04 June 2013

Faint praise

The Los Angeles Review of Books is an online journal that sprung up after the L.A. Times cut way back on its books coverage in the past few years. It has a policy, unspoken before about a week ago, of not reviewing debut authors unless the review is positive. Senior humanities editor Evan Kindley outlined on Twitter that when reviews come back negative, the publication either ignores them or kills the negative reviews. (What it does with all those kill fees is not certain, but then again I'm not sure the LARB pays contributors at all.) Critic D.G. Myers retorted with an admirable fierceness that such a policy is similar to the "trophies for everyone" behavior of children's soccer teams, and that if everything is positive then the LARB's positive reviews are diluted in comparison.

Here are some reasons this policy doesn't sit right by me:

  • As Myers points out, a review will be used by some people as a purchasing guide. I can buy Book A or Book B, but not both; what have I heard about either of them? 
  • Concern for authors' feelings is not a critical faculty. I know, I know! But it is up to them how they want to handle their hypothetical negative reviews. As a critic it is not up to me to make them feel better, only to convince them (and everyone) that I am right. (Typical oldest child behavior. How else do you think I got here?)
  • The LARB editor admitted that said policy gets bent in the case of really big debuts anyway. So it's okay to say negative things about a book that is going commercially big or critically big, because the author can just cry into her wallet/ gloating New York Times review? 
  • When done correctly, a pan or a negative review does not destroy someone's life. Unless you're Michiko Kakutani I suppose, and I'm not. (But even her -- she's reviewed some unkillables.) It may seem unfair and unjust to the author, and incorrect to anyone else. But it should not grind the axe to that point. 
  • As I love to point out, critics also have feelings, and one of those feelings is fury at having read a book only to come face-to-face with something that didn't work and was very unpleasant to endure. Since I am honor bound to finish books I review professionally, I recognize that when the dust settles I will take those books apart and say, "This is why that didn't work for me." That is one of the attractions for me, the reward I get for the "hazards." (That should have about 8 more air quotes attached to either side.) 
  • Finally, and not specifically speaking of the LARB here, this only adds fuel to the untrue theory that The Internet Now is all about "nice" and is hardly the ferocious beastie it used to be. It's still ferocious. It just hides better. And telling everybody that it's nice is like a license for some people to be even worse, and then to attack all their critics with the Nice Stick because, what the heck?! You owe me nice!

That said I know I have been less hard on debut books I didn't like than on books of the same caliber by authors with storied careers. This isn't fair and perhaps makes me a hypocrite, but occasionally I get the sense that with a well-known author... things... are overlooked on the way to publication that would trigger rewriting frenzy with a first author. It's a different flavor of disappointment when a precedent has been set.

What do you think is the best way to approach first-time authors?

1 comment:

Marjorie said...

I'm not sure I agree. A policy of no negative reviews at all might be a "trophies for everyone" situation, but even then, the analogy is only apt if everyone does, indeed, get a review, and not even Publishers Weekly manages that. There's such an astonishingly large number of books being published every year, why dedicate bandwidth to a bad debut by an author nobody has heard of? What's the point of telling the world about that book? If something is selling really well and/or getting rave reviews, it's possible that readers will want to see what their favorite reviews at the LARB think of it, but if it's just one of the zillions of books being launched and the reviewer doesn't think there's something noteworthy about it, then a negative review seems to me like a negligible bit of publicity and a boring piece of literary journalism.