Why do book reviewers insist on being so nice? More honesty would benefit everyoneby Leo Benedictus / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Would more bad reviews eventually lead to more good books? Photo: Horia Varlan
Jacqueline Howett is unusual among novelists because you may have heard of her. Wounded by a blogger’s recent review of her book, The Greek Seaman, she insisted in the comments section that she saw “no flaws” in the borderline-illiterate prose he quoted. “You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom,”[sic] she added, rather making the reviewer’s point. “Fuck off!” she typed later, when it became clear from other comments that opinion was not gathering behind her. Nineteen minutes later, when the queue of opponents had begun to stretch over the horizon, she came back and typed it again. The words, as one wag noted, were at least grammatically correct.
By now, Howett had become an internet phenomenon. The abuse spilled on to her website, her faintly fishy Amazon reviews, her terrible (but assiduously copyrighted) poems. Even her claim to be a native English speaker was called into question: just about the lowest point any bad review can reach. Then came the remorse. Not Howett’s—wisely, she seems to be lying low—but that of many people who had spread her story. Although Howett’s actions were indefensible, she did not quite deserve the planetary scale of her humiliation.
I watched the story with particularly piquant horror. The day before, I had slated a book called Manning Up in the Observer. The next day, I read the first bad review of my own novel, from a Canadian blogger. It seemed karmic when the phone rang and I was invited to discuss Manning Up on Radio 3 with its author Kay Hymowitz joining us from New York. Life was reminding me: authors are real people, and they read reviews. We should remember this.
Or should we? What would happen if all the writers, editors and publishers in Britain—convened, perhaps, around one titanic boozy lunch—agreed to speak their minds in print? It would be a different world, for sure. You may have noticed, for instance, that you almost never see a bad review of an unknown author in a national newspaper. What, after all, is the point of drawing people’s attention to a book they’ve never heard of so you can tell them not to read it?
With so many books being published, those that seem bad in their early chapters are usually just not commented upon—although readers, I am certain, would love to see such comments. Some years ago, I remember being told that I “need not be too hard” on the novels I was reviewing. This culture of kindness spreads onto the internet. Amazon reviews, en masse, do look rather starrier than probable. Even bloggers, who are free to be the grumpiest, still generally prefer to write about the books they love, and are often very forgiving of novice authors—as Howett’s two-star review certainly was. (Established novelists, by contrast, seem to get a bit of extra kicking everywhere, for balance.)
Wouldn’t readers enjoy more hurly-burly? Bad reviews often make the best reading. They also lend some credibility to praise—and their presence, followed by a vigorous debate, would undoubtedly help the best books find readerships more easily.
It would be better for authors, too. Given the mildness of what Howett reacted to, she seems to have been completely unprepared for criticism. I recently got a message from someone whose book I reviewed eight years ago accusing me of ruining his career. People like this could clearly benefit from a course of skin-thickening. Being loathed is no disgrace; I know people who loathe Crime and Punishment.
Bad reviews will also make books better, in the end. I may regret saying this, but as a debut novelist I have found critical opinions rather hard to come by. This is not, I must stress, because my book is so very brilliant (although naturally it also is). It is because most people are sensible and kind; they do not want to upset me if they can avoid it—and they can. I want to hear, and learn from, what the sceptics didn’t like, yet almost no one volunteers to tell me.
Having taken a kicking in this new world, authors should feel similarly free to kick their kicker back. This will still not be advisable in many cases. No amount of nitpicking or self-justifying will ever win a reader round. But if there are areas of uncertainty, or things you can clear up, it should at least be possible to do so amiably. I tried this on the Canadian blogger, after a long hesitation. The result was wholly constructive, and very satisfying. To her greater credit, Kay Hymowitz even managed to be friendly and reasonable when we spoke across the microphone. If a fairer literary culture is what we want, then we should embrace this slightly tougher one.