A Point of View: How to get your own back on your critics
Most authors dread unfavourable reviews from the critics - but there is an effective way to deal with detractors, explains Adam Gopnik.
Every morning when I turn to the Guardian or Daily Telegraph website, I seem to encounter one writer or another offering his or her view of what the modern crisis is like, and how to make it less like a crisis. We authors, ma'am - to use the phrase that Disraeli would use with Queen Victoria, who had written a sort of book once - we authors do like to talk gravely about the future of mankind and the novel and the power of the word.
But in truth, there are only two subjects that we authors, in my experience, actually talk about in private with any real zing from the heart.
One is the size of our - or their - advances. The other, what to do about your - OK, our - bad reviews.
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- A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST
- Adam Gopnik is an American commentator and writes for The New Yorker
And, since those bad reviews stand in the way of those bigger sales, the two questions really collapse into one - what do you do when people who shouldn't be allowed to offer their opinion of cheap cheese say that they don't like your book, and do so in print?
Ignore it, I hear you cry, as one body, and that indeed is what the writer's spouse and partner and children (if they know) and agent (if he cares) and editors all say, too. Ignore it. Claim the moral high ground. So you've got a stinker in the New York Times or the London one, for that matter. Who cares? No-one reads them anyway, and anyone who does read them could see at a glance that jealousy and envy and sheer stupid malice have done their usual work.
And it's all true, or true enough. Jealousy and envy are big forces in life. It's an odd thing that in every Disney or Pixar cartoon, the plucky hero or heroine is bedevilled by an enemy whose sole motive, often as not, is envy - Ursula in The Little Mermaid or Hades in Hercules. But we fail to warn our children about envy's power until they're out in the world.
So, the writer tries. He - we - claim the moral high ground. We walk around for a day or two, looking down pityingly on the poor benighted reviewer, a small smile of amusement at his expense playing around the corners of our mouths. But the trouble with claiming the moral high ground is that a writer who has just claimed the moral high ground doesn't look any different from a writer who is just standing there doing nothing. To the untutored eye, an impervious author looks just the same as an infuriated one.
The only other traditional response is the letter to the offending publication, written late at night. The late-night letter to the reviewer, or the place the review appeared, is by far the most impassioned literary genre that exists, but no-one except the writer, or very occasionally the writer's spouse, gets to read or hear it.
The late-night letter is always composed in three drafts. The first, or 2am draft, is written in a tone of light-hearted, stinging, supercilious irony: "Much though I enjoyed Mr X's lively cabaret turn, of which my book was the ostensible subject, I did think that I might correct a few of the more egregious errors he made in the course of his caperings…"
The next, 3am version revises itself into a tone of sneering, corrective truth-telling: "The egregious errors that fill Mr X's review of my book are too many to enumerate, but perhaps your readers might like to know the three most, er, egregious…"
'I will hate you till the day I die'
Negative reviews can inspire strong reactions from their targets...
Alain de Botton posted a comment on critic Caleb Crain's blog, who had written unfavourably about his latest book in The New York Times Book Review in 2009. "I will hate you till the day I die," wrote de Botton. He later apologised.
Norman Mailer confronted Gore Vidal, who'd compared the former's The Prisoner of Sex to "three days of menstrual flow" when they were both guests on The Dick Cavett Show. "We all know that I stabbed my wife years ago. You don't want to forget about it. You're a liar and a hypocrite. Are you ready to apologise?" asked Mailer. "I would apologise if it hurts your feelings," replied Vidal.
And the last, or 4am version is downright enraged: "The difference between criticism and character assassination having long ago vanished from your pages…" And so on.
The problem is that this last is the only version that the spouse gets to hear - since it is the one whose composition makes even the thought of sleep at last impossible - and that one, he or she knows, as soon as they've heard it, is really really not worth sending. Had they heard the earlier, wittier ones, their view might be different, but you would never wake her, or him, up to recite the earlier versions. She'd kill you if you did - at least my wife would. Sleep is her idea of a good review of the day just passed.
Occasionally, the spouse is away, though, and that letter gets sent. Now, here is the truly interesting thing - the public, even the writer's closest friends, always secretly side with the reviewer against the letter-writing author. The author writing that letter may be a man or woman of exquisite taste and immense erudition, of literary skill and real moral authority. The reviewer may be, very often is, a cheap hack who specialises in spewing out snark for glossy magazines. But the world will chortle and back-slap the book reviewer, at least in spirit, and snigger and point at the poor author who has responded.
Why should this be? It is, I think, that no-one really looks to book reviews, or theatre reviews or art reviews or movie reviews, or any reviews, really, for a fair or accurate appraisal of a work of art. We see them as a gladiatorial contest, or even a kind of bullfight - the reviewer in his suit of lights goading the poor authorial bull - and we feel as indignant at the author stopping the contest to protest the unfairness of the thing, as we would if the bull stopped the fight in order to write an indignant letter to a Spanish newspaper.
We see (reviews) as a gladiatorial contest, or even a kind of bullfight, the reviewer in his suit of lights goading the poor authorial animal”
This was the sad state where things stood until the other evening, when I had a long talk with a friend of mine, another author, who had stumbled on an entirely new and ingenious way of levelling the playing field. He had tried the Big Ignore, and he had brooded on the Bad Letter, and he said he now has a new approach.
He now waits exactly four months - less would be too obvious, more too many - until his enemy, Mr or Ms X, writes something else, anything else. He then writes a warm letter, or email, of congratulation to him or her. Not anything too ornate or obsequious. Just: "Hey X, Really liked your piece on David Foster Wallace and the ambiguities of irony. Fine job on an important subject, Hope you're well, Y."
I am in awe of the number of beautiful things this simple act accomplishes. First, it shows to the one person, who most needs to be shown it, that the author has indeed claimed the moral high ground after the nasty review. The magnanimity, the serenity, the imperturbable good humour of Y, the author, is forced into the face of the one person on earth who most needs to be shown it.
Next, and this is the subtle thing maybe, Mr X, the reviewer, though grateful for the appreciation - he's an author, too, after all - can't help but suspect, just a little, in some paranoid corner of his heart (it has many paranoid corners - he's an author), that he is being "got at" in some way. Is Y, he wonders, just for a panicky half-second, actually mocking him? No, can't be that… his piece on David Foster Wallace, was, after all, so great a piece that everyone would have to recognise it, even those he had wounded.
But for a fine thrilling moment, the purpose of that first supercilious and unsent letter - to make the reviewer feel not hated, but condescended to, dismissed - has been achieved.
And finally, my friend tells me, the warm four-month later letter invariably produces… an apology for the bad review. "Hey, I hope you didn't take what I wrote in the wrong way..."
Bombard your bad reviewers with advice, admiration and counsel, encumber them with your affection, afflict them with your over-bounding warmth”
Now why should this be so? It is because while all bad reviews, to a first approximation, are accurate, as authors secretly know, all bad reviews are also, to a first approximation, untrue, and the reviewer knows that too. A writer is not some student who performs well or ill on an exam. A writer, any real writer anyway, is a person on the page, whole, and the books he or she writes are the whole of him or her. Our response to them is personal, and you can't really review a person - you can only respond to one.
I believe that from now on every artist and every author should embrace my friend's tactic and make it strategic. Bombard your bad reviewers with advice, admiration and counsel, encumber them with your affection, afflict them with your over-bounding warmth. Guilt and remorse will pour from them as surely as if they were ripe grapes that had been stomped on by a willing peasant.
Let the word go out from this day forth from author to reviewer - write that bad review, and I will… recommend you to my friends, crash cocktail parties given for someone else to make a toast in your honour, until at last you develop a haunted look in your eyes, fearing my embrace.
Write that bad review - and you shall have me for your life long friend. Ask yourself - is it worth it?