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How writers and reviewers connect, and how to avoid a war of words

A recent comment from an author on one of my book reviews got me thinking. I was pleased at the comment but then wondered whether it was the right thing to do to approve it and let it go public. Authors should not respond to reviews, and reviewers should not respond to authors’ comments. Or should they?

When you are an author, one of your objectives is to get your published book reviewed. The idea is that the review encourages the reader to get the book. So, it speaks for itself that the reviewer should be reputable or qualified (or at least real), that the review has to be balanced (worst case scenario, scathing; unlikely scenario, gushing), and that where it gets published is reputable as well (not somewhere where the reviews are faked).

Getting a mention in an stablished literary journal in which the reviews are about important authors and by important authors is a long shot for debut writers. But one can aspire, not so?

Literary Journals – Who reads ‘em anyway?

Looking at prestigious English literary journals around the world, The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1902 in the UK, and still being published. The London Review of Books (LRB) is another established journal in the UK, founded in 1979, when publication of The Times Literary Supplement was suspended during the year-long lock-out at The Times.

Older than the LRB is The Paris Reviewestablished in Paris in 1953, about English literature. In the US, the New York Review of Books is also older than the LRB, first issued on February 1, 1963. By comparison, the Los Angeles Review of Books is an upstart, first published March 2013, 6 years ago. Also a newcomer is the Literary Review of Canada which was founded in 1991, 28 years ago. 

So, in terms of reputation, language, age, and authors, these journals are the serious side of literary study and critique. The question is, what gets published and who reads them? To be honest, I often find it hard going to work my way through their reviews, because they are mostly long reads. But that is not the problem.

From critique to politics

I have noticed a trend in all these journals, which is that the reviewers tend to not review the book itself, but rather expand on the settings or circumstances portrayed in the book. Also, it is very often the socio-political opinion of the reviewer, rather than a classic analysis of the book itself, for instance the plot, characterization, dialogue, writing style, etc. Just looking at the cover of the recent issue of the London Review of Books proves that the articles inside are now about current news issues.

 

It’s about books – but as they relate to subjects such as environmental crises, white power, capitalism, international politics, and so on. More irritating is the fact that the reviews are sometimes not about the book at all, or even about the issues surrounding the book, but platforms for the reviewers to punt their own books. In too many reviews, there are more “I”s and “me”s than can be justified.

These journals are known for publishing “critiques” which are in-depth, critical, objective assessments, whereas “reviews” are more subjective. When a critic adds a rating – especially a rating – or a personal assessment (love, hate, enjoy, admire, etc.) to their critical evaluation of a work’s merit, it becomes more of a review or a mixed bag “critical review”.

As a result, I do find these reviews difficult to read. In the case of the LRB, I often limit myself to the first few pages of the magazine, or the Letters to the Editor. But if you think that the articles in the magazine are long, the letters about the reviews are sometimes equally lengthy, and go into the most minuscule details. The letter writers themselves use the letter pages to nitpick this or that detail, historical fact, angle or word choice by the author of the book or by the reviewer of the book. And then a reader responds to a letter, and the original letter writer writes back, and so it goes. Sometimes I think they are just arguing for the sake of arguing, or arguing to make themselves look clever.

However, I can understand that these types of reviews can make an author hopping mad, and send them dashing to their laptops to write a furious email. Reviews, and reviews of reviews, do tend to become vitriolic.

Being a critic is a loveless job

Punch Magazine, May 16, 1984

I came across a copy of Punch Magazine from May 16, 1984, in which the reviewer, Stanley Reynolds, has a bit of a rant about…other reviewers. Reynolds compares “Beat Author” William Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads, which he describes as fairly tame for Burroughs, to Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine, which he says is “mind-spinningly insane” compared to Gray’s earlier work. He ends with:

1982 Janine, like Burroughs, is satirical and funny. But Alisdair Gray does rather seem to fall apart in the last third of the novel. One cannot imagine how you are supposed to end a thing like this, but I sensed a sort of weakening of resolve towards the end, as if Mr Gray was beginning to worry about what his stupid critics were going to say and therefore started getting sentimental. It was a fault his first novel, Lanark, did not possess, but, then, that was a first novel and Mr Gray had yet to encounter the critics.” (p.59)

So there. Sometimes even the critics hate the critics. Sometimes this dislike erupts into a war of words in the literary journals. And sometimes the retaliatory Letters to the Editors go wrong too. And I do so enjoy it when they do! The ecclesiastic history expert Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote a review of Roy Flechner’s book Saint Patrick Retold for the LRB. In the August 2019 issue of the LRB, the author, Roy Flechner, climbs into MacCulloch about his review on all sorts of fine points, MacCulloch shuts him down nicely with the following comment, published right underneath Flechner’s displeased letter:

“It is rarely a judicious choice for an author to respond to a review. I am happy to recommend Dr Flechner’s book to readers, so that they can make their own judgment on his comments.”

Authorship 101 – How to Handle Reviews

And that’s the truth of it, dear readers and authors: “It is rarely a judicious choice for an author to respond to a review.” It is not a good idea for an author to get into a battle of words about what someone else thinks of their book or the issues around their book, or any other angle on their book. And in general, it is wise to avoid a firestorm of heated you-said-I-said exchanges.

Each book is interpreted differently by each reader, and each reader makes sense of each text in their own way. As Russian film maker and writer Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time (1986);

“A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.”

The author, alas, has no control over what goes on in the readers’ little grey cells, or how they express those thoughts.

Ammunition for armchair reviewers (Cartoon by “Mahood” from Punch Magazine, May 16, 1984, p. 12)

The two parties, the reader/reviewer and author, in fact connect through the author’s words, not through the author’s persona. In other words, the two should never get personal. As author Will Self wrote, when explaining on his blog why he was not going to the US for the launch of his novel Umbrella:

“Surely the entire point of being a writer is to reach people with your words, not your breath? Certainly that’s what attracted me to being a writer in the first place: what thrilled me about reading was that in the medium of the text I met with another sensibility decoupled from all contingent factors – sex, age, ethnicity, class – and so experienced the purest and most intimate comingling possible.” (will-self.com)

The “comingling” between the writer and the reviewer is all about the words – it is on the one hand direct and intimate (getting into the heads of both parties) but it is about as two-way as a  shout across a canyon. There is an echo – but that’s where it stops, as it should for the sanity of both the author and the reviewer.


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