It’s been a bad week for author-critic relations. First Alice Hoffman used Twitter to get back at a reviewer who made the mistake of not entirely loving her latest novel. Then Alain de Botton went after Caleb Crain–in the comments section of Crain’s blog–for not entirely loving his latest opus in a review for the NYT. (At least give de Botton points for drama: “You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review.”)
I love a good literary smackdown as much as the next guy, and there should be some contentiousness–not personal abuse, as Hoffman and de Botton apparently forgot–built into the game. Writers are not obliged to like negative reviews of their work, although it’s an occupational hazard. (Don’t publish if you can’t take the heat.) Critics must be honest in their reactions to a book, although they sometimes forget there’s a human being, one who might even have feelings, behind that opus they’ve just pasted.
None of that means writers and critics can’t be friends–or at least mutually respectful and interested parties. Mark McGurl, an associate professor at UCLA, makes an intriguing case for coexistence in his new book, The Program Era. One of the book’s chief arguments is that the rise of the creative-writing program is “the most important event in postwar American literary history.” McGurl points out, rightly, that such programs “have bequeathed to us more interesting reading than one person could do in a lifetime.” He wants literary scholars to take the whole enterprise seriously–which is all a writer really should expect from a critic, inside or outside academe.
You can read my profile of McGurl and The Program Era here. More takes: Louis Menand wrote about the book in an intriguingly personal essay for the New Yorker last month. Charles McGrath kicked out a skewed and unfair review of the book for the NYTBR back in April; he likened writing programs to Ponzi schemes and took McGurl to task for overusing academic jargon. (A scholar dares to use theory-speak in an academic book? The nerve!) Bookforum’s reviewer took the project more seriously, and Conversational Reading waxed positive too.
If you come across further commentary, please pass it along. I have a feeling that this book does mark a turning point in writer-critic relations. I hope so. Alice Hoffman, are you listening?
Stephen Stark says
All I can think is, What were they thinking? Or maybe, What were they drinking?
In my experience as a reader, I’ve found plenty of putatively negative reviews have turned me off the reviewer more than the book. As a writer, I’ve always been glad to get reviewed anywhere. But I haven’t sold as many books in my lifetime as Alice Hoffman likely does in any given week.
Maybe twitter needs beer goggles.
Jim Hynes says
Don’t read reviews of your own book. It’s as simple as that. I can’t say that I always follow my own advice with print reviews, but I can honestly say that I haven’t looked at the Amazon pages for my books in years.
As we know all too well, the Internet enables hair-trigger responses. It was bad enough with email, with people hitting “Send” without giving the internal editor a chance to think about it. Twitter makes email look pokey, and gives the angry a way to make their feelings known in an immediate and very public way. I worry that we’re enabling the id and disabling the superego with all this technology (much as I love it).
Jim, I admire you for your restraint in not reading reviews. I never can resist reading the comments on blog items I post. And you get good reviews! I think you’re right to stay out of it, though. The opinion mill’s churning faster and more thoughtlessly than ever.
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A definite great read….