Saturday, September 22, 2012

Authors writing about authors reacting to reviews

I have a book that's been sitting on my shelf for almost two years - an Israeli satire about book reviewing. I bought it for obvious reasons (it's a satire about book reviewing). But I haven't read it yet. Indeed, as time goes by, I find myself less and less inclined towards reading it, more and more hesitant. This hesitance was reinforced while reading a different Israeli novel over the past few days (פעם בחיים - translated title would be Once in a Lifetime). This novel, which was quite a struggle to get through for a myriad of reasons I won't get into in this post, had a certain subplot surrounding the struggles of a successful debut novelist trying to follow up on that early success.

Why is this relevant? Because Miri Rozovsky, the author of the book, was writing this subplot within the pages of her own second novel, following a rather successful debut. There was an unmistakable meta air to the whole story. And then the guilt - how can I criticize a book that is half expecting my critique? The reviewers are notoriously cruel against this young author within the pages of Once in a Lifetime, in a surprisingly sharp appraisal of reviewer-speak. But because we are supposed to sympathize with the fictional author, how can we fail to sympathize with the real author? How can we fail to sympathize with Rozovsky, who is on her second, more ambitious book? How can I, as a reviewer, accurately describe the many faults of this novel?

We in the book blogging/book reviewing world have talked endlessly about the author's place in a review. We've talked a lot about authors who overreact in response to harsh reviews. We've talked a lot about whether or not harsh reviews should even be written, given all the "harm" they can cause in shooting down a book's prospects. It's a debate that will go on. It's pretty important. In the case of Once in a Lifetime, this matter is made simple. When viewed through Rozovsky's lens, the author is the victim of nefarious reviewers. I, as a reviewer who believes wholeheartedly in the negative review, struggle to see this. And so I'm left feeling wholly uncomfortable, almost as though Rozovsky is quietly laughing at me. This is a quite unpleasant feeling.

3 comments:

  1. Whether or not to write negative reviews is a concept I've been struggling with lately. Until recently, the very concept of criticism necessarily included negativity for me-and I don't think of that as bad, but rather constructive for the author and helpful for the reader. I would never go around saying "I hate this book" WITHOUT qualifying that that's a personal opinion with little validity unless it has an actual argument to back it up.

    However, I've received a lot of advice lately that, especially as an aspiring author, one should never review books negatively. One should simply not review books one doesn't like. But that doesn't seem right or honest to me.

    What about the readers after you who will waste their time on that book because you said nothing? What about the author who thinks they don't need to improve? what about the author who thinks he or she is not worth discussing, when really they are capable of better work?

    But reviews can be harmful too, to the author, and in backlash, to the reviewer...

    Anyway, sorry to write so much. You touched a chord!

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    Replies
    1. Like I said, I'm a firm believer in the negative review. That doesn't mean I don't realize how difficult it must be for a young author (or even an experienced one) to see that someone disliked, found fault, or even downright hated their book. I know that receiving a harsh critique is never easy. But reviews aren't for authors. They're for other readers. This isn't a manuscript that the author is sending me, asking for my opinion and my recommendations for improving the story. I am reading a completed book. And if I find fault in that book, it is my duty to report on those faults to other potential readers. There will always be someone who loves a certain book, just as there will always be someone who hates it. If only those who love books are allowed to speak, we will never have an accurate representation of the books we're presented with. I find that to be significantly worse than the risk that I may potentially hurt an author's feelings.

      And to that point... a good negative review does not offend the author. A good negative review, as you say, explains why the book in question is bad, and should never resort to personal attacks on an author to make its point. And so I struggle to see the logic behind this argument of "harmful to the author" as well. Perhaps I just have a very cold heart...

      Anyways, thank you for your response. I'm always glad to read your thoughts, no matter the length!

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  2. A slightly different angle, but I looked at negative reviews a few weeks ago (and so have most bloggers at one point in their careers!):

    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/its-nice-to-be-important-but-its.html

    Negative reviews are important - if you don't post negative opinions from time to time, what value do your positive ones have?

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