Reviewers behaving badly

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Reviewers behaving badly

Postby ElaineB » 23 Aug 2012, 00:01

Perhaps you are aware of the thrashing a reviewer gave an author in the New York Times: Here if You Need Me: ‘Inside’ and ‘Signs and Wonders,’ by Alix Ohlin

Ohlin’s language betrays an appalling lack of register — language that limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor. Mitch’s “heart sang” and then Mitch’s “heart sank”; poor Mitch “felt his heart cracking like ice cubes in warm water.” ... In just 13 pages you will be asked to endure eyes “fluttering,” then “shining,” then “fluttering” again. Mitch’s girlfriend is “brilliantly smart” — imagine for a second the special brand of languor required to connect those two terms — and also blows her nose “goose-honkingly hard.” Ohlin’s preferred simile is some variation of the lazy “like a child,” and she has a baffling fondness for the most worthless word in English: “weird.”

Teeth are described as “white,” as if we needed telling. About a porn magazine: “The girls were young, with enormous fake breasts.” William Gass once called this breed of abysmal writing “the uselessly precise fact” — it’s what you doodle when you need to fill a page but have nothing important to say. What then passes for wisdom in this novel? Nonsense clichés: “Nice guys finish last.” The absurdly obvious: “Anyone driven to hang himself would have to be suffering deeply and terribly.” Preciousness: “It was hard to believe they’d ever been so young.” And this platitude chained to pronoun disagreement: “Nobody could look their best when lying in a hospital bed after a car accident.”

For a writer so invested in the bland earnestness of realism, Ohlin forces her characters to speak and behave like few humans from reality: her dialogue, by turns stenographic and saccharine, sounds transplanted from the desiccated pages of Danielle Steel. By book’s end you will have counted one rape, one attempted rape, one impromptu marriage proposal, one death by cancer, one attempted suicide, three successful suicides, two car crashes in a 10-page span, four unwanted or unexpected pregnancies for three different women and a miscarriage for a fourth — all of which speak to Ohlin’s narrative technique: when in doubt, impregnate or kill.


Whew. It caused a firestorm on Facebook and Twitter.

Here's an interesting insight: Within Spitting Distance: William Giraldi, Alix Ohlin, and the Book of the Damned

In the past, I’ve found the ability of my fellow writers to maim others with a flick of a pen rather uplifting—particularly after a bad breakup or in light of stupid reviews of my own work. But this time, I could only think: Oh, Billy, what did you do now?

You see, William Giraldi—or Billy, as I know him—is a friend of mine.
...
But I also know Alix. I was lucky enough to meet her when she was a Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and I was one of the lowly members of Bread Loaf’s topsy-turvy elite: the waiters. I served Alix bread. I drank whisky with Alix. I sat more than happily through Alix’s readings and craft classes. Alix is, well, adorable. She’s also a damned good writer.
...
When I finally got the nerve to read the review, I was horrified. Billy isn’t a newcomer to reviewing. His work appears in almost every magazine you can name. He’s tireless and incredibly thorough. He’s been highly awarded for his work. But this review, it’s almost as if he suffered a manic episode after having been locked in solitary for a week with only a thesaurus for a friend. The review is cruel, repetitive, and strangled by its own attempts at elocution. The last few lines would rankle even the most dormant feminist. I could only think: What happened?
...
I haven’t yet had the chance to talk to Billy about his review. In truth, I don’t know if I want to. He likely won’t have satisfactory answers for me, or any answers at all. As for Alix, she seems to be playing the role that every writer must—to sit as quietly as possible while her career explodes. Luckily, those who love her work aren’t being so quiet. There are human beings on all sides of this equation. The page is an easy place to pretend otherwise. But in the end, the book world is not merely “a small city,” as J. Robert Lennon smartly contends. It’s sometimes a very small house. To sustain it, all parties must be honest in their intentions: For publications to discover and promote great books, even if they find them at the bottom of the pile; for reviewers to raise the level of the discussion without self-aggrandizing and to ensure that writers keep writing at the top of their form; and for writers to write our damnedest. We should never consent to anything less.


The emphasis is mine--how recipients of such reviews should behave and I like how she describes the role of reviews.
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby Proofrdr » 23 Aug 2012, 00:25

As I see it, the reviewer is being totally honest in naming the problems and giving examples. The problem is that the code of the reviewer is to couch criticism in language that cushions the blow; Giraldi put that aside and went in for the kill.

On the one hand, people who care about language probably won't seek out that author's books in the future; on the other hand, the firestorm of protest will generate sales for her from people who don't care. You know that old saw--"Any publicity is good publicity." I think it's a wash for the author who is wisely remaining silent. Giraldi, however, may see a dip in the number of books sent to him for review.
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby PaulaO » 23 Aug 2012, 06:55

I didn't see his examples as him being wrong. They were quite correct. I didn't see his review as being overly harsh but I would not want to be the author.

I would expect reviewers to use big words.

What happened to reviewers having a bad day? They aren't allowed to dislike a book and say so? I thought that was their job. If all they reviewed were good books, I'd not read the reviews after the first five. Same if all they do is give bad reviews.

I think what happened is it is like a literary flash mob. An author got a bad review and enough folks raised a stink it got noticed which then created more folks to continue stinking up the place.

But many attagirls to the author for keeping her mouth shut and her keyboard silent!

[All I could think of after I finished reading the quote Eleine provided was: eegads, he'd rip lesbian romance to shreds!]
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby Baker » 23 Aug 2012, 07:13

Proofrdr wrote:As I see it, the reviewer is being totally honest in naming the problems and giving examples. The problem is that the code of the reviewer is to couch criticism in language that cushions the blow; Giraldi put that aside and went in for the kill.

Hmm. That would be true if not for phrases like this: "imagine for a second the special brand of languor required to connect those two terms". That is snide, not a recounting of a factual problem. I should imagine you could cherry pick examples of less than stellar wordsmithing (a handful of adjectives in the whole book might be all it takes) in pretty much any book ever written and make it seem like the whole work was riddled with limp and lazy writing. Personally, I would regard that review as someone with a personal axe to grind and not a reliable indicator of the book(s) in question.
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities ~ Voltaire
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby FranW » 23 Aug 2012, 08:18

Critique the collection of words, not the person who wrote them.
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby Proofrdr » 23 Aug 2012, 11:07

I stand corrected and humbly acquiesce. That ad hominem attack has no place in a review. I totally read right through it.
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby ElaineB » 23 Aug 2012, 12:32

PaulaO wrote:[All I could think of after I finished reading the quote Eleine provided was: eegads, he'd rip lesbian romance to shreds!]

Can you imagine?

I recently read a well-written review of an apparently horrible lesfic book. What bugs me about this guy is the glee he takes and how much he seems to enjoy his own cleverness. What I took away from the well-written but harsh critique was, I want to raise my game so that I'm never on the receiving end of such a review. No way to guarantee that--there will always be someone who hates even the best book. But I think a bad review should motivate, not humiliate.
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby wildlx » 23 Aug 2012, 21:53

By book’s end you will have counted one rape, one attempted rape, one impromptu marriage proposal, one death by cancer, one attempted suicide, three successful suicides, two car crashes in a 10-page span, four unwanted or unexpected pregnancies for three different women and a miscarriage for a fourth — all of which speak to Ohlin’s narrative technique: when in doubt, impregnate or kill.

:snigger: After this comment who would have want to read the book? Even forgetting the examples about the way she (badly) uses words.
A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. “The Woman-Identified Woman” Radicalesbians (1970)
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby Baker » 24 Aug 2012, 08:51

I missed that bit. OMG. Okay, so not the book for me.

Elaine wrote:What I took away from the well-written but harsh critique was, I want to raise my game so that I'm never on the receiving end of such a review.

It won't matter how well you write, how many people like your books, or how many copies you sell, you will never be able to obviate the possibility of someone with a platform taking the hatchet to what you write. You simply cannot control anyone else. You can only control yourself. If some asshat wants to give themselves a thrill by using a book of yours as a punching bag, it can happen.
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities ~ Voltaire
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Re: Reviewers behaving badly

Postby Nurse Jo » 27 Aug 2012, 06:21

Purely as a reader, I do find reviews like these amusing. Whilst I agree that he has probably gone a little far, it is not any different to the reviews in the mainstream papers of first night plays, musicals, operas or books that I read every weekend. The critics can be savage but I have to say I rather enjoy reading the ones that are witty. It's also fun to see the difference in opinions, one paper will praise a book/play etc , another will say it's drivel.

I really admire the author for keeping quiet, that is dignified and normal. If she wrote back that would be silly and only humiliate her. The critic is entitled to his opinion, no matter how biased it may be.
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