Book Reviews: Don’t Make It Personal
It seems as if every week (day?) there’s a new controversy about reviews and this week has been no exception. If you’re a New York Times reader you may have come across William Giraldi’s eloquent but scathing review of Alix Ohlin’s work. You may have delighted in his turn of phrase and dry wit, or you may have cringed a little at every criticism lambasted at Ohlin’s craft. Unless you were the author.
Here’s an excerpt from Giraldi’s review.
Teeth are described as “white,” as if we needed telling. About a porn magazine: “The girls were young, with enormous fake breasts.” William Gass once called this breed of abysmal writing “the uselessly precise fact” — it’s what you doodle when you need to fill a page but have nothing important to say. What then passes for wisdom in this novel? Nonsense clichés: “Nice guys finish last.” The absurdly obvious: “Anyone driven to hang himself would have to be suffering deeply and terribly.” Preciousness: “It was hard to believe they’d ever been so young.” And this platitude chained to pronoun disagreement: “Nobody could look their best when lying in a hospital bed after a car accident.”
Shortly after a piece appeared on Salon.com entitled “How to write a bad review” by J. Robert Lennon. It branded Giraldi’s review ‘cruel’ and argued that even though he – Lennon – has written snarky reviews with “an air of malignant delight at exposing what the author considers offensively bad work”, he felt Giraldi was much worse:
I’d like to argue that Giraldi’s review is, in fact, quite nasty, and that mine is less so. And that my other negative reviews over the past few years aren’t nasty at all, even when they’re highly critical of their subjects. There is a good way to write a bad review of another writer, and I don’t think Giraldi is doing it. Whatever the shortcomings of Ohlin’s work might be, his review does its reader a disservice — his glee at eviscerating Ohlin overshadows his analysis, and casts doubt on its veracity. It isn’t trustworthy, which makes it no more valuable than the kind of swooning puff pieces most critics write.
Of course, we already know that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and this nicely balances out an article published on the New York Times site before either of the above: “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical“, which argued:
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. 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.
So, who is right in this saga? The truth is, in a little way everybody is. I agree that reviews should not be nasty but let me clarify that by saying I don’t believe reviews should be personal, or make silly comparisons without supporting evidence. A review that simply says “Worst book ever” or “A toddler could have done better” is of no use to either the author or other potential readers. What didn’t you like? Be critical, by all means, but a little constructive feedback goes a long way. A review that says “This author is a doofus” is similarly without merit.
However, all of those things said, it’s easy to forget the key thing: a review is an opinion. It should be an opinion of the work, not the author and – like any other opinion – should be formed around something, but it is an opinion and – as such – will vary considerably from one person to another. Lennon states “Don’t be a dick” in his article and accuses Giraldi of ‘crowing’. Ridiculously he even goes so far as to accuse Giraldi of hating Ohlin’s ‘very existence’. Lennon’s own hyperbole and over-reactive ridicule makes me take his own article far less seriously. If the first golden rule is “A review is an opinion”, he certainly broke the second: “Don’t make it personal.”
Was Giraldi vicious? Well, there’s no doubt he was viciously scathing in his opinion – about the work. Having read the article twice, I cannot see any personal references to Ohlin or anything that would support Lennon’s assertions. The simple truth of the matter is that Giraldi intensely disliked the two books he was reviewing and has written a detailed, eloquent, and – dare I say it – informative – critique around his opinion.
There are many arguments that something is rotten in the world of reviews but this is not it. This is New York Times coverage, with a detailed review from an author and editor, which gives numerous examples of the flaws as he seems them. This is not personal. This is not a stinging one-line put down. This is perhaps the worst kind of legitimate review an author can encounter – and goodness knows I’d probably take to my own bed for a week – but it is a legitimate opinion. While authors have flocked to defend Ohlin against Giraldi’s ‘cruel’ attack, I can’t help but think of one thing: if he had published a gentle review, lamenting his dislike of the novel and taken a softly, softly approach, nobody would be talking about this book. Now, it’s everywhere. Giraldi may have hated it but he’s done more to get it seen than any kind but mediocre three star review could possibly have done. In three months time, will people see this book and think? Ah, that’s the book Giraldi slammed? Or, more likely, Oh, I saw that in the New York Times – let’s see what all the controversy is about.
If we want to address the issues of negative reviews – as in nasty, personal, abusive reviews – let’s close the door on this saga. We cannot waste time and energy fighting those who are actually trying to be professional themselves – albeit in a way we might not like. Instead, let’s move on, be grateful that someone has taken the time and effort to express their opinion so fully, and remember that some people would give their right arm for a mention the NYT – scathing or otherwise!