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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sarah Weiman's First Bad Review

Sarah Weinman got a less than wonderful review on a piece of fiction she wrote. She talks about it on her blog today. Not surpisingly, she doesn't like the feeling a tepid review leaves her with. It's her first negative review and she wonders how her readers felt about their own first bad reviews. It's an honest and well-written reaction something all writers go through.

I've never figured out how to respond to bad reviews. There was a wanna be professor at the noted and nearby writer's workshop who called me to "commiserate" about my first bad review. He'd read it in "Publisher's Weekly." The fact that he was trying to sell his own mystery novel--and still is--was inherent in his call. He'd never called me before. Nor has he since.

My first reaction to my review was embarrassment. I am basically ashamed of everything I've ever said, done and written. I despise myself to that degree. So I spent the first few days post review thinking that no matter where I went, people were whispering about me. There goes that guy who got a bad PW review. Humiliating.(Even though fewer than 1% of the folks who live here could tell you what PW was.) Humiliating--and well-deserved. This guy--me--can't write for beans.

Kirkus on the other hand gave it a rave, Library Journal called it an "auspicious debut," Variety really liked it, and Booklist said something to the effect that I had a fresh and engaging voice. If I got twenty reviews, eighteen of them were approving.

But the PW I sulked over.

Over the years, PW has given me many favorable and several notably unfavorable reviews. Same with Kirkus, the NY Times, etc. and etc. The favorable outnumber the unfavorable. While the bad ones don't bother me quite as much as they once did, they can still ruin a nice spring day for me.

The kind of bad review that angers me is the one where the reviewer becomes the star rather than the book at hand. You see this more in the High Lit and entertainment press than you do in mystery. The most savage of genre reviewing is found in science fiction.

Every once in a while a civil, even-handed mixed review can be useful. Somewhere back there a Chicago Trib reviewer gave several paragraphs of praise (David Frost's line is that to a writer a fair and balanced review is eighteen hundred words of tightly packed praise) but then dinged me for two problems he'd noted common to all my work. I thought about it, decided that they were indeed problems, and called him next day and thanked him. He said he couldn't beieve I was thanking him for knocking me. But his criticism helped improve my craft.

During my eighteen years at Mystery Scene, I generally refused to run really nasty reviews. The few times I did I regretted it because in both instances the trashed writers called. They were devastated. I just couldn't see devastating anybody else. Mixe d reviews I ran all the time. But crash and burners, no way.

Writing is hard work. It's understandable to want that work if not praised at least considered in a respectful tone.

John Simon always used to mock the looks of stage actresses in his reviews. I was always happy to hear when somebody went after him for it. I especially felt that way when I got my first look at him one night on a Dick Cavett show. My God how could this guy rermark on anybody's looks? He should be walking around with a bag over his head. He's the epitome of the reviewer who makes himself rather than the work to hand the star. He was on Cavett show one night with Phillip Roth. Seated right next to Roth, Simon trashed some other writer and said something like He's not even capable of minor art like our friend Roth here. Wanna bet who's work will still be red a century from now--Simon's or Roth's? Roth was a gentleman and didn't deck him.

It'd be nice if there was a Bad Review pill you could take. Lie down for an hour after taking the pill and wake up refreshed. No more of all the symptoms bad reviews inspire--anger, embarrassment, self-pity, self-doubt. You're right back at the machine and doing your best work ever.

If you see such a pill advertised on some strage cable channel late at night, please jot down that 800 number for me, will you?



Blogger Terrill Lankford said...

Ed, is your e-mail address the same as before? I'm trying to contact you off-list but I don't think it's working.

January 27, 2005 at 10:27 PM  
Blogger David J. Montgomery said...

I've never written a really nasty review and hope that I never feel the urge to do so. Hell, if the book's that bad, why bother writing about it at all? Just throw it away!

I go into every book hoping that I will like it, wanting to be impressed, and disappointed if the book falls short. I try to reflect that optimism in my reviewing, being critical when warranted, but always trying to point out the positive as well. If a book is worthy of being reviewed (and many aren't), it deserves to be done with respect.

I agree with Ed, John Simon is the biggest asshole in all the reviewing world. He's the worst example of a critic there is, above all else because he does not RESPECT the works he's reviewing. When I started out reviewing, I consciously decided to NOT be like him in any way.

January 28, 2005 at 9:05 AM  
Blogger Jon L. Breen said...

A couple of notes on bad reviews: I, too, have gotten bad reviews (and some good ones) from PW and from Kirkus. Kirkus is notorious for its hard-to-please reviewers, but I've always found them thoughtful and knowledgeable. A bad review from PW is more galling, because they are so rare. If you get panned in the midst of a sea of raves, you ask, "What did I do to deserve this?" As a reviewer, I think of myself as fairly gentle, though some may disagree. In EQMM, I rarely review a book I think is wholly without merit, and my rule is to say something interesting about the book, so that a reader could conceivably be attracted to it even if, on balance, I didn't like it. I'll confess, though, that in reviewing non-fiction, true crime books or biographical/critical books, I can be much more acerbic, especially when they are full of errors that could easily could have been corrected.

January 28, 2005 at 9:53 AM  

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