A battle-scarred author lashed back at nasty book critics this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Arthur Krystal is an exceptional essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Washington Post and many other places. But 15 years ago, he says, he stopped reviewing books because he didn’t like the supercilious impulse such assignments inspired in him. He realized he was tired of hurting other authors. “Recipients of unfavorable reviews suffer heartburn for months, perhaps years.”
Most of his essay is a smart, impassioned condemnation of self-centered, pompous, needlessly aggressive reviewers. “Given a chance to perform,” he writes, “they forget they’re rendering a service to the reader, not one to themselves.”
Naturally, this hits home. A colleague once accused me of being the Will Rogers of book reviewing, but I’ve thrown a few sharp-tipped critiques in my day. (In fact, I’m in a particularly long stretch of negative reviews right now.) Krystal is right, of course, there’s no need to be cruel, but sometimes the exasperation of slogging through a dull, stupid or monumentally over-hyped book gets the best of even the nicest person.
Last year, I claimed that David Guterson’s “Ed King,” a modern-day version of Oedipus Rex, was so “ill-conceived that somebody should have strangled it at birth” — a smart-alecky joke that Guterson didn’t deserve, no matter how much I disliked his novel. Years ago at the Christian Science Monitor — “Injure No Man, But Bless All Mankind” — I wrote that the young people in Tracy Chevalier’s “Falling Angels” spoke in such contorted ways that the book was an act of “literary child abuse.” (I’m happy to say that Chevalier later confronted me about that bizarre accusation.)
Suffering through Jimmy McDonough’s “truly empty, cliche-littered, bubble-headed” biography of Tammy Wynette on a long flight, my colleague Jon Yardley wrote, “I wished the plane would crash, just to put me out of my misery.”
And a dozen years ago, my other Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague, Michael Dirda, endured a romance novel he couldn’t abide. “Sometimes critics lament that good trees were felled to produce a certain book,” he concluded. “In the case of Judith Krantz’s ‘Dazzle,’ I even feel bad for the ink and the glue.”
But when corresponding with Michael this week, he expressed a sentiment that I think anyone in the business would agree with: “W.H. Auden said that writing negative reviews was bad for your character, and I believed him: They are fun to do, and relatively easy as well. Hence, my effort to write about books I’m fairly sure I’m going to like and that deserve wider notice. Still, every so often I let the Devil have his day.”
As a reader of many, many reviews, I have to admit I’m more alarmed by the number of dull ones than the number of unkind ones. For all the celebration of “democratizing criticism,” the chatty responses on Amazon have only dimmed the flame more, as far as I can see, though none of us snobs should ever admit that publicly. (Do I need a “friend” on Goodreads to tell me that “Mira Grant’s ‘Feed’ “has zombies in it, but to call it a zombie or horror novel does it a disservice”?)
And speaking of zombies: Bland plot summaries, worn out compliments and the requisite quibbles have surely done more than excess bile to drain the life out of the nation’s book review sections. I look longingly at the fist-fights in British newspapers and wish we could roll up our sleeves more often in this country. But that would require aggrieved authors to fight back, instead of quietly enduring critics’ abuse. I can’t quite accept Krystal’s complaint about negative book reviews, but I’m all in favor of his concluding advice to writers: “Make noise. Call attention to the offending review. In fact, write that letter to the editor that everyone enjoins you not to write and in a few deft strokes outline the reviewer’s bias and how he or she misread, obfuscated, and distorted your work.”
At the very least, we’d all have more robust review pages.