A Writer Responds: The Supreme Challenge Of An Inaccurate Review.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting “Handsome” Colum McCann at a literary event. We were chatting, as writers often do, about reviews, mostly the bad ones. Some wit had written a dreadful review of one of Colum’s novels. Colum and the reviewer found themselves at the same soiree a few months later. The reviewer lurked at the bar, clearly concerned Colum might take a swing at him, and to be fair, Colum does give the air of a pugilist, not entirely at rest. The reviewer’s presence vexed Colum and they kept glancing at each other from a safe distance until at last Colm stalked over to the now-cringing man, pointed a finger in his face and said, “You know that awful review you gave me? Well, it was really fecking poorly written! Now, what’ll you have to drink?” He bought the stunned man a whiskey and that was the end of it. Good man is Colum.
There is another somewhat famous (in literary circles) anecdote about Richard Ford and the brilliant Colson Whitehead. Whitehead had reviewed one of Ford’s books, and not altogether favorably. They bumped into each other somewhere. Ford spun Whitehead around and spat in his face. Let’s remember that Whitehead is Black and Ford is white. I still find the whole thing shocking and appalling. Sometime later Whitehead heard a reviewer was going to weigh in on another of Ford’s books and sent her an umbrella, “in case of inclement Ford.” I love that. Nearly two decades earlier, according to this article, in 1986, Ford shot a hole in a book written by another reviewer, novelist Alice Hoffman, and sent that book to her in the mail. Good lord.
Walter Kirn once wrote a New York Times review of a book by Jeffrey Lent, a writer I greatly admire, that was so full of snark and self-importance, so full of bile and smugness, that I vowed I would never read another word Kirn wrote, and I never have. Lent never responded, feeling perhaps that readers would see through the idiocy and meanness of the review. Shame on the New York Times for publishing it.
The prevailing wisdom among writers is that one should never respond to book reviews, accurate or inaccurate, good or bad. Well, certainly not by spitting in someone’s face, or sending metaphorical threats. But what is one to do with a review that is lazy and inaccurate? What to do when a reviewer doesn’t seem to understand the fundamentals of writing, such as point of view, subtext, or if one suspects the reviewer hasn’t read the entire novel? In the ‘good old days’ when one could reasonably expect to get quite a few reviews, even as a mid-list writer, such a sloppy review could be tossed into the bin (or burned, as Mavis Gallant once advised me as the only sensible thing to do with bad reviews), but these days, when ‘professional’ review space is so limited, is it wise to let a deeply flawed review go without comment?
Such is the dilemma I’m facing. In a recent review in the Toronto Star, Marcia Kaye, a journalist (but not a fiction writer), wrote a review of my latest novel, Even So. It’s not a bad review, really. It’s just lazy and inaccurate. Most of the review is a description of the plot and my intentions for the book, which were included in the publicity package for the reviewer’s ease, so it wasn’t hard to get that right. However, she then wraps up with….
While it’s always refreshing to read about lusty female sexuality, Davis’s writing brims, and sometimes runs over, with hyperbole. “She needed fire, and [her husband] was water,” Davis writes. “With Carsten she would burn, he would consume her. She wanted immolation and saw herself as the phoenix, rising from the ash.”
Davis writes authentically about alcoholism, a subject she’s mined in previous novels. (Davis herself has been sober for more than 25 years.)
It must have been a supreme challenge for Davis to write a book where virtually none of the characters is especially likeable. But then, I suppose that’s the whole point. If you’re expecting deep conversations about philosophy and religion, you won’t find them here. Still, “Even So” raises enough moral questions to prompt some spirited discussion among book clubs.
And here’s where I have a problem. Kaye reveals by that first paragraph that she has no understanding of point of view. The passage she quotes is written from the character, Angela’s, point of view, and the language choices reflect Angela’s distorted, impassioned, highly volatile state of mind. This is called “Free Indirect Discourse.” (See the end of this post for a definition of Free Indirect Discourse and where to find more information on it.) Are they hyperbolic? Yes. But that is the point, dear reviewer, and the reader might be encouraged to shake her head, to chuckle even, at how very over-the-top, how like an hormonally-enflamed teenaged girl Angela’s thinking is at this point.
How, I ask myself, can a fiction reviewer for a national newspaper not understand point of view? How can such a reviewer be trusted to enrich the reader’s experience of a book?
As for me being in recovery for 25 years, well, yes, that’s hardly a secret, but has nothing to do with this novel. One doesn’t have to be a drunk to write authentically about alcoholism (and although people in this book do abuse alcohol situationally, no one in this book is, I would argue, an alcoholic) any more than one has to be, say, a lion tamer to write about lion tamers. That’s what research is for.
The next paragraph is just as problematic.
Let’s first discuss ‘likable’ characters. What is this obsession with likability, as opposed to complicated, intriguing, challenging, fully human characters? If love is to be used as a tool for transformation, for mutual healing, rather than simply a reward for good behavior, should every character be a pretty cut-out, all sweetness and vanilla icing? How absurd. So no, it wasn’t a supreme challenge to write about these characters. I love them, in all their flawed humanity, and see myself in each of them in one way or another.
So, this bring us to what the reviewer informs the potential reader is an absence of “deep conversations about philosophy and religion.” Well, they’re in there, in what I hope is just the right measure. (It wasn’t intended to be “Tuesdays with Morrie.”) Perhaps the reviewer simply didn’t recognize the themes, which are so central to the characters’ transformations.
Now, I do hope there will be “spirited conversation” among book clubs. I love book clubs. Get in touch and I’ll virtually join you for those discussions! And please don’t be put off by the condescension of this reviewer’s “Still…”
Why, you might ask, have I put my face in this fan? Why have I opened myself up to the possibility of criticism and scorn? Two reasons. The first is that I can take, even appreciate, criticism that reflects an informed understanding of my intentions for a novel, but feel I ought to respond when something is said that’s simply inaccurate and misleading. (I had a reviewer point out once that my books take a while to get going, that I might do well to speed up the pace in the beginning. Well, fair point. Thanks. I’ll work on it.) The second reason is that my mentor, Timothy Findley, taught me that a reviewer’s job is:
- To determine the author’s intention.
- To decide if that intention has been met.
- To illustrate, if the intention has been met, how?
- To explain, if it hasn’t, why not?
- To guide the reader into a deeper understanding of the work, providing context where necessary and references to the author’s previous works.
A reviewer who sets out to show off how clever they are (see the review by Kirn, above) does everyone, including the reviewer, a disservice. The same is true of a review that illustrates the reviewer’s weaknesses and knowledge-gaps, especially if it leaves one with the sense the reviewer hasn’t done their job.
I know reviewers don’t get paid much, and that it’s a lot of work to write a proper review, especially when one doesn’t have much space in which to do so. Still, for those of us who take literature seriously, I would hope those who chose to write reviews would do everything in their power to take into consideration Timothy Findley’s thoughtful advice. Readers and writers alike would be grateful.
Now, what’ll you have to drink?
Follow up… A reader told me they didn’t know what Free Indirect Discourse was. This site has a good explanation and examples, so I recommend it. I use this point of view often, as did Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jane Austen, and Henry James, among others. Jon Gingerich defines it this way: “Free Indirect Discourse is essentially the practice of embedding a character’s speech or thoughts into an otherwise third-person narrative. In other words, the narrative moves back and forth between the narrator telling us what the character is thinking and showing us the character’s conscious thoughts, without denoting which thought belongs to whom. The result is a story that reads almost like it shares two “brains”: one belonging to the narrator, the other belonging to the character.”
Hello Lauren, your essay is captivating. I appreciated your references to ways some well know authors responded to negative reviews. As you say, I wouldn’t call the recent review of Even So negative, but it sure seems like the reviewer missed the mark. I think your comments demonstrate your expertise about the craft of writing and you effectively responded. I’ve ordered Even So and can’t wait get it and to dive in. Kind regards, Angela
Thanks so much, Angela. Your comment is much appreciated. I hope you enjoy Even So and find something useful in it.
I’m glad you’re not shooting bullets through anyone’s books! Starting this conversation is a much better approach. I lover your roadmap (via Findley) of how to write a good book review. I’m going to copy that down to keep the advice handy next time I write a review. As to your book – you know that I think it’s fantastic. Big congratulations!
Thanks for your support, Angie. I promise never to spit in anyone’s face, or shoot bullets through books. Writing reviews is tough, isn’t it?
Excellent response, Lauren. It’s insulting when a reviewer makes no attempt to understand or appreciate one’s intention and bases their criticisms on stunned-arsedly incorrect and unrelated observations. Good for you, calling this one out. I hate that we’re “supposed” to quietly suck it up when reviewers mess up like this. Setting them straight is not only justified, but, really, is doing them a favour–doing everyone a favour. A little anecdote: when my first book, a collection of short stories set in Cape Breton, was trashed by a dude in the Globe & Mail, I didn’t speak out publicly but a host of other, well-known writers did on my behalf. The review was an easy target; it called my book a “funereal little novel set in Moncton,” which, um, last time anyone checked is in New Brunswick, not Nova Scotia. My little book ended up getting twice the buzz it would have without the conflab, but at the time I was crushed. The ending: years later at a literary event I ended up on a panel with the offender, who turned out to be a decent guy and obviously smart. I don’t think he remembered any of the backstory here. But I will never forget how, when his review came out, I wanted to drive to Toronto to tear a strip off him. Bottom line: if a reviewer is unwilling to dig deep into a book, they have no business reviewing it.
That is one hell of a story, Carol. Damn.
Yeah, it’s not about valid and we’ll-educated criticism, is it? It’s about being able to do a half-arsed job with no consequences.
I’m old enough to stand up, finally, and I do it with all writers and readers in mind.
There is something missing from Findley’s list, no? Nothing about the quality of the writing. We can gather a writer’s intentions, conclude whether he or she achieved them or not, explain how and why, dig deep… but, face it, some writer’s have IT – the good to great writing – and many don’t. Phrasing, colour, energy, wit, insight, story structure and plotting, characterization and a revelatory way with words and pacing that transcend the mechanics that are embodied in Findley’s enumeration. Critic’s gotta grok a book and be damn good writer’s themselves.
Thanks for your comment, Vian. You’re absolutely correct! Findley’s advice includes the great writing, or lack of it, in the examination of how a writer achieves their intentions. For it is through word choice, imagery, symbolism, pacing, characterization, sentence structure, dialogue, point of view, etc., that the work succeeds or fails, in the ‘how’ they have attained their intention, or in the ‘why’ they failed.
You’re so right, critic’s must be excellent readers and writers both!
A beautifully written response, and one that you were absolutely write to pen. I agree with all of your points, but I particularly enjoyed what you said about the likeability of characters. Since when did this become a measure of a book’s worth? Like you, I go to books to explore the messy, mixed-up, and confusing experience of being human…not to be presented with characters who never emerge beyond their “likeability”. Surely we, as both readers and writers, must go deeper. And reviewers should as well.
I look forward to your book! Cheers…
Thanks so much for your comment and support, Sandra. I appreciate it. And don’t worry about the write/right thing. I do that all the time! 🥸
I can’t believe the mistake I just included….you were absolutely right to pen, it should have been. Okay, I am going to hide in a cave now.
Love your response. I think it will add to our book club discussion…Can’t wait for tomorrow to pick up my Canadian copy 🙂
Thanks so much, Carol! I hope you and your book group enjoys Even So. Is your group one of the ones I’m virtually visiting?
As a reviewer, I can attest to the limitations in both pay and word counts, so I appreciate that you call out these factors though rather than their being a reason why the quality of a review might suffer, they attest to the fact that existing (and remaining, oh–how it’s dwindled) book/arts coverage should be of superior quality. If a publication is able to publish only a few reviews, it’s even more important that the pieces be well-done because readers will judge the publication on that limited basis. At least accurate if not artful. At least attentive if not insightful.
Another way that an inexperienced writer/reviewer could have recognized authorial intention here would have been for them to read something from your backlist, even just one book if not more. That would have raised the matter of how different your style in this novel is (it does vary from novel to novel, appropriately) and, that could have urged further reflection on why the voice/tone was different here, even if lacking personal experience with the craft of fiction.
BuriedInPrint, thank you for your response. It’s obvious you’re a reviewer who understands the art of the review, and the experience and understanding it takes to write one. I really appreciate you weighing in here.