Critics against authors

Writers would probably be happy not to have their books pored over by professional reviewers.

Alice Hoffman 88 248 (photo credit: Bloomberg News)
Alice Hoffman 88 248
(photo credit: Bloomberg News)
It's a bit difficult to say at which point exactly Alice Hoffman overstepped the mark. It wasn't that Hoffman, the American author of 26 books including the best-selling Practical Magic, wasn't entitled to express displeasure with the lukewarm review of her new book, The Story Sisters, by literary critic Roberta Silman in The Boston Globe; but questioning Silman's credentials as a critic, through social network portal Twitter ("how do some people get to review books?") probably wasn't a good idea. Going on to trash the newspaper itself ("they don't care about their readers") was certainly ill advised; inviting her "followers" on Twitter to tell Silman what they think of "snarky critics" by publishing the critic's private telephone number went beyond the pale. Of course, Hoffman wouldn't have been engulfed by the subsequent debacle if she had observed an unspoken rule adhered to by most engaged in the business of writing books: Never, but never, respond publicly to a bad review of one's work. No good can come out of it. The relationship between writers and their professional critics is a curious, ambivalent one. In an ideal world, one suspects that writers would happily be shot of the whole sorry business of having their books pored over by professional critics; certainly, authors have heaped invective on critics through the ages. Flaubert ranked the work of a critic beneath rhyming games and acrostics, which "at least require a certain inventiveness"; Twain compared them - us, I should say, since I review books occasionally for this publication and others - to the tumble-bug, "depositing his eggs in someone else's dung, otherwise he could not hatch it." Writer Kenneth Tynan probably spoke for many in the fraternity when he suggested that critics were people "who know the way, but can't drive the car." Oddly, Tynan was a prolific drama critic himself. That said, reviews do play an important role in bring quality literary work to the attention of the general public. With books in particular, the role played by a friendly review can sometimes be crucial; given the huge number of books published annually in the English language, a good review can make the difference between success and sinking without trace. Writers do need reviews and reviewers; the problem is more to do with what exactly the critics say about the work, or indeed about the writer. It seems that considerations like these played a role in the broadside leveled recently by essayist and philosopher Alain de Button against the book critic Caleb Crain following a less-than-kind review of the former's most recent book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in The New York Times. Crain, it is fair to say, did not warm to De Button's treatise on the value of work; he took issue with what he saw as "a kind of mockery" and suggested that the author reached "superficial" judgments about his subjects. After Crain mentioned the review on his literary blog, De Button went on the offensive, writing - as a comment on the blog - that Crain had "now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that," before going for the jugular: "I will hate you until you die, and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude." In a subsequent interview with British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, De Button tried to place his incendiary response in context. "Authors should not always turn the other cheek," he said. "Authors are totally powerless in the face of reviewers. Someone can go into print and say, 'This person has printed the worst book in the world,' and basically the author can't do anything about it." He does have a point: Book reviews do sometimes read more like extended ad-hominem assaults against the integrity and sincerity of an author, rather than as measured appreciation of his work. And in such cases, the task for the author must be to see what one can salvage from the situation while maintaining one's dignity. Earlier this year, the Guardian published a lacerating assessment of The Samaritan's Secret, the most recent book by Jerusalem-based author Matt Beynon Rees. Written by fellow-writer Nicholas Blincoe, the review refers to Rees slightingly as a "one-time reporter" and as a "lesser crime writer," before suggesting that Rees saw in the diversity of Palestinian society "the source of all darkness: as though a multi-faith, multi-ethnic environment is an original sin." To hammer his point home, he accused Rees of "casual racism, making everyday habits such as eating seeds into indices of insincerity." When I spoke with Rees recently, he explained that his view was that reviews should be important to writers, even if they are just one in a range of factors that contribute to favorably introducing a book to the reading public. "Yes, I do read them all," he told me, "and I think that authors do have a duty to acknowledge that there may be something of substance in a bad review, rather than going bonkers..." With the Guardian review, however, what particularly rankled was not the negativity of the review itself - Rees notes that the same newspaper had also published two, separate, glowing assessments of the same book - but what he construed as the undeclared agenda of the reviewer. Aside from writing fiction, Blincoe is also a supporter of the International Solidarity Movement, the "Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles." Blincoe has in the past edited a supportive account of the ISM's activism, Peace Under Fire; in 2002, he stormed the stage during a concert by Israeli singer Achinoam Nini (Noa) at London's Barbican Center, to call for a cultural boycott of Israel. Blincoe, Rees argues, advocates a particular argument concerning Israel and its relationship with the Palestinian territories. That this fact - pertinent since the review essentially accused Rees of being an insincere chronicler of Palestinian life - was undisclosed in the review particularly irked Rees. "I viewed it not as a bad review, but as a character assassination." Under the circumstances, Rees felt compelled to respond, writing a rejoinder which was published in the newspaper's books supplement. Given this experience, Rees tells me that he sympathizes with authors who do snap. "There is no real recourse... especially with the explosion of blogs and people writing on the Internet without the intervention of editors." One has no choice but to get used to this, he says. But when it comes in a newspaper, "they should have pointed out [Blincoe's] particular perspective," Rees argues. So maybe there is something to be said for responding to manifestly unfair reviews, although Rees - himself a regular user of social network platforms like Facebook and Twitter to promote his work - cautions against the seductive prospect of getting mad before getting even, a la Hoffman and De Button: "One thing I learned from journalism is that to put something in writing while angry is a very bad idea. Someone will make you pay for it..." But writers, one suspects, will continue to respond to slights, perceived or real, in time-honored and somewhat overblown fashion. Ironically, one might have expected Alice Hoffman herself to be aware of the consequences of responding intemperately to a bad review; after writing a middling review of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter in 1986 for The New York Times, Ford responded by shooting a bullet through a copy of Hoffman's then most recent book and sending it to her. Mind you, the book did become Ford's first commercial success and was named one of Time magazine's five best books of 1986; who's to say that the publicity did the book any harm? Perhaps it is best to leave authors and critics to their own devices, mutually antagonizing each other. If nothing else, it makes good press copy. Books - and book reviewing - have suffered disproportionately in the recent global economic downturn, and anything that secures a book a few extra column inches may not necessarily be a bad thing. But a note of caution: In 1995 entertainer Dudu Topaz was so incensed by a critical mauling by television critic Meir Schnitzer that he sought him out and punched him in the face, breaking his glasses. Schnitzer received NIS 60,000 in a settlement with Topaz after suing him for assault. Perhaps if we had sat up and paid attention then, Topaz today would not be awaiting trial for several alleged cases of ordering attacks on top media personalities who refused to use his work.