Thursday, November 10, 2011

On responding to reviewers

I'm intrigued by Jonathan Lethem's essay, "My Disappointment Critic," which responds to James Wood's negative review of The Fortress of Solitude. For those not closely following Lethem's career (why not?), Fortress and the review were published eight years ago. But, Lethem admits, he couldn't stop thinking about Wood's misrepresentations of his work:

I’d have taken a much worse evaluation from Wood than I got, if it had seemed precise and upstanding. I wanted to learn something about my work. Instead I learned about Wood. The letdown startled me. I hadn’t realized until Wood was off my pedestal that I’d built one. That I’d sunk stock in the myth of a great critic. Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?

Lethem's points are interesting, subtle, and also humorous, so it would be better for you to read the piece rather than for me to try to summarize his objections. The upshot is that Wood, in Lethem's view, simply wanted to read a different book than Fortress turned out to be: he did not evaluate it on its own terms. Moreover, Wood's terms are unnecessarily snobbish.

Now, I'm quite fond of the work of both Lethem and Wood, so I feel a little sad that they apparently don't see eye to eye. As far as I know, I am also yet to have the experience of a critic reviewing my own work. My general sense, though, is that one must resist the urge to respond to either good or bad reviews, to avoid looking overly needy ("Thank you for that great review! It made my day!") or bitter and pompous ("You are obviously too dumb to discern the subtleties of my prose."). But clearly writers violate this tenet all the time: witness the Letters section of the NYT Book Review. It does seem that, especially when hemmed in by tight deadlines and multiple obligations, critics can miss key points; or they can start out with fixed expectations and then, in the interests of time and simplicity, judge the book according to those. And writers can fail to get their intended points across. This is a slipperier business in fiction, though; I think readers should be free to see what they see in a story, even if the author didn't consciously put it there. Otherwise, what are book clubs and lit discussion sections for?*

Lethem makes a careful and convincing argument on his own behalf; I have no doubt Wood, if he so chooses, could do the same. What I like most about this piece, though, is how it reveals the humanity of both author and critic. Both are flawed, as writers and as people, even though their positions in this dynamic require that both pretend not to be. ("Here is my perfect book." "Here is my meticulous, objective judgment of that book." "Your judgment affects me not at all." "Your judgment of my judgment means nothing.") These formal rituals are built up to conceal very basic human questions: Do you like me? Am I good? Do I know anything for certain? It's worth remembering that both reviewer and reviewee have these questions.

In writing this piece, Lethem took the risk of seeming whiny, petty, needy, etc. But in bringing out the subtle, human dynamics of the writer's life, I think he did the right thing.

*This reminds me of another post I ought to do sometime, on the depiction of English/literature classes in film and TV. Unlike the vast majority of my experience, as a student and a teacher, classes in these shows invariably have a Socratic-style professor dragging the "correct" meaning of a passage out of the students: What does Romeo mean when he says...? Right you are, Billy! Or: Nnooo, that's not quite what he's saying; how about a hint? The students are occasionally inspired, if the teacher is passionate and/or colorful, but more often they are bored, and rightly so. This is bad publicity for the literary profession, and something really should be done about it!

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