About the Negative Review

In 2004, NPR ran a fascinating story about Dale Peck, a vitriolic book reviewer, on Morning Edition. This got me wondering what it is about literary types that they can’t handle negative reviews. In the story, a comparison was made between Peck’s experience and the often scathing reviews of movie critic Pauline Kael. “The literary world is too thin-skinned,” one person said.

That thin skin may be partly because of the difference between the media. A movie is a work made by committee, while a novel is often the work of a single human being, and oftentimes any criticism of a book can be perceived as a criticism of the author. However, authors quickly learn–from the first time they send out their work to a publisher and receive it back rejected–that this is a logical fallacy and that to keep one’s sanity intact, you have to separate the writer from the written. Unfortunately, many authors often forget this dictum once a book has been accepted and published. And their fans seem to never remember this.

As a book reviewer and sometimes critic, I learned this first hand years ago after trying to put into words just what it was about the writing of Lois McMaster Bujold that I thought was more than simply “not to my taste” but instead “bad.” The instance was sparked on a newsgroup discussion that was supposed to be about “the best” works of fiction in the science fiction genre and I had grown tired of seeing her work listed. Unlike Dale Peck, whose outrageous commentary includes statements like, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” I tried to keep exaggeration out of my comments, for I didn’t consider Bujold the worst SF writer, although I do think her far from the best, and proceeded to point out why. Even Bujold herself joined in the discussion and we had an interesting on- and off-newsgroup exchange which basically resolved into (and I paraphrase from memory of something over seven years old) my contention that her writing on a sentence level was often weak if not poor and her contention was that it didn’t matter if the overall effect was achieved. Or, to put it another way, she said that in creating a church, one doesn’t focus on the individual stones that made up the flying buttresses, while I contended that I didn’t consider a road with potholes to be a fine path even if I did eventually reach my destination.

For all my years of commenting on books–both in writing, much of which can be found on this site, and in discussions with peers–I’ve considered this exchange one of those defining moments of my intellectual development, where I first defined and codified what I personally considered important aspects of writing. It’s not that I don’t think structure, plot, or enjoyment a necessary portion of a book–but this discussion clarified for me just how integral the sentence is as a building block that can’t be ignored in the creation of those larger edifices. It was the culmination of a change that had begun for me back in the mid-1980s when I first began talking seriously about books and writing (because, although I had instruction in the fine points of English literature in high school, it was all about the surface characteristics of books and stories forced upon me rather than the defense of things that I enjoyed and admired). I had been an indiscriminate reader to that point: someone who would read Piers Anthony back to back with Gene Wolfe. To work in another analogy, it was like drinking cheap wine one night and a fine chardonnay the next; either is fine if all you’re looking for is a little buzz, but when you learn to savor the flavor, only one will do.

The other thing I received from that exchange, however, was a spate of hate mail and rude commentary online from people who felt they had to defend Bujold personally (rather than defending her work) or came in late and didn’t even take the time to understand the discussion. Thus, when the NPR story ended with Peck revealing that his reviews (the best now collected in a book called Hatchet Jobs) have made him persona non grata in the New York publishing world, I could also relate. It’s fairly common knowledge among those of us who post reviews on Amazon.com that you catch a lot more positive votes with a gushing and praising review than with one that lists any reservations about the item–a situation that Amazon is perfectly happy with, as it is in their best interest to sell everything they list, not just simply the best. Which is why, among a number of reasons including the ability to “fake” reviews (an author can submit a gushing review of their own work, etc.), the commentary on Amazon shouldn’t be trusted. Why then do I continue to post there? Because the readership there is magnitudes larger than I’ll ever get posting on my own site, and, possibly, if I continue to do good work, both here and there, people might come to see the benefit of someone who writes both positive and negative reviews…like, say, to go back to the film comparison, a Roger Ebert versus a Rex Reed.

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