Monday, May 19, 2008

Badmouthing Authors

A novel is a one-on-one communication system. If you are unlucky enough to draw a reviewer, whether a so-called professional or an ordinary reader who does not relate to your work or has an axe to grind or a hangover or is in a battle with his or her significant other or has a differing political view or is being assailed by a thousand slings and arrows of misfortune, you are in deep doodoo. Worse, you will never know exactly why, since the critique is always subjective, always personal.

Even in the publications designed to serve the so-called literary highbrow "establishment," such as the New York Review of Books and, at times, the New York Times Book Review, I find many reviews are more about the reviewers' opinions, biases and prejudices than about the book itself. A case in point was a lengthy review dealing with Philip Roth's novel, The Plot Against America. The reviewer fulminated about his own political creed and strayed so far from the book's meaning and substance that I thought it actually demeaned Roth's book, which I found "terrific" (Now there's a one word review that says it all).

Yes, bad reviews can be emotionally painful and definitely a career inhibitor. If, for example, a bad review appears in one or another of the trade publications such as Kirkus, Publishers Weekly or Library Journal, it does have some impact on the marketplace. For the most part, these reviews are written by well-meaning underpaid folks, many of them wannabee writers, teachers or students beached on the fringes of publishing world. They wield, arguably, the power to sway the opinions of book buyers for big brick and mortar chains and libraries, and therefore can have some impact on an author's sales.

Bad reviews on Amazon can also be hurtful. This is probably true as well for the Internet book opinion websites, which employ a gaggle of so-called reviewers, some of whom are paid in chump change, or free books, or in the satisfying ego rewards of seeing their name in print.

Book lovers in general are fierce and feisty in their various opinions of authors, whether pro or con. The literary blogging sites are filled with inflammatory, negative and very nasty comments about published writers. They are particularly vehement about best selling authors, whom they excoriate for what they consider bad writing, bad plots, bad characterization and general all-around incompetence. Mass popularity and apparent success in the marketplace gives them instant reflux. A popular pin cushion target was Dan Brown's phenomenal The DaVinci Code with accusations that range from story theft to very bad writing, as if it made a difference.

The subtext of the blogger comments on many of these sites seems to be the old bugaboo. I am a better writer than him. I know more than he does. I deserve to be published, recognized, celebrated, lionized. Why him and not me?

But then, attacks and venting on the Internet are sly fun. There is no physical confrontation, no accountability. There is satisfaction in finding others who agree with your opinions and, if those who disagree militantly step forward, there is more opportunity for confrontation and attack and even more enjoyable word tussles.

My advice is to keep cool. Writers, especially of imaginative fiction, have been wasted, assailed, berated, and denounced by critics from the very beginnings of the written word. Few have escaped.

No comments: