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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams
New York,
November 09
I work here. In my other incarnations, I'm the culture critic for PRI's The Takeaway, and my book, "Gimme Shelter" comes out from S&S 3/3/9.

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JULY 1, 2009 8:01AM

Author Tweets of Rage

Rate: 12 Flag

Alice Hoffman did it.

Earlier this week, Ayelet Waldman did too. Responding to a review of her new book, Bad Mother, in The New Yorker,  Waldman told the world "May Jill Lepore rot in hell. That is all."

(That, by the way, may not be all. A Salon reader reports Waldman's earlier version of the tweet referred to Lepore as a "twat," though there's nothing to that effect up now.)

But why stop at Twitter? Monday, Alain De Botton responded to a negative New York Times review by posting on the blog of the critic who wrote it, Caleb Crain. Clearly no fan of restraint, De Botton wrote, "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude."

I'm a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and a recently published author myself. 

In my own reviewing, I try my best to support my argument for why   a book does or doesn't achieve what the author set out to do. (I hate when critics pound a book for being what it is -- if you don't like, say, scifi, do us a favor and don't read it.)

And while I've had a few unpleasant moments of shoe on the other footness as an author,  I've tried to suck that up.

A Salon staffer who used to work at a newspaper said this week that when they'd get irate letters from authors about their reviews (remember when there were letters?) she'd ask the authors if they really wanted them to publish them. Because as she said, "This isn't going to make you look good."

Authors, entertaining as your public tantrums are, I humbly suggest you get yourself an internal editor to ask, "Do you really want to this published?" Unless you're Norman  Mailer, who is dead and therefore you're not, it won't boost your myth as a larger than life literary figure. It'll just make you look like a thin skinned doof.

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Excellent article in Big Salon, MB. (Here, too.) And if you haven't seen it, Michael Hartford has a nice take on the issue.
Good reminder for all of us. Think before typing. Thanks and Rated.
I'm a book critic too, and I find this approach incredibly American. In Britain papers actively recruit reviewers who have grudges against the authors and they let the fur fly. And that's why they still have book sections.

Here we write reviews like book reports. And then we wonder why nobody reads. The job of trying to figure out whether or not a writer achieves his vision seems to me to be the job an editor, not a critic. The job of professional critics (if it remains a job) is to cess out whether or not the book will have a place in people's libraries, or in the the landscape of contemporary literature.

My favourite critics, however, are those that simply convey their passion, and even dispassion for reading. I miss Nick Hornby's column, and reading about the books he didn't read that month, and the world cup, and everything that goes into the life of a contemporary reader.

If authors want to tweet their rage. GOOD. So what if they look bad? Makes them human. It pumps some vitality into the increasingly moribund North American literary community.

We've been protecting them from themselves for far too long, and I'm not sure it's doing them all that much good.
Man, hard to believe people smart enough to write a decent book can be this stupid.

I like the approach I've heard some actors mention, which is that they don't read any of their reviews, because if you believe the good ones (which of course you want to), you also need to believe the bad ones. I'm guessing these authors aren't ever writing to say, "So and so gave me a glowing review, and I don't know what she's been smoking because I sooo don't deserve it!" Any critic who praises them is smart and telling the truth and any who doesn't is a twat, or should rot in hell. Very nice.

So can I get my book published now? I was raised to have good manners and promise I'd never embarrass myself or my publisher like this.
Thanks for the pointer, Rob!

And silkstone, I got my book deal the old fashioned way -- blackmailing and backstabbing everyone I've ever known.
I think critics tell you whether you might be interested in reading the book. But that's just an opinion. Like a movie review. You have to decide for yourself who to believe and why or why not. I review books all the time. I LIKED Waldman's book. I thought the NYer article was stupid. If authors want to tweet their anger, I'm with Julie,so be it. Why should they have to cave into the assumptions of a reviewer? Why not express their anger and disappointment. I have gotten some not so great reviews myself and never bothered to correct them publicly but I can't say I never will.

What's the big deal? An author puts his or her life into a book (most of the time) and if they think a critic got it wrong, then let them bitch, I say.
I know authors aren't supposed to "bitch" but critics can't be seen as infallible. The ultimate is the NY Times review, of course and "I will hate you until the day I die" doesn't seem as helpful as "I think you completely missed the central theme" but what the hell. PS: Juliet is right; the British book review sections are priceless. I can't say I have a thick enough skin but if I were to release my book in Britain, my god, I'd develop one!

The only bad PR is no PR.
I try in my response to reviews of my books to emulate my mom's comments about raising kids: "I don't want the praise when they're good, because I don't want the blame when they're bad." Just so with the reviews, as silkstone pointed out: I try not to pay attention to the good ones (even though they're so right!) because when the occasional bad one comes along, it's good to be able to take a breath and walk away without wanting to hit someone (however, of course, justifiably). By the way, Juliet: I think you mean "suss out" -- and no doubt, tantrums spice up a scene. But I don't see how that makes it better; recruiting someone with a grudge to write a book review is absurd and for better or worse I'm glad we don't do it, however American that makes us.
Mary Elizabeth, thanks for the publishing tip. I may be screwed, since I have no dirt on anyone and I lost my backstabbing knife years ago.

BTW, I've only read excerpts from your book (on Salon) but look forward to reading all of it as my partner and I have gone through some travail in the housing market (boom and then bust) out here in Calif. It's a juicy topic!
Best way to deal with them...just don't read them.
This whole thing makes me really glad that I never publicly responded to this really awful review of my punk wrestling memoir ("Beer, Blood and Cornmeal" [ECW Press, 2008]) that I received from this pro wrestling website. The guy even called me a racist. I wanted to but I slept on it. When I woke up the next day, I realized that I could now call my book "the controversial bestseller." They could emblazon that on the front cover of the next printing (if there is one). You know, I'll take that. Great post. Rated.
I'm with Juliet and Lisa (and I miss Hornby's column sooo much) - so often the reviewer isn't someone whose tastes much less opinions mesh with my own, and I've always hated how the Times is treated like the final, august word on whether a book is good or not. One person's opinion doesn't quite cut it for me, not all the time anyway.

And I don't agree, at all that an author must take the bad with the good. Sometimes reviews are just crap - sometimes they are even personally attacking, rather than dealing with, you know, the *writing*. Not all opinions are equally valid.
A book I wrote got a scathing review. I thought the person who wrote it was a lonely, repressed person with sexual orientation issues, but I let it pass. I actually toyed with the idea of publicizing the review myself. "The worst book ever written!" But I got talked out of it.

I feel that both very good and very bad reviews are the best, because that means that the person who wrote it was deeply moved by what I had written or produced as an artwork. Tepid reviews, or reviews saying, "This is so trite. It's been done a thousand times better, etc., etc." could be maddening to me, as I put my heart and soul into producing an original piece of work. And even if it might be trash, I consider it to be good trash.

So the short answer is, you are correct. I agree with you 100%. rated.
I prefer wit and truthfulness to "niceness" and pandering myself.