By Eric Olsen
Continued from The Writer/Editor Collaboration.
I figured from the title of Arthur Krystal’s piece, “Should Writers Reply to Reviews?” that he was going to discuss Helen Vendler’s delightfully nasty review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited and with an intro by our Iowa classmate Rita Dove, which appeared in the November 24, 2011, issue of the New York Review of Books, and then Rita’s delightfully scornful reply in the December 22 issue.
But in fact Krystal was writing about the bad review he received for one of his collections of essays:
I’m not complaining—OK, I am complaining, but not because reviewers find fault, but because given a chance to perform they forget they’re rendering a service to the reader, not one to themselves. A flawed book gives no one license to flog it in print. If there are mistakes, why not sound regretful when pointing them out instead of smug? If the book doesn’t measure up to expectations, why not consider the author’s own expectations with regard to it? While no one wants shoddy work to escape detection, a critic must persuade not only the impartial reader but also the biased author—as well as his biased editor and biased family—that the response is just.
And tone matters, tone is crucial. Even writers who check their personalities at the door often condescend without meaning to…. I’m not saying only Buddhists should review, but wouldn’t it be nice if the superior attitude, the knowing asides, and the unshakeable convictions could disappear from the world of print? From personal experience, I can tell you that my own books have been discussed by people who had no idea what most of my essays were about, but whose pontifical airs demonstrated (as if further proof were needed) that lack of knowledge is never an obstacle to self-esteem.
Writers like Wilson and Updike both viewed reviewing, like writing, as a humane endeavor that called for humility (though what writer—or reviewer—doesn’t crave fame? And fortune?) Reviewing requires a close reading of a text, which takes time and diligence. And so does writing well. And editing, for that matter…. Writing, reading, reviewing, editing: they are all related activities that, when done well, with honesty and, sure, humility, advance the culture.
I think writers should write reviews, but only following Updike’s rules, as collaborators in a cultural endeavor that, one likes to think, makes us all a little better…. Of course, if one were to follow Updike’s rules, would readers get to enjoy such nasty little screeds as Vendler’s? Wouldn’t this be a loss to our culture, too?
At any rate, as for whether a writer should reply to a reviewer, Krystal tells us early on in his essay:
Reading a stupid review is a little like being mugged. You feel violated and outraged and want nothing less than to see the perp caught and publicly flogged. But what can you do? Everyone knows that disgruntled authors are advised to keep quiet, since any rejoinder can only make them look peevish while at the same time calling even more attention to a harsh critique.
But at the end, he takes it all back.
What the hell, make noise. Call attention to the offending review. In fact, write that letter to the editor that everyone enjoins you not to write, and in a few deft strokes outline the reviewer’s bias and how he or she misread, obfuscated, and distorted your work. Then write another letter, this one to the $#%^ reviewer and explain exactly where he or she went wrong. Address the reviewer’s objections intelligently and dispassionately. You don’t want to sound like Alain de Botton, who informed a critic that “You have now killed my book in the United States … I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make”—but it wouldn’t hurt to sound slightly unhinged, just to make the perp wary of running into you at a party or book signing.
When I first read Rita’s reply to Vendler, I thought, uh oh…. Big mistake. And then I read her reply with great enthusiasm. Aside from the secret pleasure one sometimes takes in watching another’s misfortune unfolding, the fact is I thought Vendler made some good points in her review, and some bad ones, and so did Rita in her reply, and overall, after I’d read them both, I came away knowing a little more about the considerations that go into putting together an anthology, a little bit more about poetry, even a little bit more about how to write a review. Overall, I think I learned a thing or two.
Of course, such back-and-forth can get out of hand, and we reach a point in which we have reviews of reviews of reviews of… and so on, which brings us into the realm of French critical theory, in which the primary source such as a poem or story is completely forgotten and even viewed with the utmost disdain. Fortunately, Vendler knew when to quit. She replied to Rita’s reply with a succinct statement of the obvious: “I have written the review and I stand buy it.”
But what do you think? Is there really any good reason for the widely accepted admonition against responding to negative reviews? Repondez s’il vous plait.