Saturday 27 June 2009

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: Authors and Reviewers

Hi everyone,

Like many other writers I was fascinated by the recent spat between writer Alice Hoffman and the literary critic, Roberta Silman who reviews for The Boston Globe. After a rather unflattering review of her book The Story Sisters, Ms. Hoffman mobilised her fan base on Twitter to show her displeasure and among other things called Ms Silman a "moron.' Hoffman also supplied the reviewer's email address and phone number. She later defended this action by saying both were in the public domain.

Ah, yes. Few things get authors more worked up than a bad review. You're saying my baby has a squint? Bandy legs? A low IQ?

The truth is that apart from reaching for the voodoo doll at the back of the closet and writing "Critics are scum pond" on the bathroom mirror, there isn't much an author can do. There is no reply button to a vicious review.

I don't approve of Ms Hoffman's "moron" remark - making it personal won't help -- or forwarding the reviewer's personal details. However, I know well how helpless one feels when you receive a review which is blatantly unfair or was clearly written with the goal of showing off the reviewer's own piercing wit. There is no doubt that the relationship between author and reviewer is a skewed one. Reviewers have the whip hand. As her Tweets show, Ms Hoffman obviously feels that what goes for the goose should also go for the gander:

  1. Critics can say as they please, but no one else can? You open the door and it's open.
  2. An email to a reviewer is hate mail? But a hateful review is a love letter?
  3. Interesting, reviewers can say what they want. But when writers speak up they're "going after" reviewers

These days authors don't only have to contend with print reviewers but also online critics.

When my first novel, The Midnight Side, was published nine years ago, the only reviews I received were reviews in newspapers and magazines. Another four books later and my books are reviewed by housewives, bookwhores, darkdeciders and bookiewookies. Today anyone can hang out a shingle and start reviewing. Newspapers are closing down their review pages as their stretched budgets can no longer carry the salary of a full-time literary editor or even an outside reviewer. The slack is being picked up online, and the entire landscape of book reviewing has become far more democratic - or anarchic - depending on your point of view.

How do writers feel about this? Well, from what I can gather when I congregate with my fellow scribes at Society of Authors meetings (this is where we come to have a good moan and drink cheap wine) they have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they don't always relish being critiqued by nineteen year old college students or told off by women whose only credentials seem to be their fondness for reading and their astonishing ability to run through a gazillion books in a week. On the other hand, there is no getting away from the fact that some of the old school print reviewers were unashamed snobs. Certain kinds of books were simply not reviewed. Online reviews have given exposure to many authors who otherwise would never have received a look-in.

Before the online revolution, not just anyone could call himself a literary reviewer, of course -- it was a title to be coveted and bestowed on only a few. These erudite gentlemen and ladies of the press would often have degrees in English or Comparative Literature and not only was their knowledge vast, but their own prose was superior. With a few deft, elegant words, the author's aspirations would either be skewered, or confirmed. Reviewers were posh. Here in the UK they were usually men and to this day, their names have resonance: Anthony Powell of Punch, Martin Amis of New Statesman, Terence Kilmartin of The Observer, Mark Amory of The Spectator. When Midnight Side was picked for review by The Literary Review, I was awed to think that my novel was being discussed in a publication that had Auberon Waugh at its head.

Whereas a newspaper review is kitted out in a black tie, an online review can wear tattoos, nose rings or frilly aprons. I have to admit to rather liking the egalitarian vibe of online reviews. And make no mistake: some of these reviewers are very, very good. Despite their deliberately weird, "shocking" or cutesy monikers, they are highly talented readers and skilful interpreters of text. When I receive a good review from one of them, I feel as chuffed as if I've received a good review in the Daily Mail.

However, it is also true that many online reviews can be deeply amateurish and nothing is more amateurish than giving away the ending of the book. I'll never forget how sad I was to read the following review of my book Windwalker:

"How this book ever got called a romance book I will never know. Half way through the book the boy and girl still had not met much less kissed! And when they do meet Adam stay around for a few days and then poof he's dead. Now tell me what kind of romance is that!? If I had not been stuck on a plane I never would have finished reading this book."

In my own defense, it wasn't exactly "poof", it was a subtle, dare I say - poetic - demise. But I agree with the reviewer - Windwalker should never have been marketed as a romance. It is my darkest, edgiest novel by far. And it should be noted that one of the reasons why Ms Hoffman was so incensed was that Ms Stilman also gave away the ending. Even The New York Times can be gauche...

On the other hand, I have no problem with the following review:

"(Mostert) built everything up about these two people destined to be together and they didn't end up together. It was probably supposed to be romantic and show how these characters grew and blah, blah, blah. All i got out of it was a loss of $7 and a headache."

I cannot fault this comment. It was not written by someone who has formally donned the reviewer's mantle, but by a reader who posted on Amazon. She paid good money for my book, it disappointed her and she has every right to say so, even if her analysis of my work is perhaps, shall we say, not as eloquent as it could be.

Then there is the question of skimming. If you are a reader, then by all means skim if the book doesn't hold your attention. But if you pin on a reviewer's badge and get sent free books by publishers, then there is no excuse for such laziness. Online reviewers often speed-read the pages: for some reason it has become a badge of honour for them to read as many books as they can in the shortest possible time. Your average print reviewer would blanch at the number of books chugged through by their online counterparts. I read two hundred books a week! Therefore I know of what I speak! H'mm...maybe not. If you read this many books per week you cannot possibly pay full attention to the language, the story and its nuances. One reviewer who recently did a piece on Keeper of Light and Dust found herself unwilling to finish my book - (an indictment of my book itself, of course) -- but still posted her review and added kindly that she felt sure the story would pick up later on. This kind of thing would never be tolerated in a print review. Neither would mangled titles, poor spelling and other inaccuracies.

Right, that was rather cathartic:raspberry Thanks again to all of you who responded with ideas to my previous blog. I will be making very good use of your advice next week when I will be heading across the ocean to attend the Thrillerfest convention in New York. My panel discussion takes place on Saturday July 11 and I will be reporting back to you guys!

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