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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Handling hostile reviews

"I need some protection from all the reviews," emailed George Clooney to a Sony executive, after wincing from criticism of his film The Monuments Men.

"We will protect you by making money .... it's the best revenge," emailed Sony back -- which, when you think of it, is not a bad answer at all.  That 50-shades writer must have thought that often.  What did they use to call it?  Laughing all the way to the bank?

The anecdote has triggered all kinds of responses, including a meditation in this week's DomPost insert "Weekender" -- which, of all things, looks at restaurant reviews.

Apparently a chef in Auckland became so incensed at reviews of his Nourish Group restaurants in the magazine Metro that he took out a full-page advertisement announcing that all Metro food critics were banned from his doors. The ad featured a recipe for "Metro Food Critic Testicles," saying their reviews were "out of step" and that they were playing "a childish game ... Balls to them," it concluded.  At which Metro editor Simon Wilson responded by sending him a pair of coconuts, and a note saying, "They're bigger than you think."

Now, that is childish.  He had many other valid points to make. Metro food critics pay for their meals, visit at least twice, and must not know the proprietors or chefs at any of the establishments.

But taking out that ad was a big mistake, too.  The chef in question now wishes he hadn't acted on the spur of the moment.  And what he said has food for thought for us all, book writers included.

"Often reviews have some really good points and you learn from it and grow the business. ... You can't win against reviews.  You're best just to shut up, accept it and look at it objectively."

Belated wisdom, but noteworthy nonetheless.


Caron Dann said...

Having been both a reviewer (of literature, art, restaurants, film and TV) and the one being reviewed, I can appreciate both sides. However, I do hate being reviewed. There was one review of my novel, The Occidentals, which I felt was unfair and a bit bizarre. At the time I was quite upset about it and the magazine (for which I used to work) allowed me to write a rebuttal in a letter to the editor. Now as I look back on it, that review still cuts, but doesn't seem nearly as bad as it did at the time. The reviewer had also interviewed me for a story and, unethically I thought, used some of that information and the informal chat we had before the interview against me in the review, which was supposed to be a separate piece.
Coincidentally, I'm reading at the moment C K Stead's Book Shelf, collected essays in which he discusses the role of the critic with aplomb.
Too often, however, 'critics' today are non-professionals who di it for the free books and don't necessarily have an interest in literature.

Joan Druett said...

The reviewer was showing off that she "knew" you, which is definitely unfair.

The worst experience I had was an academic roundtable review of my light-hearted set of stories of errant women at sea, "She Captains." The editor sent me the letter that he said he had sent to the eight academics who got copies of the book, so it looked as if it would be an interesting exercise, and my publisher was all for it. Well, seven of the eight slaughtered the poor book -- one even remonstrated with me for not mentioning something so iconic to New Zealand at the Treaty of Waitangi! The eighth, who knew me (so, strictly, should not have agreed to participate) had the kindness to point out that the book was meant for lay readers, who might become interested in seafaring women because of it. One, however, quoted the letter that he had received from the editor, sentence by sentence, as he had used it for the framework of the review ... and it was quite different from the one I had received. It strongly inferred that hostile reviews were welcome. I was given 15,000 words for my rebuttal in the next issue, and hated the job, but I did enjoy pointing out how badly I had been misled. My publisher was furious, and lots of librarians offered me their heartfelt sympathy.

Caron Dann said...

That's such an interesting story. When I was a reviewer, I always tried to write the review not in regard to whether I liked the book or not, but with the intended audience in mind. I think that is much more useful. A book meant for lay readers shouldn't be sent to all academics anyway. Maybe one or two would have been OK, but the rest should have been sent to readers with an interest in, but not necessarily academic expertise in, the topic. Gosh, if we wrote academic-style books for a regular audience, they wouldn't be bought by many, would they?

Joan Druett said...

You are so right! Any good writer has his or her audience firmly in mind when writing it. "Writing for the market," I believe it is termed, but it is actually the polite way to go about it. After all, in a conversation, you are trying to interest, amuse, or educate someone you can see or visualize.

Lincoln Paine said...

I remember the She Captains affair, which was odd—and annoying—in so many respects. Around that time, I posted something to MARHST about reviewing, the pith of which I offer up here, for what it's worth. (Before I do, however, the November 2014 issue of the International Journal of Maritime History has a writer-reviewer exchange that demonstrates why one might think twice before wading into that kind of argument.)

Writers of non-fiction have a difficult relationship with facts. As researchers, they spend much more time hunting down and checking facts than do casual readers. The facts they check are often in other writings—which are generally second-hand. Woe betide the author who relies on one (or more) wrong source, or fails to know about, read, or be alerted to the latest scholarship or news on a particular issue. But I think it fair to say that little or nothing would be published if authors resisted the chance to take a wild guess every now and again or if they dealt in only as many facts as they could afford to double check. And I also think that many authors view facts only as ancillary to a broader thesis.

The balance between fact and non-fact is a tricky one. On the one hand, we can’t absorb or record all the facts we read or experience, and errors of fact are inevitable even in the most carefully researched and vetted books. A book that is read solely for facts is a dull read indeed. One should read (and write) with a broader purpose—to understand (and explain) patterns, trends, and truths that transcend facts. This is not to suggest that facts are unimportant—of course they are—or that reading should be done uncritically. But in reading a book, one should attempt to understand what the author is trying to achieve.

There is of course a fair amount of drivel published every year: books with hidden or explicit agendas, raw propaganda, books by authors with more enthusiasm than competence, books packed with good factual material surrounded by a narrative dense enough to smother, and books written with such grace and style that the errors of fact might be forgiven (if not ignored) simply for the pleasure of the text.

Generally speaking, we only identify errors of fact when they relate to subjects about which we know something. In reviewing (or reading a review of) a book, one has to be careful about why one flags errors, and which errors one bothers to flag. When a reviewer writes, “The author, of course, does misspeak when he writes. . . ,” this is often nothing more than a way for the reviewer to signal: “I am qualified to review this book, and I was paying attention.” Other times, it is simply a way of noting that nothing is perfect. Neither observation is especially useful—one hopes the reviewer is competent to review the book in question; that perfection is unattainable is (or should be) self-evident.

Factual errors become important when they establish a pattern of incompetence, or when they are used to substantiate an errant thesis. It is as unlikely that an author can write a book entirely devoid of factually correct statements as it is that an author can write a book without factual errors. But when writers rely, either willingly or in ignorance, too much on incorrect or bogus information to advance a claim of dubious merit, they err.