Monday, August 20th, 2012

How to Deal with a Vicious Review of Your Book

Dwight Garner's case for critical criticism came out just in time, looks like! "What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics—perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star." Well he's in luck… on part of that?

Five days previous came this NYTBR piece on the latest by Dale Peck, by Ron Powers, who you likely don't know, but was the first TV critic to win a Pulitzer. In 1973. Lesse: "self-­absorbed overreaching, a compost of glutted detail, absurd simile, strained and repetitive metaphor, forced aphorism; of dialogue that ricochets from the pulpy to the dead-on to the flagrantly author-imposed, disgorging exposition under the pretext of speech." Hi-o!

And then this weekend brought another harsh takedown of another small literary writer: the novelist, critic, memoirist, editor and teacher (local man so busy!) William Giraldi, on novelist Alix Ohlin. What to even quote? Maybe "schooled not in Austen but in Susan Lucci," or, "When self-pity colludes with self-loathing and solipsism backfires into idealism, the only outcome is insufferable schmaltz." Or I guess try: "her language is intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep." What on earth does one do then?

Alix Ohlin hasn't tweeted in four days, since before the review came out. She is presumably now in the stage of a bad review that comes after "drinking" and before "revenge." (Probably she's currently in "hysterical laughter.")

Dale Peck, on the other hand, dug in and found the pullquote from the review, occurring in a parenthetical: "(Please don’t ask. Read the book.)"

And then he did some therapeutic meme Photoshopping for his Facebook.

It works.

Of course, this being the age of everyone being a critic, you can always decide for yourself, by buying Ohlin's book or by buying Peck's.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

cory dodt@twitter (#12,071)

"Malign counterforce?" "Clawed my way [...] from leaf to typography-fast leaf?" You poor baby, I'm sorry your writing career tanked.

Choire, just to point out – there's an essential difference between the word "critical" as it's used by Dwight Garner and the way you're using "critical" in this article. Genuine criticism isn't invective launched specifically to harm a person, it's created and sent out to indicate problems and penetrate through the skin of a work of art. You don't have to blindly support an artist just because they've made something.

And to be honest, your characterization of Ohlin betrays your sensibilities a little bit. I understand that you want to support people, and have every live and love in a giant hand-to-hand coca cola commercial chain from the 1960s, but she's hardly a "small literary writer". She's gotten rave reviews in every major Canadian newspaper and many national American publications. She's published by one of Canada's best houses, and hardly needs protection.
And to be fair, if you removed the tone of the article, most of what Giraldi said is totally accurate. Her work is dull. Have you ever read a story from Signs and Wonders? If you were Canadian you'd probably have heard of her before now. Maybe it's for that reason that I sympathize with Giraldi's review. Most modern Canadian books, and many American ones fill me with a kind of listless frustration at the drab realism of the most popular fiction. It's hard not to let that anger against the whole come through when you're talking about a representative piece of that whole.

Not to say that people should be writing invective. Certainly these two went a little too far. But just to say that covering the world in pillows and soft surfaces won't make life any easier for writers or artists. You can't baby-proof an adult life. Garner's point is a pretty fair one.

camelface (#4,600)

I was going to review Jeremy's review of Choire's review of Giraldi's review but then I saw a speck of dust on my keyboard and figured my time would be better spent staring at that for 30 minutes. You're welcome, everyone!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston I'm confused. Should I read Choire's post or not?

@camelface Good call.

@stuffisthings Short answer: Yes. Long answer: The long answer begins in the year 1982. I was a young lad of three years old…

Annie K. (#3,563)

I had read both reviews. I thought I might agree with Powers, I thought I might want to shoot Giraldi. "Lyrically asleep?" Does that mean anything? Though I have to say from experience that when the NYTBR asks you to review something, it's hard to contain your self-importance.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

@Annie K. #humblebrag (but also, not from experience, I can imagine that to be extremely true).

Annie K. (#3,563)

@Joey Camire #humblebrag yeah, ok, also #self-importance yup, yup, yup.

@Annie K. I preferred Giraldi's. Much more solid evidence. Didn't much care for the histrionics but he made a good case. I will not be reading Ohlin anytime soon.

NinetyNine (#98)

You left out the best part: the dude who wrote the nastygram about Auster in the Guardian taking to Salon to left-handedly pre-defend Ohlin by saying Geraldi doesn't know how to write a mean review.

Sheila (#44)

Some of us never got any vicious reviews.

NinetyNine (#98)

@Sheila Don't think I didn't notice! Lookin' good.

KimO (#10,765)

Promoting one approach to criticism is like saying there’s only one good way to write fiction. It’s ridiculous! You can choose an approach as an individual, or as a publication, but a call to snark (or to admiration or whatever) just in general seems absurd. A well-rounded diet, etc.

That said, did anyone else find Silverman’s Slate piece about the “epidemic of niceness” straight-up chilling? Twitter humanizes (you know, sometimes) by making authors (and other public figures) less of an abstraction. And I just don’t see how being reminded of someone’s humanity is ever a bad thing.

@shiveringjemmy By connecting people as people, Twitter also creates a network of job-hunters and job-seekers, all of which are generally a little bit hesitant to totally speak their mind for fear of offending people they might need to work with in the future.

That's the problem with professional-personal tools. They are fundamentally different than professional/personal tools. That slash makes a tremendous difference. Humanizing works, but it might not always work for the reasons you'd like to believe. If anonymity and impersonalization allow for easier virulence in criticism, then personalization and connection work in the opposite way – to preclude it.

Silverman's right. Have you ever checked out a twitter debate between Awl contributors, for example? It's genteel and supportive to an extreme. Or noticed that most of the New York web sites exchange both employees and accolades – Rumpus, Awl, Salon, Slate, Gawker Media, Buzzfeed? This isn't a bad thing, of course. People want jobs and need jobs. But it's a thing that definitely exists and affects work, and people should be cognizant of it as such.

I used to review theatre for years in my hometown. And if there's one thing I've learned about an artist's community in a mid-size city, it's that they all know each other, all work with each other, all talk behind each other's backs a little bit, and never ever criticize each other in public ever. For anything. They are vastly supportive, as if they are one team against the world. It's good in a way, but it's also stagnant in a way. And I don't think that's healthy. People need to criticize in order to create mobility and competition.

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