Who Reviews the Reviewers?
Author: John Morgan Wilson
May 17, 2010
A few years ago, I was on a panel of authors venting about book critics. There was no shortage of examples of slapdash reviews rife with inaccurate plot and character descriptions, sloppy or unstylish writing, mean-spirited reviews written with a personal agenda, even reviews that got the author’s name or book title wrong. It was on that panel that I first heard a cynical old adage: “Critics are like people who hide until the war is over, then come out to shoot the wounded.”
Personally, I admire perceptive and fair-minded reviewers, of which there seem to be many; I’ve gleaned useful insights into my own writing from negative reviews that were thoughtful and evenhanded. It’s those vicious and sanctimonious reviews that rankle, when arrogant critics write as if their opinion is uncontestable truth, and attempt to make themselves more important than the books and authors they belittle. These nasty reviews are especially vexing when they can’t even get the story right.
As an author, I got my first taste of this back in 1996, when Doubleday released my first novel, Simple Justice. At the time, the reviews in Publisher’s Weekly were among the earliest and most influential in the publishing trade, read by booksellers and librarians searching for promising new writers and books they might order. Simple Justice was a dark, serious, character-driven mystery, into which I’d poured my heart and soul. I awaited that initial coverage in PW with great anticipation.
When PW’s brief, unsigned review appeared, it soundly trashed my novel. But that wasn’t the most troubling part. What really bothered me were the three errors of fact in a critique of only 196 words. The most egregious pertained to my lead character, Benjamin Justice: “He quickly falls into a brutal relationship with a sexually confused young Latino.” True, there was a sexually conflicted Latino teenager in the book, incarcerated and charged with murder. But at no point in the story did Justice, an openly gay ex-reporter, ever meet the boy, let alone have a “brutal relationship” with him. I rebounded when more positive notices came in – People featured Simple Justice as its “Beach Book of the Week” and Mystery Writers of America later awarded it the Edgar Award for best first novel. (It was also a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award for best gay men’s mystery.) But I wonder if that PW reviewer realized or even cared how such shoddy reviewing can wrongly taint a book and hurt an author.
A book review is a powerful entity. It can bolster a writer’s confidence, or crush it in a heartbeat; encourage book orders, or deter them; inspire sales, or discourage them; increase an author’s income, or damage it; even affect his or her chances of getting another publishing contract, a teaching job, or tenure. Developing a thick skin against careless and disrespectful reviews is a necessary survival tool. But it’s not always easy, especially for neophyte or non-mainstream authors for whom reviews provide such important exposure.
Who decides who gets to join this elite critic’s club, whose members are considered smart, discerning, and trustworthy enough to sit in judgment of another’s work? What qualifies them to publicly pronounce a book worthy or unworthy? Do they apply the same rigorous standards to themselves that they demand of others? Could there be hidden forces at work behind their most scabrous reviews — secret motivations, say, such as envy? Should they be required to be more honest in their bio-credits? For example: Peter Pompous is an unpublished novelist who teaches courses for Learning Expo on how to write the bestseller, while seeking an agent and looking for full-time work.
That question – who deserves to be a critic and why – seems most applicable to those who evaluate other writers with open contempt but are themselves not all that exceptional at the craft. If they know so much about how to write brilliantly, why aren’t they doing it themselves? Other than that pesky First Amendment, what gives them the right to pick apart, ridicule, and dismiss someone who’s done their damnedest to write the best book they can? When they spew out one of their venomous reviews, do they really believe the author set out to write an inferior book?
A scathing review of my eighth and latest Benjamin Justice mystery, Spider Season, stirred up all these questions anew. The pan, by Kenneth Allman, appeared in Washington Post Book World. Allman didn’t just dislike Spider Season, he loathed it, declaring it “by far the weakest of the Justice books, with a pasteboard plot and characters who defy logic,” and closing with this: “This career nadir is little more than an exercise in sadism toward [Wilson’s] characters – and his readers.” It was pretty much the same in between, a relentless attack on just about everything in my novel.
To my knowledge, I’ve never met Allman, and found his vitriol perplexing. I make no claim that Spider Season is a distinguished work of fiction, or even my best, but there must have been something commendable about it. Reviewing for Mystery Scene, author Betty Webb wrote, “This exquisite novel is the finest yet in a powerful series,” and there were other positive reviews. Judges for the 2009 Lambda Literary Awards made it a finalist for best gay men’s mystery. Is it possible that all these people read a novel by another writer and somehow confused it with mine?
Or is more likely that when Allman assessed Spider Season so derisively, other influences came into play, if only subconsciously? Should he have disclosed to his editor or his Book World readers that he was briefly a mystery writer himself – two books, the last published more than a decade ago – competing with me for a similar audience? That St. Martin’s Minotaur, which published Spider Season, is the same imprint that dropped Allman after his only two titles? That he’s a former gossip columnist (according to an online description), a breed my lead character excoriates in Spider Season and other Justice titles? Should Allman have mentioned his bitterness at being “ignored” as an author after his first mystery was nominated for an Edgar Award but failed to win – something he expresses on his blog – while my own first novel won the same award the next year? Might some of this have affected the tone of his review? On an old CrimeSpace page, Allman stated, “as a critic, I approach each book on its own terms.” But is anyone able to read and appraise a book in a vacuum, possessed of a pure, untainted objectivity, disconnected from their experiences, emotions, and prejudices?
The nature and quality of a book is influenced by countless factors when it’s written – the writer’s age, health, finances, relationships, environment, deadline pressure, state of mind, passion for the material, et al. We set out each time to write the best book we can, even though we know it’s not a science, that no book is ever perfect, and that the final draft is likely to fall frustratingly short of our vision, for all kinds of reasons. This is not an excuse for flawed work, simply a reminder that the creative process can be fragile and mercurial, and that authors can’t stamp out book after book with cookie-cutter exactitude, try as we might to repeat the quality of our best efforts.
We don’t ask critics to coddle us. We accept the fact that our writing will be publicly scrutinized, that it comes with the territory. We only hope that critics who hold our work to a higher standard will apply equally tough standards to their own, writing their reviews with care and integrity, and not to serve themselves, but the reader.
Principled critics should have no problem with this – it’s just criticism, after all. Hey, it comes with the territory.