Getting It Wrong and Being Mean about It?
Posted by: Keir Graff
If you haven’t been following it, there has been an interesting and thought-provoking series of posts on Galleycat about inaccuracy and negativity in book reviews. The jumping-off point is Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon.
In response to Thursday’s item about the fumbling of a significant plot point in Lee Siegel‘s review of The Almost Moon, Boston Globe blogger Joshua Glenn points out that Siegel’s not the only one confused by the scene. And, heck, at least he didn’t get it as wrong as Susan Salter Reynolds did in the LA Times Book Review …
…but not before New York book reviewer Sam Anderson, one of several critics who came away from Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon with the distinct impression that the protagonist had put her dead mother’s body in the freezer, explains how they all made the same mistake.
As I commented yesterday, beyond the question of whether or not any of the reviews in question are too “vicious,” there’s an interesting question as to whether or not it would be so awful if they were.
Petit goes on to blame a sales-and-marketing mentality for confusing reviews with advertisements, and suggests consumers can learn as much from negative reviews as they can from positive ones.
As publishers and authors venture online, particularly into forums that allow for interaction and direct feedback from consumers, they’re going to get their share of negativity. And the thing to remember is this: Nearly all of it is just psychic garbage, and though it sucks that this is the cost of putting yourself out there so you’re readily visible when your ideal reader comes looking for you, even if she doesn’t know you’re the one she’s looking for yet, that is the way it is, and you can’t let it keep you offline, any more than you did when Amazon.com started letting customers shoot their mouths off about your books.
“Seems a little strange for a PW reviewer to call a children’s book ‘revisionist’ without stopping to consider that a story that’s been told for 2,000 years might, you know, have a few variations.”
Yesterday, I asked you how critical book reviewers should get, and at least one person on the mediabistro.com discussion board thinks that things among the literati have gotten a little too cozy. … (Fine, one might ask, but what are you doing here, a book review section or group therapy?)
Because of our recommended-only policy, people often make the mistake of thinking that Booklist only writes “nice” reviews. And it’s true that most Booklist reviews are positive. But what the policy really means is this: we’ll only review a book if we can recommend it in some way OR if you absolutely need to know about it. The first category includes a lot of reviews that include qualifiers (“Author A’s plotting is somewhat contrived, but fans of Amish harvest festivals will get all they bargained for and more”). And the second category includes books by authors with wide readership who will be left wondering if we don’t offer an opinion (“while this book is stunningly unimaginative when compared to the first three books in the series, Author B’s many fans can’t be expected to quit reading without finding out what happens”).
When it’s a book you don’t need to know about–say, a poorly written first novel–we just won’t run the review. Booklist‘s truly bad reviews are the ones we never publish, the “reject notes” that the reviewer sends to his or her editor. Panning a first novel doesn’t help our audience much and can be cruel to the author–although, if it’s a hugely hyped first novel whose release is highly anticipated, well, we just might make an exception.
In general, I think that negative reviews–not cruel reviews–are very helpful. There are so many books, and readers have so little time. Writing a review to be nice to the author (see the most recent post above) is kind to one person and cruel to many.