"Should writers reply to reviewers? I remember when mostly they did not. I now edit a paper where often they do."
—Peter Stothard (the TLS blog)
Fifteen years ago, I made a decision to stop reviewing books. I stopped because my inner préfet was always looking for an excuse to emerge. Given a book to review, I'd snap on my pince-nez, straighten my waistcoat, and get down to business. I was worse than officious: I was clever. If a sentence lost its way, if a character stepped out of line, if a fact failed to meet its obligation, I would, with a buttery phrase or sly allusion, put the author on notice. I was fair, of course (what reviewer isn't fair?), but I can't say that I minded scoring points off another writer's mistakes.
Here's the not-so-hidden secret of book reviewing: Many writers, especially younger ones, regard other people's books as an opportunity to enhance their own reputations. What better way to show off one's own wit, erudition, and verbal artistry than to debunk someone else's? And if you can look good at some poor writer's expense—well, why not? Edmund Wilson, himself a formidable reviewer, lamented that reading reviews of his own books, "whether favorable or unfavorable, is one of the most disappointing experiences in life," and the novelist Arnold Bennett claimed he never read his reviews, he only measured them. "Reviewing is not really a respectable occupation," W.H. Auden snapped. "A reviewer is responsible for any harm he does, and he can do quite a lot."
You bet he (or she) can. A few catty, well-placed reviews can kill a book faster than a burning pyre. Those of us who watched Dale Peck beat up on Rick Moody's The Black Veil in The New Republic and David Gates tear into Tim O'Brien's July, July in The New York Times Book Review felt a little scorched ourselves. But for pure, malicious bloodletting, nothing beat Joe Queenan's New York Times review of A.J. Jacobs's The Know-It-All. Although I happen to think Queenan was right, his review was so gratuitously nasty that one couldn't help thinking that the editor of the Book Review knew it would cause a ruckus, which it did, even prompting an entertaining rebuttal from Jacobs entitled "I Am Not a Jackass."
No writer, however ignorant or inept, should be placed in this position. Queenan overstepped not by finding fault but by deliberately taking center stage. He didn't review Jacobs's book so much as punish the man for having written it. A far less harsh review would have served just as well, since very few authors are ever satisfied with a review unless it's a flat-out, without-reservation rave. Imagine, then, what an ambivalent or disparaging report does.
Kingsley Amis, in a moment of weakness, allowed that a bad review could spoil a writer's breakfast, but not his lunch. Really? Recipients of unfavorable reviews suffer heartburn for months, perhaps years. And why shouldn't they? Reading a stupid review is a little like being mugged. You feel violated and outraged and want nothing less than to see the perp caught and publicly flogged. But what can you do? Everyone knows that disgruntled authors are advised to keep quiet, since any rejoinder can only make them look peevish while at the same time calling even more attention to a harsh critique.
No, there isn't much an author can do except console himself with the fact that a great many literary works have been poorly received. One of the most famous examples is Keats's Endymion, savaged in print by men whose names heralded their affectionate natures. In 1818, a certain John Lockhart sneered at "the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy" of Keats's poem in Blackwood's Magazine, and a month later the Tory writer John Croker cruelly mocked the author in The Quarterly Review: "We ... honestly confess that we have not read his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty ... indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be." Croker then asked those who could finish it to write to him. Although Keats lived to compose another day (not many, to be sure), Byron, who was even less fond of reviewers than of Keats, decided that the poet "was killed off by one critique, / Just as he really promised something great ... 'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuffed out by an article."
The practice of book reviewing has come in for an unusual amount of scrutiny recently. A short piece in The Wall Street Journal last November by Cynthia Crossen asserted that "People who earn a salary reading and critiquing books have one of the sweetest jobs on earth, except that it's harder than it looks." (My inner préfet is squirming uncomfortably here.) A more serious albeit somewhat woolly essay by Elizabeth Gumport appeared in n+1, condemning the entire enterprise of journalistic reviewing. That was followed by Tom Lutz's sensible monograph in the Los Angeles Review of Books that accepted both the necessity and built-in fallacies of the review process. The impetus for these considerations is, of course, the Internet, with its myriad of reviewer-bloggers, whose opinions rain down like confetti on Amazon and other bookish Web sites.
Whatever one thinks of all these "nonprofessional" reviews, it's bracing, I suppose, that so many people feel compelled to weigh in. I say "nonprofessional" not because such opinions arrive unbidden, but because they make no bones about being anything but highly personal responses. Indeed, whatever their merits, they demonstrate that all reviews—professional or otherwise—are personal. Here I part company with Daniel Mendelsohn who, on accepting the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, observed that reviewing "isn't a personal thing between the critic and the author." Well, no, not from the standpoint of wanting to please or displease a stranger who happened to write a book, but one can't simply ignore the fact that someone put in the time and effort to research, document, imagine, edit, and revise. That doesn't give authors a free pass, but let's be honest: An offense against a book is an offense against the person who wrote it.
And while we're on the subject, let's put to rest another misconception: A bad review is not—I repeat, is not—better than no review at all. Where does such homiletic bunk come from? Yes, it's better to be indifferently noticed than completely neglected, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in once the reviewer begins to lord it over the book. And while a bad review will sell more books than no review at all, it will not sell many and certainly not enough to compensate the author for seeing his or her work publicly slighted or, worse, mangled.
It may not surprise you to learn that a book of mine was reviewed recently. It was both warmly and lukewarmly received, which does not mean that the favorable reviews were any more accurate than the mildly disparaging ones. In one case, a reviewer who liked my book—a collection of essays—stated that I had saved the best essay for last. Not true. So why should the 19 people who actually pick up my books anticipate that after the fifth or sixth essay a better one lies in store? Another reviewer, a British novelist, meanwhile seemed put out that, unlike Christopher Hitchens, I never asked the U.S. Special Forces to waterboard me in order to write an essay about it. (Note to self: Get waterboarded as soon as your asthma clears up.)
I'm not complaining—OK, I am complaining, but not because reviewers find fault, but because given a chance to perform they forget they're rendering a service to the reader, not one to themselves. A flawed book gives no one license to flog it in print. If there are mistakes, why not sound regretful when pointing them out instead of smug? If the book doesn't measure up to expectations, why not consider the author's own expectations with regard to it? While no one wants shoddy work to escape detection, a critic must persuade not only the impartial reader but also the biased author—as well as his biased editor and biased family—that the response is just.
And tone matters, tone is crucial. Even writers who check their personalities at the door often condescend without meaning to. Perhaps it can't be helped. There's a reason, after all, that a judge's bench overlooks the courtroom: Sentences must appear as if passed down from on high. I'm not saying only Buddhists should review, but wouldn't it be nice if the superior attitude, the knowing asides, and the unshakeable convictions could disappear from the world of print? From personal experience, I can tell you that my own books have been discussed by people who had no idea what most of my essays were about, but whose pontifical airs demonstrated (as if further proof were needed) that lack of knowledge is never an obstacle to self-esteem.
Am I suggesting that book reviews are necessary evils? Not at all. A smart, well-written critique is always a welcome guidepost in this torrential age of virtual and print publishing. Plenty of fluent literary evaluations sound just the right note of judicial appraisal and collegial appreciation. It's only those reviews with attitude that stick in my craw and make me wince at the thought of those I used to write myself. And perhaps because I've worked both sides of the street, I now presume to speak for authors who feel they've been maligned or misrepresented. My advice is: Get mad and stay mad. Don't cry, don't pout, don't feel helpless. Just because there's nothing you can do doesn't mean you should do nothing.
In effect, I'm taking back what I said earlier. What the hell, 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. Then write another letter, this one to the $#%^ reviewer and explain exactly where he or she went wrong. Address the reviewer's objections intelligently and dispassionately. You don't want to sound like Alain de Botton, who informed a critic that "You have now killed my book in the United States ... I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make"—but it wouldn't hurt to sound slightly unhinged, just to make the perp wary of running into you at a party or book signing. Maybe if more reviewers felt they were dealing with a human being and not a bound galley, their own words might be a bit less brazen, a touch less supercilious next time out.
Arthur Krystal's latest book is Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic (Oxford University Press, 2011).