Monthly Archives: July 2009

Why Authors Are Furious, Part 2

I STILL DON’T BLAME THEM

As mentioned last week, I don’t blame authors for blowing up at reviewers who spoil the ending or otherwise ruin the experience for the very readers they’re supposed to serve.

This is a time when newspapers are trying to win back readers by saying, “Don’t bother with those slovenly customer reviews on Amazon! We have professional reviewers for you. We pay them for their skills. You can trust what they say.”

Uh huh. That would be fine if  these same critics weren’t violating every rule in the criticism handbook (not that there is one) about, you know,  blabbing key details that happen midway or stepping in front of the material to point at themselves or digressing endlessly until the subject of review (could be a movie or play, too) dies on the vine of TMI (too much information).

Giving Away the Ending

Here’s the kind of language I hate: After a long and thoughtful review of a certain movie (I’m not going to mention titles),  the otherwise fastidious Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer gives the whole thing away by writing: “In the end, Maggie is reconciled with TomAndrew Sarris as he and Sarah take their child away for further treatment.” That’s great Mr. Sarris: In one swoop of betrayal, you’ve just told us the battling couple gets back together, there’s hope for the child and there’s no reason for readers to stick around for the ending.

Or this: “When it ends, in shocking carnage, the teenage mind briefly and improbably makes perfect sense.” This from another writer yet, Chandra Prasad, giving thumbnail reviews of her favorite books to The Week magazine. Chandra PrasadDon’t you think in a 45-word review you could talk about something else you liked about this book?

This one kills me: “Mr. Hely doesn’t know how to end this book. In the final chapters he torpedoes Pete’s cynicism in ways that will disappoint anyone who was enjoying the jaundiced humor.” First of all, NYT reviewer Janet Maslin who should be ashamed,  it’s not the business of critics to guess what the author does or does not know how to do.Janet MaslinSecond, there’s nothing more deflating for the reader than to learn that all the humor leading up to the end is going to fall flat.

Even a hint at the way a story ends wrecks the entire experience. Readers find themselves anticipating what’s coming rather than enjoy what’s unfolding. As much as I admire the usually disciplined Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York times,  I could not believe her comment that a first novel is “flawed by a predictable and unsatisfying ending.” Oh, how ruinously hath the seed been planted!  It’s hard to get hooked on a novel knowing it’s going to be “unsatisfying” in the end!

Michiko KakutaniHere’s Rule #1 of the (nonexistent) Critical Writing Handbook:  If you want to say something about an ending, or really anything that happens after the first chapter, don’t even allude to the part in the story where it occurs. Make your point but stay away from the timing. In the Prasad case, the critic might say, “the author is capable of shocking carnage, and ….” or in the Kakutani review, “the narrative can be predictable and sometimes unsatisfying, but overall…”

Ruining the Story

And what a let-down to say the least is Maria Russo‘s Sunday NYTBR review of a collection of related stories about a couple’s relationship:  “When, in the collection’s last story … the lovers appear to have drifted back together, even the most hardened cynic might grant them a smile.” Why, you rat, thinks the reader. You want to see a “hardened cynic?” Keep writing.

And I don’t care if it’s a trade magazine like Publishers Weekly reviewing a passing romance by Danielle Steel. There’s something  criminal about a review that says the author  “offers a satisfying twist at book’s end that most readers won’t see coming.” Yeah, well, they will now.

Rex ReedThen there are reviewers like Rex Reed (such a veteran! what a pity!) who announce that they won’t give away the ending but proceed to do just that.    “No spoilers,” says  Reed in the Observer,  “but things take some tragic left turn and two lives are needlessly lost … ” Oh, Rex, honey, two people die in the end? Granted, it may happen that the story forecasts the two deaths early on, so it won’t be a surprise to the viewer. But Rex, you have to deal with the reader now. Even the appearance of spoiling the ending (two people dead, Rex!) spoils the review now.

Here’s another I-promise-not-to-give-the-ending-away-until-I-decide-to-ruin-it review, this one from Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle: “All that can be said about their sojourn without giving away too much is that Carlos brings out the recklessness in Jessie and that she is the only one who boards the next Trans-Siberian train ….” That’s a classic example of “giving away too much.” Continue reading

Two Furious Authors Tell Reviewers Where To Get Off

I DON’T BLAME THEM


1. How To Say ‘Up Yours’: Alice Hoffman

Well, if I were Alice Hoffman, I’d go bonkers myself over the way modern critics not only give away too much plot in the novels they review (and the movies, plays, etc.) but seem determined to spoil the ending. images

Hoffman is in the news because she Twittered out her anger in 27 different Tweets about a mixed-to-negative Boston Globe review by Roberta Silman of her new book, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart/Crown; 325 pages; $25).

Granted, Hoffman got a bit carried away by calling Silman a “moron” and insisting that “any idiot can be a critic” (hey!), and she got a bit vindictive by giving out Silman’s private email and phone number so that readers can “tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

Hoffman has apologized for responding “strongly” in the “heat of the moment” and says she’s “sorry if I offended anyone,” which is the usual code for “my publisher won’t let me say ‘up yours.’ ”

But  I think we should listen to Hoffman’s more important and far-reaching statement — one that is true of way too many reviews these days — about being “dismayed” because  the review “gave away the plot of the novel.”

Two Reviewers Give It Away

Which many reviews today often do. Silman refers to “the secret that is the linchpin of the book” and then appears to disclose it. She describes key plot points in Part Two, which is way too far in the book to follow the heart of the novel’s story. She tells us how the book ends by naming the “only” character who “is given a chance to grow,” by revealing the two estranged characters whom we’re hoping will bond but find “no resolution,” and divulging the hero-turned-drug addict who’s institutionalized but “does bear a child and reform,” yet “never really matures.”

No wonder Hoffman went off her feed. I bet she was already smarting from a similar debacle at the Washington Post, where critic Wendy Smith not only follows the development of a key character far too long and with too much detail, she  then drops the bomb that the character is “responsible for a death that estranges her from the family, but a series of poignant scenes shows her tentative attempts to reconnect.” Smith spoils the end of the book by telling us about “this radiant finale” in which a wedding in Paris provides the sisters with “a tender opportunity to reconcile.”

Let me just say, too, that it doesn’t matter if any of these salient details are provided at the beginning of the book. It is the reviewer’s charge never to even seem to give the book away, to step in front of the material, to plant a seed in the reader’s mind (she does “reform”) that will one day spoil a fresh reading of the text. (More about this next week.)

The Fall of Lit Crit

I have a theory that the standards of literary criticism have fallen in direct proportion to the “democratization” of publishing and blogging on the Internet. Stands to reason, no? Those first customer reviews on Amazon years ago weren’t (and for the most part still aren’t) notable for their professionalism, heaven knows. But  boy, did they have energy (still do) and how ebulliently they make themselves heard. Read four or five of ‘em and you glean enough about the book to know if it’s for you.  At the same time, these charged-up contributors feel they are part of a reading family and would never spoil the fun of others by giving away key aspects of a book. So you can scroll through customer reviews on just about any website without having to keep one eye closed, which I find myself doing with so-called professional criticism of everything from books to movies to theater.

2. Blogging for Revenge: Alain de Botton

In this case I have to say as a reader, what in heck was the New York Times Book Review thinking of last Sunday when a wretched piece of bad writing showed up disguised as a book review of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” by Alain de Botton (Pantheon; 327 pages; $26)?images-1

You’d think a book with a straightforward title like that would be easy to describe, but no. I read the full-page review by Caleb Crain three times and I still didn’t know what it was about. Crain accuses de Botton of mockery, condescension, mean-spiritedness, superficial judgment and spite, but he never tells us the “initial goal” of the book, except to say the author “has already lost track of (it)” by Chapter 3.

Of course if I were advising de Botton, I would have tied him to a chair before allowing him to write a vitriolic message to Crain for all on the Internet to see. This part especially is regrettable: “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.”

But I would have spread out the red carpet for de Botton to say this: “I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon — so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer.” Continue reading