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.