@

I think it was Michiko Kakutani, though I can’t be sure.

Like the review itself, lost in the frustrating nebulousness of a dream, the name was nothing more than an ominous smudge. The critic a cipher, a shadow stubbornly lurking in the boiler room of my fears. I stared hard, brought the review of my book within inches of my face, tried to make sense of the barely but sufficiently out-of-focus print.Opening my eyes in the darkness, I rolled over with queasy certainty: I dreamt a review in the New York Times, and it wasn’t good.

After a minute or so I felt better, but not because it was just a dream.The review was an undeniable embarrassment. Why then did I wake feeling almost, well, relieved?

If writing a novel is the equivalent of a long distance run, a bad review is the inevitable bloody knee.Sure, you’ll heal, eased by the balm of plaudits and fan letters, but the scar remains.Invisible to others, perhaps, but forever discernible to you.It is singularly yours.Just as every runner knows a fall is in his future, every novelist knows not only his own weaknesses, but also the carefully hidden blemishes of a particular work.It is this secret shame that makes a bad review hurt, the appalling moment when a critic draws back an author’s meticulously arranged curtains.Because, after all, it’s about more than wounded pride; it’s a public reminder of the private flaws a novelist didn’t – or couldn’t – repair. It’s a fart you can’t blame on anyone else.A spotlight on all those rotten spots you hoped would go unnoticed while the reader consumed the otherwise sweet fruit of your story.

Often when an author is shanked by a critic, the response is one of shock and immediate defensiveness.But she didn’t understand what I was trying to do at all.He completely missed the point.(Just as we say of a great review, The Happy Times Review really gets me!) This may well be true, but it could equally be true that she didn’t understand because you, the author, didn’t articulate, didn’t explain.He may have missed the point, but did you provide the obligatory map?Maybe, just maybe, it was the writer’s fault.

Believe me when I say I’m not defending all critics or all criticism.A freelancer getting paid twenty bucks a book isn’t predisposed to giving a careful, close reading or a thoughtful and fair review.A person in this kind of literary assembly line may not even care about such things, which means everyone gets the shaft, down to the person reading the review.But honestly, if a bad review is totally off the mark, isn’t it rendered toothless, just plain silly?If I claim you’re an ant, wouldn’t you just laugh?It only hurts if under the dust and junk is some real truth.

Many authors suggest doing away with bad reviews altogether.Why trash something, they argue, if the point is to sell books, benefitting everyone in the industry?This makes sense, but only if you believe conclusively that a bad review equals the death of a book.Frankly, I’m not convinced either way.Speaking as a reader more than a writer, I read reviews to discover new books, to test the waters of a story and writing style.The critic’s final verdict is of tangential importance, or, in some cases, of none at all.A critic may wax rhapsodic about a book to which I strongly suspect I won’t respond; conversely, an intriguing synopsis or excerpt can easily convince me to ignore the most respected critic’s advice.In the end, to read a novel by anyone, especially a debut author, is almost always a gamble worth taking, especially if it means the possibility of falling in love with a new voice.

Still, though, the question remains. What’s the point of a bad review?

I’m skeptical about the idea that bad reviews exist to weed out bad books.Bad books are everywhere; a new one is written every minute.We will read some of them on purpose or by accident, because they have been hyped and we’re curious, or simply because we have received them on good authority from friends, book clubs, or Oprah.When we read them, we sigh and move on, hopefully learn something to avoid in our own work, but generally we don’t sue the authors for failing to meet our expectations.

We don’t need bad reviews to protect us from bad books.“But what about my precious time,” one argues, “if a bad review isn’t there to warn me against the hour sucking vortex of a bad book?”To this I say, you can stop reading at any time when it becomes clear you’ve ventured into the Badlands; and furthermore, if you’re that busy to begin with, it seems unwise to be sneaking novels in between board room meetings.Perhaps for these people, unwilling to trust their own instincts, Michiko Kakutani has become something akin to a food taster.Personally, though I appreciate the critical acumen, I’m happy to make up my own mind.

Whatever your preference, the bad review isn’t going anywhere.Especially now that it has been democratized.If my writer friends lament anything, it’s the horrible reviews some readers plaster on Amazon.It doesn’t matter how many kudos your novel has received: somewhere out there, someone is gleefully writing a review in which they rip apart your novel and drink its warm, congealed ink.(A recent hilarious piece in Salon.com cites some single starred classics that have fallen victim to readers’ wrath.Not even The Diary of Anne Frank is spared.)Of course, it’s no comfort to any author, but I figure the bad Amazon review puts you square in the land of Subjectivism and is best left in the neglected spaces of your mind, along with unwanted advice from your mother.

Ultimately, as embarrassing as a bad review can be, it doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people will read a book.In fact, perhaps the worst thing to happen to a writer with a book out is to stop being reviewed altogether.Writers spend so much solitary time trying to get published, trying to be heard, they don’t take kindly to post-publication silence.It should be part of the contract: You write and publish, you get reviewed.Anything else renders an author something dangerously like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction: “I will not be ignored, critics.”

And yet, that can very easily happen due to…a bad review. Because pre-publication reviews often create a cascade effect, inciting bookstores to stock (or not stock) your book and reviewers to review (or not review) it, a bad review from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, or Booklist can be catastrophic.Not because of the psychic toll or its effect on the reading public but because other publications are likely to decide that The Big Three have separated the chaff from the literary wheat for them.Why review a book if it has already been labeled “bad”?Trouble is, people are fallible, tastes are subjective, moods are fickle.So that freelancer who had bad sushi for lunch, argued with his girlfriend, and subsequently panned your book for twenty bucks in two barely literate paragraphs comes back to haunt you, again and again.How?In the form of a gaping void where reviews of your book should be, whether good, bad, or mixed.

It works the opposite way too.A book gets some good press and then suddenly every major newspaper and website in the country rushes to review it at the same time.Why?So we all know how brilliant it is (until some Amazon readers insist it isn’t.)And, more obviously, because it has now become that elusive thing – popular – and more readers will buy the magazine to read the review that confirms what they already know, which is: Everybody Loves This Book.

Of course this process often works in unknown authors’ favor, and in this capacity, it should be celebrated.This is the birthplace of Undiscovered Talent.But how many reviews does it take to solidify that talent?And isn’t the world of critics vast enough to launch more than one talent at a time?Wouldn’t it be more productive to spread reviewers’ wealth?To review more books?Doesn’t everyone win this way?When critics argue there isn’t enough time or room for them to review many books, that seems reasonable.But if they didn’t all review the same books, think of the breadth of voices readers could discover.

Discovery.That, in the end, is the point of the review.It’s a birth announcement, only the baby is a book.Some people think it resembles its mother, while others will see a hint of the father.A few will think it’s strange and unlike anything they’ve ever seen.What matters is that first introduction, the possibility of a lifelong relationship between author and reader, with the review as the umbilical cord.

It’s not so fantastic it can only happen in dreams.

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Elizabeth Eslami Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus). Her work has appeared in over a dozen journals, including G.W. Review, Minnesota Review, Crab Orchard Review, Matador Travel, and The Millions. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories and a second novel. You can visit her website at www.elizabetheslami.com

36 Responses to “I Dreamt a Review in the New 
York Times”

  1. Marni Grossman says:

    Nothing is more entertaining than a well-written bad review. I like bad reviews of movies best, but a witty excoriation of a book can be good too. Partly when the author reviewed is one whose popularity won’t waver. A Dan Brown, for example.

    Is this mean-spirited? Or is it a love for puncturing powerful egos? Probably a little bit of both…

    Welcome to TNB!

    • Greg Olear says:

      I think you’ve pinpointed the purpose of the bad review, Marni — when Anthony Lane rips on a Dan Brown novel and movie combo in The New Yorker, it’s terrific to read.

      When some nobody tries to channel Lane and can’t pull it off — which is almost always what happens in blogland with scathing reviews — it makes everybody look bad: author, reviewer, and publication that allowed said review to appear.

      I can take it when a reviewer has something negative to say about my book, and they write it in an intelligent, well-argued way. But the sort of bad review where the reviewer is trying to steal the show and be funny, and slams the book without addressing the weaknesses Elizabeth alludes to…that’s not criticism, it’s meanness. And it’s personal.

      In any event, EE, welcome to the Good Ship TNB. May your dream come only partly true (ie, get a good review in the NYT!).

      • Elizabeth says:

        Greg, I agree with you on the merits of the intelligent, well-argued negative review. I’d throw in too that I respect any review in which the critic has listed something he/she admires about the work, even if it’s clear that they hated it overall. That seems like Reviewing 101.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Would that there were a Reviewing 101!

          There’s also a political element to all of this. I mean, if Reviewer A writes a bad review — bad in every sense of the word, as stated in my earlier comment — about Novelist X, she better damned well hope she never meets Novelist X again, especially in a situation can help her. In other words: you want to be honest and true to your opinion, but you don’t want to be a dick. Again, Reviewing 101.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks so much to everyone for making me feel welcome!

      Marni, maybe it is a little mean-spirited, but I’m with you, at least as far as Dan Brown goes. It’s hard to feel too sorry for a guy who probably drowns his sorrows by diving into a pool of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck.

  2. I agree that infinitely worse than a bad review is no review at all. Often, when I read a critic trashing a particular book (or movie or album) I find I’m just as likely to have my curiosity piqued about it, like I need to check it out just to see what the fuss is about. I guess we writers in the end just crave a reaction, at least a strong one and, of course, a glowing one if possible. But deafening silence as a response to something you’ve written (whether from the NY Times, Amazon or a facebook comment field), this is true stuff of nightmares.

    So thanks for this thoughtful post.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Ah, yes, Nat. Deafening silence is the worst kind of pain. Silence about your creative work of art or silence from your lover, it works the same, doesn’t it?

    • Elizabeth says:

      Nathaniel, it’s interesting that you say you’re just as likely to check out a book (or movie or album) if it’s just received a scathing review. I wonder how much that curiosity factor plays into public reading/viewing habits in general. Of course, movies that have garnered atrocious reviews become cult favorites all the time. Personally I find I’m more likely to be deterred from reading or watching something because of a close friend panning it, as opposed to a critic.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    Any review of reviews would be totally incomplete without the word ‘shanked’.

    I think you could be the first TNB debut to use that particular phrase – and it’s deserving of critical acclaim.

    Welcome aboard!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Simon! I’m happy to take that honor. I’ve also got fingers crossed that I’m the first to compare a bad review to a fart, though on TNB, I realize that’s a bit of a gamble. :)

      • Richard Cox says:

        I have written no less than three posts on TNB about golf and still I never used the word “shank.”

        On the surface this might seem like an epic fail, but for us golfers this is a frightening term which none dare utter, lest he become cursed with a case of the…well, I can’t bring myself to write that word more than once. Sorry.

  4. Amanda says:

    I used to write short restaurant reviews, for a local (slightly snooty) monthly magazine. It was nearly irresistible, the compulsion to inject at least one pissy little criticism in each piece. Why? Whywhywhy? I am not a pissy, critiquey person! I *am* critical-minded, but that’s quite different than being simply “critical”. And yet, there it was, each and every time…a glowing commendation with a splatter of “yeah, but, then there were the onions” across the centre of it all.

    I think it’s human nature to say crappy things…not because we wish ill upon restaurants, books, friends, family, colleagues, organisations. Rather, because part of us is afraid to say we totally loved something and then have someone else point out, “yet, but really? You didn’t have a problem with those onions? Because I thought the onions kinda sucked…”

    • Elizabeth says:

      Totally agree with you there, Amanda. To me it wouldn’t even be a real review without the onions. It would be suspect. My issue is when it’s all onions, all the time. Or no more reviews because of one night of bad onions.

  5. Mary says:

    Interesting take on reviews! I know some publications won’t print negative reviews at all for general audiences, but I really enjoy writing critique/reviews, in which I try to pinpoint what works in a book and what doesn’t.

    Oh, and all the fantastic reviews of Eat, Pray, Love really bother me. So, yes, I wrote a negative review of it, but not without noting the things I liked about it and also pointing out why I thought certain aspects didn’t work.

    But I still think a lot of negative reviews are mostly motivated by sour grapes, so I’ve decided recently to spend less time writing reviews (or at least negative ones) and spend more time learning from the books I read and working on my own reading. Much more productive. Much less nasty.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks for the comments, Mary. I wonder too about the sour grapes issue. It’s especially strange in situations where the reviewer gets to remain anonymous. Of course that’s their right, but it seems to me that if someone feels they have been fair — and pointed out the good and the bad, as you do — what reason would they have to hide?

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Elizabeth,
    I like reading reviews basically to find out what the book is about & whether it sounds like something I might enjoy. One thing I have completely stopped doing, is reading ANY book reviews written by ANYONE at the N Y Times. Those reviewers trip all over themselves trying to appear smarter and more cultured and WAY more educated than the person whose book they are reviewing. They are disagreeable and plainly malicious.
    Welcome to TNB, Elizabeth. We’re a friendly group. You’ll be happy here.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Irene! You’re in good company. When I was writing this, I stumbled upon a pretty interesting article that criticized several NYT book critics for being too thumbs-up, thumbs-down oriented, in the sense that nothing else in the reviews had any weight except for the idea (which was determined in the first few pages of a book) of whether it was a masterpiece or a failure. The writer suggested that for the NYT, there is no in between.

  7. Joe Daly says:

    Very interesting point of view- well done. Like Irene, I opt to avoid the review of anything in the NYT, which often seems to buckle under the weight of its pretentiousness. And like Marni, I also find some bad reviews to be wildly entertaining. In some cases, a “bad” review had lead me to reading the book, generally where you can tell that the reviewer is willfully ignoring some of the book’s merits, and/or where the criticism is patently irrelevant.

    Welcome aboard and nice debut piece!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you, Joe! I feel the same way. It does make you wonder about the nature of reviewing in general. I mean, your job is to read something looking for things you don’t like (or things you don’t think work). Hopefully you’re also looking for what does work, but even in this, something probably gets lost along the way. Because, really, you’re reading with an agenda. I think this explains my reticence to review books. I want to enjoy them without breaking them into tiny pieces in the process.

  8. I quit reading reviews – quit while I was ahead, I should say, while the reviews I’d read were mostly good. . . my publicist told me, “Stop looking for them; stop reading them; just write the next book. Because, sooner or later you are going to come across the review that rips our your heart–every writer has that experience, EVERY writer–so, get to writing, do what you do, and let the reviewers have at it.”

    Best advice I could ever have heeded – no more waking up with my stomach snarled with snakes worrying about what I’d find. Instead, I wrote the next book, and the next.

    Still – I think about the reviews that are out there. I think about the readers out there. I worry whether the second book is not as good as the first, or if the third book will be as good as the first two, or if the first is as good as the others – or … or … or …

    dang. So much more to being an author than people realize, huhn.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Wow, Kathryn, I so admire your self-restraint! I agree that you simply have to move on to your next book, but I guess for me the silence of ignoring your reviews gets to be too much. Like you said, the dread of a bad review is always there, but hopefully more often than not there is the immense gratification of a positive review. It seems the best review of all is when a reader comes up to you and tells you what your book meant to them. That’s probably worth ten NYT reviews.

  9. Richard Cox says:

    I like your take on reviews. As I mentioned above, silence is the worst, and it’s interesting how you point out that a bad review from one of the Big Three can turn into silence from other reviewers.

    Also, as Marni and others have pointed out, it can be strangely hilarious (for us writers, anyway) to read terrible reviews, at least for unwarranted bestsellers. I wrote a post about this recently with regard to Amazon reviewers. People can be quite creative with their expressed dislike of a book, and these are mainly regular readers and not professional reviewers.

    I don’t read many reviews. I choose most books based on word of mouth. But when I do select them based on reviews, I use reader reviews on Amazon and try to glean the aggregate opinion from a number of opinions, rather than just one. Even then it’s often a crap shoot to figure out what you might like based on what others think.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Richard, couldn’t agree more — totally hilarious to read a terrible review, especially for an unwarranted bestseller. Still, I have to say — and knock wood this hasn’t happened to me, but I have no doubt it will — it does seem like some of those Amazon reviews are particularly venomous. It’s like readers feel they’ve been duped into reading something, and they want their time back, or some kind of revenge. Maybe it only seems that way to me because so many writer friends (who are nowhere close to being bestselling authors) have been on the receiving end of a bad Amazon review. Nevertheless, I’m still grateful for the Amazon reviews because, like you said, it gives you the opportunity to read a range of opinions instead of one possibly cranky and biased one.

  10. Welcome to TNB, Elizabeth! The topic of reviews, whether good or bad, seems to be as divided as the love/hate people have for Sarah Palin. Having a debut novel this past year has taught me a thing or two about the armchair critic — prepare for the worst – -accept the best with a grain of salt– be happy with something in between. Writing — trying to publish — publishing — I NEVER even thought about the AFTER. Four months post pub I’m in one piece, a little more exposed, but not shaken. Just working on the next book…. and just slightly more prepared for the “after” this time around. Great piece!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Robin! I know what you mean — I never realized before publishing that most reviews really are in the gray area, as opposed to glowing or damning. (Which means they’re probably more legitimate anyway, touching on a novel’s strengths and weaknesses.) That seems like something that should be mentioned to writers just starting out who are used to magazines and journals rejecting their work outright, and thus weaned on this pass/fail mentality.

  11. Thanks, Elizabeth. I enjoyed reading–can certainly relate having published my first book in 2009. I had a storm of comments on amazon–both positive and negative. An eruption of feelings from people I’d never met, accusing me of things, etc. It was such a strange experience. I had a three year window between my book being sold and published and used that time to write my novel. Thankfully, I wrote the novel before having the experience of being published. I didn’t know what it was like and now I can understand why writers can potentially freeze up after that first book…

    I love the fart comparison…

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Victoria. How fortunate that you had that window of time to work on the novel. I’m curious, did you ever respond to your Amazon critics? It must be bizarre to have someone accuse you of something via an Amazon review. I would imagine the impulse to respond would be overwhelming.

      • Oh, no! Definitely didn’t respond. I didn’t even realize there were so many comments because I hadn’t looked. And then one day I looked and saw that there were all these comments. I’m glad I hadn’t looked because I might have been tempted. But my instinct was to stay as far away as possible. I don’t look now. I think it’s better that way.

  12. Matt says:

    There’s an old Robert Heinlein quote I keep in my back pocket for deployment in time just like these: A “critic” is a man who creates nothing and thereby feels qualified to judge the work of creative men. There is logic in this; he is unbiased — he hates all creative people equally.

    I think I’ve read maybe – maybe – a handful of book reviews in my life, but I can’t for the life of me remember a single one. One thing I have noticed about criticism in general is that bad reviews often say volumes more about their authors than they do about the work being criticized.

    I do like to read film criticism though, especially that of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert (who I did not care for as a television personality but have come to hold in high regard as a written critic and essayist). Mostly because it’s very obvious that both passionately love film as an artistic medium, but are willing to be merciless about what – and more importantly, why – they think doesn’t work. Many of the reviews, both good and bad, are entertaining as well, and that’s tougher to pull off than it sounds.

    Like Rob, I tend to make decisions on what to read based on word-of-mouth; the rest of my selections beyond that are usually made by a.) reading a short piece in a magazine or wherever and seeking out the author’s additional work, or b.) just browsing the bookstore/library and seeing what leaps off the shelves at me.

    • Anon says:

      Personally, I prefer Brendan Behan: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”

    • Elizabeth says:

      Matt,

      Love the point about the bad review revealing more about the reviewer than the author, and the Heinlein quote.

      I like these too:

      “Any reviewer who expresses rage or loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has just put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split.” – Vonnegut

      “Receiving a bad review is like being spat on by a complete stranger in Times Square.”—Wilfrid Sheed

  13. My friend got this completely mean-spirited attack of a review on Amazon for her novel–just awful. She felt like she’d been kicked. But then she checked the reviewer’s bio and it said something like: “I am the Lord Supreme Jedi Ruler of the Universe.” So, consider the source. Sometimes a bad review is a compliment.

  14. Carl D'Agostino says:

    Reviews of my self published work:

    From English prof: ” Perhaps you should consider changing major to forestry or something.”

    Other prof: “This could go international. Get translator. Suggest Latin or Sumerian.”

    Newspaper #1: “Promising.”

    Newspaper #2: “Unique.”

    Newspaper #3: “Complete in itself. Sequel would be anticlimactic.”

    Newspaper #4 “Perfect for on-line publishing. Would save trees.”

    Newspaper #5 “Leaves the reader speechless.”

    Mother: “I’m so proud of you! Keep experimenting.”

    Newspaper #7: Spelling, grammar and punctuation perfect.”

    And after all this, still no publisher. What’s wrong with these guys?

    • Elizabeth says:

      Carl,

      Can’t decide which is my favorite: “Get translator” or “Keep experimenting.”

      I had a rejection note once for a short story that was just my cover letter with “Noooooooooo” scrawled across the bottom. If memory serves, it was in red ink too, like a deathbed scrawl. :)

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