Book World 25th Anniversary

Historic highlights from Book World reviews of the:
1970s | 1980s | 1990s

Hardcover Bestsellers, 1972-1996

The Book World staff picks its favorites of the last quarter-century.

Editor Nina King ponders the vagaries of becoming a bestseller.

Jonathan Yardley, Carolyn See and Kunio Francis Tanabe write of their personal experiences as critics.

Marie Arana-Ward explores the relationship between publisher and critic.

Jabari Asim celebrates a flourishing of African American literature.

Michael Dirda comments on the state of fiction.

David Nicholson speculates on the future of books in a technological age.

Go to Chapter One

Go to Style


Both Sides Now: The Novelist as Critic

By Carolyn See
Sunday, June 1, 1997

The novelist stood there, all mournful, gazing into the middle distance. He wasn't going to talk, but his wife did. She spoke with brutal purpose, now that they'd found me in this literary crowd. "You know, don't you, that you've ruined his life? You've ruined it! There's nothing he can do now."

"Well . . ."

"We just want you to think! For God's sake, think, before you do something like that again."

She led him away, and he trailed along after her like some victim in a science fiction movie who'd been de-brained. I felt terrible about it, just terrible, but I also felt a little bit like a victim of circumstance: I'd given a bad review to the book he'd written, but he'd written the godawful novel in the first place.

I'm in a position to consider both sides of the question since I'm a regular book reviewer and have been for years, but I'm also a novelist, and, besides doing four reviews a month, I'm also working along on another wavelength, at another rate of speed, on my own books, which I cherish beyond words, and actually think might change the world. Every three years or so, a book of mine comes out, with tens of thousands of other books that same year. If I get lucky, my novel will be reviewed; if I get very lucky, my novel will be reviewed well.

Looking back on that fateful evening, I don't blame the slack-jawed novelist for seeming de-brained. Being an author, waiting for reviews, is a personal equivalent to the Cuban missile crisis. You wonder if your book has been assigned, hope the reviewers don't lose the book or step in front of a train, hope the reviews will run early, but not too early, so that your book will be in the stores. You grind your teeth if the reviews appear too late and your book has already been returned to the publisher . . .

You read a bad review, longing to have the reviewer in the room with you so that you might push your heel into his or her chest, and then press down, down, so that he or she will begin to gasp, turn purple, and cease to breathe.

Or you can blow it off. When Salman Rushdie's ex-wife suggested (in this very paper) that I wrote "embarrassing" "surfer" prose, I sent her a book on surfing, with my best regards. When Michiko Kakutani remarked in a New York Times review that my prose was "silly, turgid and presumptuous," I wrote her a nice thank you note and answered my phone with those four words for a few days as if I were the law firm of Silly, Turgid and Presumptuous, so that the people who called to give me the bad news were spared the burden of giving me the bad news.

But how, being a novelist, can I be so hard-hearted and downright foul as to sit down once a week, take a look at a book I've read (carefully, but not lovingly) and then sum it up in 800 words (without giving away the plot) and pass some sort of judgment on it, dismissing, in a week's emotionless work, what it's taken an author years of passionate, incantatory, really hard work to produce? How, more to the point, can I take my own work that means so much to me and send it out with tens of thousands of other books in any given year, knowing that it will end up on the desks or in the backseats of cars of reviewers who are totally indifferent to it?

Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I think it's good that reviewers are, by and large, indifferent. Who else can you find to read your work with any objectivity and then tell you about it? The people who love you can find repetitions and typos, but they're not going to say, "Frankly, Ma, I find this to be silly, turgid and presumptuous." Your enemies are in no position to judge your work with any objectivity; there's a derivative poet with a bad haircut whose ulcer acts up every time I get a good review, and when I do get a good one, I think first of myself and my book, of course, but a few hours later I think of him and smile. None of this gives me a clue about how I'm writing.

So your book finds itself in the hands of a reviewer to whom it's just a collection of pages, a narrative, fiction or nonfiction. Any magic that comes from it has nothing to do with wishes, or good intentions, or time spent, or emotional pain, or tears in the night. The magic has to float up unencumbered out of the book and into the reviewer's brain. If the magic is strong enough, it sometimes makes the reviewer get up and go to the window and take a deep breath which might even end in a sob.

So a good review is like playing handball with the gods. They know your game and you know theirs. It's divine. A mixed review just says, keep on going! Don't get too discouraged. A bad review? Ah, well! I think that's when the gods are out to lunch, and the challenge then is to keep your balance. Maybe there's some truth in what the reviewer says, but so what? Maybe the spell you were trying to cast didn't work this particular time, and your friends are sorry and the poet with the bad haircut is smiling. The challenge then is to write a nice thank you note to your reviewer, and try, the next time, to make your prose just a little less embarrassing, silly, turgid, presumptuous. Because if it is that way, it's nice that someone had the guts to tell you about it.

But what about the broken figure, the man whose life I ruined because I gave him a bad review. I don't think I can worry about it. I think he was in the wrong line of work to begin with. A novelist, by definition, defines the world, and having done that, must submit, in turn, to be defined. If you can't stand the second part of the transaction, you shouldn't mess around with the first.

Carolyn See reviews for Book World on Fridays in the Style section of The Post. She is the author, most recently, of "Making History," a novel, and "Dreaming," a memoir.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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