Should writers respond to their critics? I have discussed this with several writer friends over recent years. The consensus seems to be a resounding No, because once you get involved it is difficult to back out with dignity. If you get a bad review, it sometimes smarts for a while, but you usually get over it. Even people who claim never to read their reviews seem to be remarkably up to date about what others have written concerning their work.
Even a poor review can sometimes contain within it a small gem that can be turned to one’s own advantage. The Times’ disparaging and bitchy review of my first novel referred to the book as ‘superior lifestyle porn’, which we were able to recycle as (sort of) praise. It was OK because lots of other reviewers said very nice things about the book. You learn to take the rough with the smooth. Professional reviewers get paid (usually a pittance, in my experience, but something, at least) for writing their pieces, so should at least take their job seriously. I think it is cowardly and idle not to give a review a thorough evaluation and spend some time on it, rather than just dish out some cheap shots or (as is often the case) string together a few clichés and call it a review.
Alas, there is also the serious personal attack, posing as a review, as famously endured by Alain de Botton in the New York Times a couple of years ago.
According to the Daily Telegraph report (I never read the Telegraph, except for the cricket, but I shall cite it in order to make ‘Sue’ (see below) feel justified about her accusations):
The outburst followed a poor review of de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Caleb Crain in The New York Times.
The author, whose books include Essays in Love and The Consolations of Philosophy, lost his temper during a posting on Crain’s blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.
“In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value,” he wrote. “The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary.”
He went on: “I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review.”
The author, who has written widely about the pursuit of happiness, concluded: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”
This makes me smile. It is what many of us would like to say, but don’t, because we never come out of it looking well.
Sometimes a review is particularly lazy and ill-informed – not really a review at all – and clearly the writer responsible hasn’t taken the time to read the thing at all, or else is simply a foolish person, a bigot, or a cretin. Or all three.
Which brings me to Goodreads, that democratic website that allows citizens to parade for all to see what books they are reading, what they plan to read, and even what they think of what they have read. Apart from wondering why on earth anyone should care, it seems a perfectly harmless sort of thing to do if you have plenty of time on your hands.
So, to cut to the quick, the other day I came across a ‘review’ of my book The Vagabond’s Breakfast on Goodreads, posted by ‘Sue’ who accuses me of writing ‘middle class poop’.
Let’s consider this accusation for a moment, if only to wonder who among the proletarian hordes – for instance, where I live in Grangetown, Cardiff – would use the term ‘poop’? Surely this critic is giving herself away too easily. But worse than this, she accuses me of writing fiction under the pretext that it is truth, in other words, of being a liar.
Sue’s general gist is that I made some, or all, of the book up, though how she has reached this conclusion, she does not make clear. In a later post – where she has morphed into Redwitch379 – she claims that I myself have said that my book is a ‘fictional autobiography’. Have I? I don’t think so, Sue. So that is galling. And I am thinking up a curse to match de Botton’s. If Sue really is RedWitch379, she had better hang onto her broomstick.
But this is one of the glories – and pitfalls – of the internet. You can hide behind another identity. True, Blanco is a pretty thin disguise, especially as my picture is at the top of the page and most people who comment on this blog seem to know me. The truth is that as well as encouraging a wide-ranging and, at the best of times, stimulating platform for intelligent discussion, websites like Goodreads also allow every fucking idiot on the planet to have a voice, which, of course, is exactly how it should be.
Evident animus may enliven, but also tends to invalidate the criticism, I always think. We are entertained, but no longer persuaded, unless we are that type of reader who appreciates a man clacking his tongue at them and yelling ‘Hyaah!’ then coming at them with a stick if they fail to comply. Talking of which, didn’t they leave a space out of ‘Goodreads’, and wouldn’t it be more accurately represented as ‘Goo dreads’?
Goo done. I fear I may already be regretting this post. But what the hell. You are quick out of the blocks Bill. Are you on ‘research leave’ as well?
I am in Deadlineland where zombie projects I haven’t quite finished pursue the scent of my brain. But I’m also getting new work underway & can feel invention grow back with the Spring.
I don’t normally reply to reviews that are just someones bad opinion of my work. I don’t write for criticism or critics and they usually don’t make much difference to sales etc. I write for readers. However most of my books seem to have garnered at least one hatchet job that goes way beyond everything else in the publication in terms of vitriol. Even then I will not reply. Opinion versus opinion is a bit of a waste of time. If the offending reviewer has made some obvious errors, such as the one you point out, then it’s always good to let the readers know what the errors are. After all it is only a little extra publicity which is never bad.
Sue’s high class arse was terrified by your memoir. Some unknown critic in Mendoza wrote that in my first novel I promised more than I delivered and she went on and on with a perfectly acceptable review (only it was the first I ever got and it somehow affected six years of hard work on the novel). Anyone who googles my name (ever since 2006) reads exactly that excerpt from her review in a privileged second place in the whole cyber world. I wrote to her many imaginary emails and still do once in a while. Yet, all of this, your post and my reaction and the whole situation is hillarious. I am chuckling along while I comment because it really is extremely funny. Who cares what Sue thinks? Vagabond Breakfast is, to me, one of the best books I’ve read in a lifetime. It really is. It moved me in ways that are almost impossible to track down in a review (even if I should be able to do so). And no, I don’t exaggerate, and yes I’ve read a lot, but still. And then, who cares what I say? See? Inés
Thank you for adding an international dimension, Inés. This post was a tricky one. Hope your summer was good.
An aside: something ‘Sue’ has in common with many of those who comment on the (often vicious) Guardian CIF threads is her use of ‘middle-class’ as a derogatory adjective. This seems pretty standard by now; the term even has a definition of the derogatory use on my online dictionary. Is this a British thing? Do I, middle class, now need a less value-laden term to describe myself (not that I ever do describe myself in class terms, but I can’t opt out completely)?
Deffo a British thing, Charles. No other place is that obsessed with it. The extraordinary thing, as you point out, is the taboo on admitting to one’s middleclassness, rather than attempting to camouflage or deny it. And I hate the Guardian thought police.
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