Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Should an Author Respond to a Bad Review?

The Kerfuffle of the Week in the book reviewing world was the dustup between Mark Danner and George Packer over the latter's mostly negative review of Danner's new book, Stripping Bare the Body, in the New York Times Book Review. Danner responded to Packer with a 1400-word rebuttal, or rather a 1400-word critique of Packer's review and of the Times for assigning it to him in the first place. (Packer than riposted in a shorter answer also published in the TBR.)

I admire both writers' journalism, and not having read Danner's book, I won't try to pick sides in the dispute. I merely want to point out how lucky Danner is to have been given so many column inches to punch back at a review he didn't like! Usually trying to rebut bad reviews is a losing game. Few publications can, or care to, allot much space to an author with a chip on his shoulder (justified or not) about a poor review. As you can imagine, the wronged author typically has a lot to say about what was wrong with his review--then he or she finds his epic fulmination edited down to a 200-word bleat. Making it worse, the reviewing organ gives the original reviewer space for a re-rebuttal that is often longer than the author's critique.

This is one reason why I often suggest to authors that they ignore bad reviews. It's better to be philosophical and figure that any publicity is good publicity. (I have come to believe this is usually true, with some ghastly exceptions.) But even if you believe that your book has been misrepresented and the record must be set straight, the result of the tit-for-tat-for-tit exchange rarely comports with your sense of justice.

My advice to authors is to take the approach of one notoriously controversial writer, who--at least according to literary legend--had a pre-printed postcard that he used to reply to readers who wrote in to excoriate him for a some column or article.  It read, entirely, as follows:

Dear Sir or Madam,
You may be right. 
Sincerely, H. L. Mencken.


Football Chick said...

Authors who defend themselves against bad reviews have even more reason to be cautious these days. The nasty literary squabbling of the summer (Alice Hoffman, Alain de Botton) offered serious cautionary tales about punching back online in a way you can't retract and that is instantly everywhere. Rarely do authors regret taking the high road.

Janice Harayda said...

Hi, Peter,
Speaking as someone who spent 11 years as the book editor of a daily newspaper: How writers should respond depends on what was objectionable about the review.

No responsible book editor should mind if an author points out briefly and politely that a critic made a factual error, such as getting the name of the main character in a novel wrong. Nor should any editor object if the author mentions an undisclosed conflict of interest (such as that the reviewer once dated the author).

Quite the opposite: Good editors want to know if critics aren't upholding the standards of the profession about accuracy and fairness. The problems tend to arise when authors and critics disagree on what constitutes an "error" or "conflict of interest."

So I think posts like yours are helpful, because they give both sides a chance to air out some of the issues. Thanks!
Jan Harayda

Peter Ginna said...

Jan--Thanks for offering the newspaper editor's perspective. I would agree that it's appropriate for an author to call out factual errors in a review. Steve Weinberg says something similar from an author's point of view in a comment at Michael Hasting's blog here:

JHoward said...

Hi Peter,

Good post. I spent 10 years at the Washington Post Book World and can count on one hand the number of author responses we ran that truly felt justified (or, just as important, effective). For the most part, it's a losing proposition. If there's a factual error, it can also be corrected with an editor's note, sparing the aggrieved author the risk of looking like she or he is a bad sport.

Then again, from the reader's perspective it can be very entertaining to watch authors and reviewers duke it out in public. Some of the exchanges in the NYRB are literature in their own right.

Peter Ginna said...

For sure. I love a good literary foodfight as much as anybody and the NYRB is the place to find them. But part of what motivated my post is a pretty hostile review the NYRB ran of a title I edited. My author wrote an extensive rebuttal but it was edited down to 300 words in print--and then their reviewer got another 600 words of last licks!

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