Like It or Shut Up: On Bad Reviews

Emily St. John Mandel has an interesting take on bad reviews in yesterday’s The Millions.

“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.

Her post deals primarily with whether one should respond to a bad review. And though she is careful to point out that reviewers have the right to not like your book, I can’t help but return to the question that weighs on the minds of writers who also review: If we didn’t like the book, should we say so or just sit down and shut up?

Ten years ago, when I wrote and published my first review, I wasn’t concerned with the question of the impact I might be having on the writer. This, fortunately, was because I just so happened to have loved her book; and I wrote a glowing review that was quickly picked up and published in a journal. I wrote a few more, equally glowing, equally quickly published. And then the thing happened that must happen to all new reviewers that opens our eyes to the realities of what we’re doing: I wrote a bad review.

I couldn’t help it. I absolutely hated the book. I couldn’t understand how anyone could have published such crap. And I said as much in my review. That review was never published. But it wasn’t because I didn’t try. Oh no. I sent that review out to more journals than I had any other. I felt outraged that bad poetry could be in print, and I wanted the world to know about it. Apparently, no one wanted to hear it. And that made me wonder about the credibility of reviewing. It made me wonder what I was doing, exactly, in writing and publishing reviews.

There is an unspoken reprimand for those of us who dare to write bad reviews. Since many (most?) reviewers are writers themselves, and since most (all?) journals are edited by writers as well, there is this idea that our job as reviewers is to bolster the careers and reputations of our fellow writers. If we like what someone has written, then we should say so – loud and clear and strong and, by all means, in print. But if we didn’t like it. Well. Then maybe we should just shut up about it and move on to the next book. If our job as reviewers is to pat each other on the back, then yes, that’s absolutely what we should do. But if we feel some obligation to readers, if we feel some responsibility for commenting on the literature of our day and thereby helping to shape the trajectory of letters, then no. Not just no, but hell no.

Reviewers name the standard. Like it or not, what readers have to say about our work means something. I know we’d all like to dismiss the review that calls our work luke-warm or unbelievable or doggerel, but let’s face it: someone somewhere saw that in our work. They didn’t make it up. They’re not out to get us (the ex-boyfriend review, the mean-spirited and just-plain-rude review, the Amazon high schooler review notwithstanding – I’m talking about objective and intelligent reviews here. I think we can all agree that there are lots of crap reviews out there; and I think we can all tell the difference). And if we’re really and truly honest with ourselves, we just might have to admit that the bad review has a point.

A colleague told me last month that I had been “brave” in my review of Justin Cronin‘s The Passage. I don’t see it as bravery. I see it as honesty. I see it as objective, unbiased criticism. It’s what I hope reviewers will give me when reading my work. After all, none of us really only wants to hear how wonderful we are. Not really. And if we do, then we’re never going to write a better book. And if no one is willing to write the bad review or to publish it, then any good review we receive becomes meaningless.

We’re all just trying to find the right words. I’ll take all the help I can get.

3 thoughts on “Like It or Shut Up: On Bad Reviews

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Like It or Shut Up: On Bad Reviews « AngelSpeak -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: Like it or Shut Up: On Bad Reviews, Part II « AngelSpeak

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