gives up - in tiff, etc) but they are rare.
    The rest? Salacious writing (witty or not) at the expense of an individual.
    It is not a very civilized thing to do.
    (In my opinion. HAHA!)

  16. 'Salacious'
    Oh well. My mind was on other things.

    'Unpleasant' will do.

    But as the old saying just went, "If you haven't got anything nice to say about something, be very, very witty."

  17. Paul,

    I entirely agree that there seems to be no piece of art that is liked by everybody, and so the goal of being liked by all (including reviewers) is not a good one. Fruitless and destructive...

    But even great reviews contain a bit of criticism. I wonder; how many artists have actually gained something, learned something from negative points? And how many discouraged people have been helped by the good ones?

  18. I so appreciate your advice on handling reviews and the commentary that follows! It took me a while to learn it might be better NOT to read theatre reviews when I was a working actor--not to read them at all, or to wait a good while and read them in tranquility. Sigh. Of course, that doesn't solve the problem of your fellow actors saying, "Congratulations on the great review!" (which does help us all make a living) or, alas, "I'm sorry about the review," which then still crushes.

    So now, when I review books of poetry, I try to keep everything in mind...and will add the insights gained here. Thank you!

  19. Kathleen,

    Thanks for veering into my corner of the world (you came from the mole track, I am sure!) I will repay the curiosity in kind once I am done with page proofs.

    So you were in theatre... shall be fun to go see exactly what you do.

    My prime method is the wait-three-months one.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.