It’s been a few months since the bookish among us pondered the question of the value of negative book reviews, so Francine Prose and Zoe Heller are reheating the issue in the New York Times:
The publishing industry, we hear, is in trouble. So why would a sensible writer tell people not to buy a book? If the novel, as we also hear, is moribund or dead, why drive another nail into its sad little coffin? And lately there seems to be a cultural moratorium on saying something “bad” about anyone or anything, unless you’re a politician, in which case that’s your job.
I used to confess that there was a time when I wrote negative reviews. Don’t blame me — I was young! I admit that it provided a wicked sort of fun, especially when I was writing for an editor-friend who delighted in sending me books that weren’t exactly “serious” but got under my skin. Sadly, it’s easier to be witty when one is being unkind. Friends would say, “Oh, I just adored your hilarious essay on that celebrity’s memoir about her fabulous million-dollar face-lift.” And what would they say when I praised a book? Nothing.
Even so, I stopped. I began returning books I didn’t like to editors. I thought, Life is short, I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love. And writing a bad book didn’t seem like a crime deserving the sort of punitive public humiliation (witch-dunking, pillorying) that our Puritan forefathers so spiritedly administered.
But in the last year or so, I’ve found myself again writing negative reviews — as if, after quitting for three decades, I’d suddenly resumed smoking, or something else I’d forsworn. Once more, it’s a question of what gets under my skin, and of trying to understand why. I’ve begun to think, If something bothers me that much, life is too short not to say so.
My reaction as an author? Fine.
I’d like to be one of those authors who doesn’t read reviews one way or another. Unfortunately, I don’t have a publicist to read them for me, pull useful quotes from the good ones for marketing purposes, and rain toads on poisoned pen owners. I get stuck doing those chores myself. (Actually, I’d never rain toads on the author of a negative review. That’d cost money.)
So, yes. In their immediate aftermaths, reviews, both good and bad, matter to me. That said, though a good review, whether a reader review or one in print, boosts my ego a mite for a day or two and helps when a blurb is needed for marketing tweets, means little in the end. Similarly a bad review, though it might inspire me to sing “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd while sharpening things (for a day or two), it too is ultimately, equally meaningless. The life of a novel is long, longer than any of us will be here. Some novels come out to instant praise and prizes, only to fade from memory because they lack a voice that speaks to the next generation, or the generation that follows. Other novels may languish for years, slowly gathering readers over time, and finally become popular when their authors are either wizened or dead.
Take a look at this list of Pulizer winners from the 1920s and 1930s:
- 1920: no award given
- 1921: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
- 1922: Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington
- 1923: One of Ours by Willa Cather
- 1924: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson
- 1925: So Big by Edna Ferber
- 1926: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (declined prize)
- 1927: Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield
- 1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
- 1929: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin
- 1930: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge
- 1931: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes
- 1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
- 1933: The Store by Thomas Sigismund Stribling
- 1934: Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller
- 1935: Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson
- 1936: Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis
- 1937: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- 1938: The Late George Apley by John Phillips Marquand
- 1939: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
When was the last time you read Years of Grace, The Store, or Now in November? You haven’t, have you? (I’m setting myself up to hear from the one guy who has. I know this.) You bet your ass they were all the rage when your grandparents and great-grandparents were growing up. I’m sure the major papers and magazines praised them to the skies, hailing them as great works for their time. Some of these books have survived. Gone With the Wind, thanks to the movie, still has readers. The Age of Innocence is still well-regarded, and though Arrowsmith has lasted long enough, I think, to see Lewis other major works–Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry–overtake it in reputation, it’s still got enough cultural currency for the band Aerosmith to take their name from it. Still, all the great notices in the world couldn’t save most of these other tomes from time’s scythe.
Contrawise, it’s easy to find the bad notices given to famous, celebrated authors. Hell, even Shakespeare got his. Has it hurt them? Not really. The only function these reviews still serve is to be dragged out and paraded in front of undergraduates to show just how wrong and silly the critics of the author’s own time were. “Shakes-scene”! “Upstart crow”! Ha ha! It is to laugh.
So critics, take whatever tone strikes your fancy. Write bad reviews or don’t, as you please. Because whatever you write, books will still have to prosper or perish on their ability to speak to generations that neither their authors nor their critics will ever have a chance to know.