Nobody likes a critic. I knew that before I became one, and it was also not surprising that a recent (only half-negative) book review I wrote was not well received by the book's author. I totally understand; you work so hard, you have such high hopes, and then somebody just comes and pops your balloon. I hope one day to be in a similar situation to this author, who took time out from his book tour to weather a not-so-glowing review. I took no pleasure in the criticism--because I do sympathize. The first email had the tinge of hurt I expected and dreaded back before I decided honesty and journalistic integrity were more important than sweet talk and empathy. The book's author, to the editor, said:
"...kinda laughable. is this kid right out of high school? all he can reference to wrap his head around the novel is catcher in the rye and stephen king and postmodernism, which doesn't even mean anything and which he fails to define. are you planning to review, to give the book a more legit read? it's not a book for kids, after all. I'd love it if you'd direct this guy to [another review] in [another mag], which digs in deeply and gets what's going on. "
The message didn't sting as much I thought it might. I took it as the words of someone with hurt feelings. I hoped he felt better. But then, a week later, there was a second message with the same theme, and I wondered at this point what exactly the author was now trying to accomplish. An admission of wrongness? Of not getting "what's going on?" Of being a stupid and half-literate kid? Did he want the review scrapped and retraction issued? Would this be considered honest/professional? The second message read as follows:
"I know it's bad form to dialogue with 'critics' who, um, reference Catcher in the Rye (high school), Stephen King (pablum) and 'postmodernism' (without ever explaining it?)... for starters... so many holes in this so-called review... I don't have time or interest in getting into it, honestly, but I'm on a break for a minute from the tour, compiling reviews for the web site, and I just had to say that it's clear to me that a certain level of maturity and, I guess, life (not to mention literary) experience is needed to read [my book]. I hadn't considered that before, but... well, check out the links below, if you like. These writers dig in deep and manage to understand and explain the book on its own terms. Literary Criticism 101. Feel free to share these links in the comments on your site, you know, for balance. Let your readers decide."
Hmmm. Condescend much? Assume much? Still I wondered if I should dignify with a response. I've been hit before. Heck, in the past there've been whole campaigns launched against me, death threats from CEOs, blog comment lynch mobs of teens angry with me because I didn't like their band. And after years of grad school and professional rejection, I've become thick-skinned enough to handle somebody getting pissy or not liking me. My pride wasn't scratched by the comments--obviously they are ridiculous and immature comments--but the author was suddenly very irritating. I hadn't mentioned in the review that same irritating tone in the book, where the narrator seems to look down on others for not liking the "right" music, though I did mention the constant authorial lecturing as one of the primary downfalls. I got it just fine, especially with all the dumbing down and explanation this author seems to think lots of people need.
Sometimes, I think I'm too nice. I tried pretty hard to be diplomatic in the review, tried to cushion the blow as much as possible, you know, out of sensitivity. I wonder how he would have reacted if I had been harder than I was. Even now I'm too nice because in this instance I've refrained from naming names or criticizing directly; and though I've penned a snarky response, I sent it to the editors first to let them decide whether it should be sent on. Holy smokes, I hope they do. That response is below, sans identifying language:
Dear Mr. ___________,
I wondered for a while if I should respond to your concerns. I thought maybe you were just upset. I understood that. A guy writes a book, wants people to like it, and some idiot craps all over it. But since you emailed a second time, I thought maybe I should explain myself so you might feel better.
But you know, being a recent high school graduate, I’m not sure there’s much I can tell you that you don’t already know. Maybe this will be a “from the mouth of babes” moment, since we’re busy assuming anyway. I’m sorry I compared your book with the great Catcher in the Rye. I was wrong to do that. Your book is positively nothing like it. It was just that the iconic book was fresh in my mind from Senior English. I went to an odd high school, one where students graduate in their mid-30s with an MFA. And unfortunately, I became one of those southern statistics: married young with kids before finishing school, and writing book reviews barefoot while wiggling yet another loose tooth. Getting learned has been difficult, what with trying to keep my jaw un-slacked during dissertations.
In general, I share your distaste for Stephen King’s writing. The eighth-grade level his stories are written on can be fatiguingly lofty and verbose, and the man has zero sense of rhythm—I wrote about that in my critical essay “Quantum Fiction,” where I tried really hard to apply the theories of quantum mechanics to message transmission via prose rhythm; I even BSed it well enough to get it by some snooty Harvard types I studied under. Sometimes I wonder how such an inaccessible writer like King has sold so many books. I mean, that story about Lard Ass and the pie eating contest kind of rocked, but what was he on when he wrote The Langoliers? Not that I read either of those stories. Thank God for Hollywood, you know? But anyway, what does King know? Just because a writer spends two consecutive decades at the top of the New York Times best-seller list doesn’t mean he knows squat about anything. Haven’t both Sarah Palin and Snookie been on that list, too? Rest assured, Mr. __________, you and your book will not be associated with the likes of them.
And correct you are that “postmodern” is not so well defined. I hear Derrida (who I’m told was like the authority on postmodernism) had difficulty defining it, too. Maybe it’s like when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when asked to differentiate art from pornography, said he knew [obscenity] when he saw it. I share that viewpoint, I think, as well as the ability to know trash when I see it. In high school (just last month!) we were talking about postmodernism, and the best the teacher could do was point to certain patterns and certain authors and say things like, “Well, Stephen King’s not one of them.” During these discussions, writers like Faulkner and Borges and Barth were brought up, and I like them very much, but I have to admit (sheepishly) it was embarrassing for me not to share the enthusiasm of my classmates (many of whom have finished their own books recently) for writers like Carver or Murakami or David Foster Wallace. I knew I was supposed to like them, but invariably, I’d end up saying something stupid and naïve like, “But how great was JD Salinger?!” Obviously, as you have pointed out, this was a ridiculous thing to say.
Often I seem to run into this problem of differing tastes; so often are my personal preferences just plainly incorrect. All my life, I’ve tried to correct this, to adjust my taste to suit others. My mother always insisted I eat my toast with my eggs and not after them, and wouldn’t accept that I didn’t like cole slaw. Recently, because it was Father’s Day and I thought I could get some marital leeway in movies to rent, I brought home and enjoyed very much the modern re-warming of the A-Team saga; my wife clearly stated this was such the wrong kind of thing to enjoy; we had a similar conversation about the movie Precious, but in reverse. It happens as a parent, too. I’ve tried to be a very cool parental unit, Mr. _________, but when my stepson plays Christian “death core” music I’m tempted to join a satanic gospel choir, but most of the time just go to the other side of the house and crank up some Jason Mraz. I know I’m not supposed to like him, but the young man can really scat, you know?
I became so concerned when you pointed out other positive reviews of your book from contemporary fiction critics who seem to “get it,” I went and read every one of them because I’d like to be hip and with it too. It’s possible I don’t have enough maturity, life or literary experience—as you mentioned—to understand them all the way you do. I wasn’t sure what to make of [this one critic’s] review (in the link you provided), for example, for though she recommended the book for readers of contemporary fiction, she also, in that introductory paragraph, indicated she didn’t know if the story was narrated from jail or the grave, or whether it was a thinly-veiled autobiography or what. Wow, you’d think a person who calls herself a “critic” would know things like that. I didn’t know those things either, but didn’t want to reveal my ignorance. Guess I did anyway since I didn’t get it and referenced Salinger and King. I’m not sure what she meant by “stroke book” either, but after consideration of the context where she contradicts the idea by talking about “decidedly unappetizing” sex scenes, I’ve decided it must be something filthy and sinful—and that she must be some kind of repressed prude.
This other reviewer I found must be equally as naïve and ignorant as [this one critic] and I. Plus he cusses a lot and only goes by [blog handle]. He has the audacity to say what I said about it: “Thing is, story-wise, [this book] just kind of hangs there for two hundred pages then abruptly ends.” All set up, no pay off, he says. Bet he liked the A-Team movie, too. Moron.
Anyway, thanks for pointing out my personal shortcomings. I hear nobody likes a critic, and I know we’ve never met, and I’ve never until today told you the least bit about myself, but you sure are good at guessing how people really are based on the tiniest bit of information. Some might call that a ridiculous amount of insight! I wish it wasn’t too late to retract everything I said about your book. People might get suspicious about our journalistic integrity, even though it’s clear I’m completely wrong for not liking it. You’ve taught me a valuable lesson, Mr. ________, and a green quote-unquote critic like myself needs all the life lessons he can get. Next time, whether or not I like a book I’m reviewing, I’ll pretend like I do so nobody gets upset. And if anybody says to me some book I recommended was crap, I’ll just reply, “But the author meant for it to be good.” Because, I mean, clearly some people (Snookie, Ann Coulter) write books they know will suck from the outset. And only those types of authors should be punished with tepid, mixed, or negative reviews. Besides, as an aspiring novelist myself, I found your book incredibly instructive. Thanks for that.
So my advice to you is just ignore me and my silly point-of-view. Just collect the positive commentary in a basket and float forward as though so-called critics like me don’t exist. The only advice a guy like me can give you for the future is this: Send a quick email to reviewers to see if they softball their reviews out of respect or whatever. If they say no, just move on until you find a person who strokes you like you like it. That way all will be Skittles, Mr. ________.
Jason Lee Miller (recent high school graduate)