Criticizing Your Critics: How To Do It

It’s hard to come out looking good when refuting a bad review. Witness Katharine Rosman, who earlier this month posted a long complaint on Gawker about how The New York Times Book Review done her wrong. “The mention of my book even shorter-reductive, really, misrepresenting the content of my book in the apparent service of tossing as many nasty barbs as possible into 212 words,” she wrote. Ostensibly, she was criticizing the critic’s method; in reality, it read as a personal greivance.

Steve Almond has now attempted a similar feat on The Rumpus. He handles it more deftly than Rosman. Rather than wallowing (well, rather than wallowing too much) in the reviewer’s failure to understand what he was up to, Almond frames his complaint as a broader comment on the state of book criticism:

I’m really tired of reading reviews – in the NYTBR and elsewhere – in which I feel essentially stuck inside some critic’s cant, with no clear view of the author’s world, let alone the broader ideas that ostensibly made the book worth reviewing. Or in which the subject of the review isn’t really the author’s book at all, but the imaginary book the critic not-so-secretly wishes he or she had written instead.

Spurred by The Times‘ bad review of his latest book, he calls for criticism that’s “about our good intentions and our bad conduct, about those ecstatic confusions that made us fall in love with books in the first place.” He allows the reviewer his opinion in a way that mostly does not sound huffy (For contrast, Rosman: “Mr. Jennings can hate my book, but…“); he has an agenda beyond rectifying perceived slights. He even talks about people who are not himself—citing other people’s book reviews he found unfair, and others he found effective. He says things like this:

The reviews in question had something to teach me—about dumb decisions I made at the keyboard, about the limited appeal of my sensibility, about certain habits of excess borne of my own doubt.

But still: it’s a dicey business. Because no matter how good-humored and unscathed the author manages to seem, there will always be a lot of painstaking disclaimers, and a sense that—however rightly!—someone was bit sore.


(Full disclosure: this is actually the second time my work has been torched by the NYTBR.)