Suspend Your Disbelief

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great post on needlessly bitchy reviews

Hear, hear is what I thought when I read Laura Roberts’ response to a not merely negative, but mean and oddly personal review in the Montreal Gazette of Jon Paul Fiorentino’s novel Stripmalling.

An excerpt from Roberts’ blog:

reviews should not be needlessly bitchy.

This is a guideline given to anyone who writes reviews for Quill & Quire, Canada’s magazine of book news and reviews, and I think that it applies equally well to reviewers more generally. Or, as Dave Eggers’ literary magazine The Believer puts it, “Thou shalt not slag anyone off.”

“But Laura!” you may be saying, “Aren’t some books just BAD? Shouldn’t we write snarky things about them and put their authors in their places?” Okay, yes: some books are just bad! Maybe Jon Paul’s book is truly terrible. But even if it is, why would you make it personal? Why write mean things, in public, about the author himself? As the Gazette reviewer writes in his first sentence, “Jon Paul Fiorentino’s ‘novel’ Stripmalling should be the final nail in the coffin of literature’s most pernicious aphorism, ‘write what you know’ (a phrase that actually occurs in the book).” Not so snarky? Allow me to emphasize the scare quotes. Yes, the ones around the word NOVEL, implying that Jon Paul’s book doesn’t actually qualify as such.

At FWR, our specific policy is to only review books we would recommend…qualifications and complicated/mixed reactions are great, but it’s contrary to our mission to revel in pans, and we don’t have the time or resources to waste space on reviews of books we hope others won’t read. I like the idea of do no harm, so if one of our reviewers dislikes a book, we withhold publicity altogether rather than seize an opportunity to show off a particular reviewer’s snarkish gifts.

This said, I recognize that there is a place for negative reviews in other publications; there’s even a need for them. It’s just as important for readers (and writers) to hear about books that don’t work and why they don’t, about books that annoy or even offend. Reviewers are critics, gatekeepers; sometimes a book needs to be constructively criticized in a public forum. The key word here is constructively, and I’m talking about how criticism benefits the literary community–its scholars, practitioners, and readers–more than the book’s author.

What does focusing on a book’s flaws or, conversely, its merits accomplish, and what does this add to the larger literary conversation? If a reviewer can’t answer this question, why is the book even being discussed? Except in very specific cases — when the author is a famous millionaire sitting on a heap of bestsellers; or has been in the reviewer’s opinion unjustly wreathed in glorious praise; or has declined from magnificent to lazy; or was the recipient of an ungodly, misused advance — even the most clever of super-bitchy reviews do nothing but a disservice to readers and, potentially, serious harm to the artists they attack. The pointlessly cruel reviewer brings to mind an angry restaurant-goer who, peeved that the apple pie was cold, delights (and feels wholly justified) in getting the waiter fired.

BONUS: A couple of days after posting about the review, Laura did a Q&A with Jon Paul Fiorentino.

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