Why do book reviewers insist on being so nice? More honesty would benefit everyoneby Leo Benedictus / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
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…