February 10, 2011

How should writers respond to criticism? Tao Lin: "Extreme negative reviews are helpful and fun."


What’s the appropriate response by a writer to a negative review?  In the past—in the era in-between duels and the internet—authors had few avenues for recourse. You could write a letter to the editor or you could start a brawl at a party. Now, in the flatter (though certainly not flattened) media hierarchy, writers have more options: you can post anonymous comments touting your genius (Lee Seigel), you can go on a Twitter rampage telling people to harass the offending critic (Alice Hoffman), you can post hateful comments on their blog stating “I will hate you till the day I die” (Alain de Botton). These are the extreme and unsightly examples, but the fact is that we live in an age where the critic no longer has a monopoly on the megaphone, and writers have an increased capacity to engage in the tightrope act of their own PR. One recent example of this is  Sean Manning who, after his memoir about his mother’s battle with cancer, The Things That Need Doing, was singled out by Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times Book Review as an example of “The Problem WIth Memoirs,” counterattacked with an essay at The Daily Beast titled “My Problem with the NYTBR.” It’s hard to judge when a public relations maneuver is a win or a loss, but you can see Manning struggling with the inherent difficulty of defending himself in print. On one hand, he wants to be logical and rhetorically convincing (“There’s nothing undignified about vomiting or needing your diaper changed. That’s being sick.”) while on the other hand, he is clearly furious, and would like to kick Genzlinger in the nuts (as evidenced when he slips in the low blow “That the NYTBR editors would condone this retreaded snark is disappointing and puzzling, especially coming from someone who writes almost exclusively on television and film.”).

The complex challenges and consequences of dealing with negative reviews is the subject of a nuanced essay by Emily St. John Mandel at The Millions. Mandel brings up a number of points related to negative reviews (using the negative Publishers Weekly review of her second novel as an example), not least of which is the disproportionate power of a review on sales i.e. the writer’s livelihood. But in the end, her sharpest observation is that while critics may not deserve to have the power they wield, the author is probably the worst possible candidate to remedy the situation. One of her writer friends asks, “Why…should the reviewers have the last word?” to which she replies:

Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you…at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.

But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.

It is so difficult for authors to respond gracefully to negative reviews that I’d like to mention two cases in which I was impressed by novelists and their relationship to bad press. In once case, I brought a particularly nasty review to the attention of Tao Lin. He responded, “Thank you. Extreme negative reviews are helpful and fun and interesting to me.” More recently, Publishers Weekly ran a mixed review of Lars Iyer‘s Spurious—a novel that features a insulting intellectual named W. The PW review concluded: “It’s a love it or hate it book: repetitive, too much in its own head, and self-satisfied, yes; but also piquant, often hilarious, and gutsy.” To which Iyer replied: “Thanks for this! Very amusing. ‘Repetitive, too much in its own head, and self-satisfied’: it’s worth it just for that W.-like put-down!”

You read so often about wounded egos, internet flame wars, petty grievances, vicious critics, and hyper-sensitive authors, that I feel it’s a great relief to encounter writers who are so lacking in vanity that they can view their criticism with a lightness of heart and a vital curiosity.