In 1995, my second book of poetry, Resisting the Anomie, appeared in Canada. Due to the quirks of the publishing world, Anomie was, in fact, my first book of poems. It had been accepted long before Progeny of Air, officially my first book, was accepted for publication. But the UK publishers were prompter about getting the book out in 1994. Anomie got some attention, but one review stood out to me. It was my first overtly negative review. I tried to ignore it. But I couldn’t. Some senior writers had assured me that they never read reviews—they were confident about their work, and were assured that no reviewer could offer any useful suggestions about their work. Not me. I needed to do something, to say something. No one had told me that you can’t write to a reviewer. I had not seen a law like that anywhere. So I wrote a letter to the reviewer…

Getting a review is, in itself, a flattering thing to me—all that attention, and the clear evidence that a stranger has read the book. But a negative review, especially one that seems misguided, is another matter. Of course, the attention is there, and in many ways, you are touched that someone took the time to read. People don’t always tell you they have read your work. And those who do are people you expect to read your work (family, friends, students seeking a good grade, etc.). But strangers who read your work—even those who hate the work, are always special.
In my letter, I thanked the reviewer for his comments and thanked him for the existence of the review and for the fact that he must have at least read (however badly) the book. Then I proceeded to write about those things that were not rooted in matters of opinion, but in matters of fact. I corrected several factual errors, and further proposed that his judgment may have been questionable on some matters. I also included a copy of my first book and what was then my third book—signed.
He was kind. He wrote back, engaged in dialogue and promised to return to the book. Which he did. He reviewed the other two books and did so positively. I don’t think he felt pressured by my letter, but you never know. Maybe he just did not want to get another lengthy letter from me. I do think, though, that my letter affected how he read the other books. I am not sure that what I did was at all fair, ethical or wise. But I felt compelled to say something as I would if I heard him talking about my work in a public place. I would confront him, and press him to justify his views. Why should things be different with reviews on the page? These codes of silence seem oddly imbalanced to me.
I am a reviewer, and I realize that I do seek and find shelter behind the wall of print—as if somehow what I write is granted a certain kind of unassailable authority. And yet, I know, while writing the reviews, that I am decidedly flawed and that what I say may actually be quite misguided. Knowing that I can be challenged is always a helpful thing for me as I write. It reminds me that something is at stake in my review, but it also reminds me that I have some responsibility to be clear about my views regardless of what they are, and that hubris can be quite tempting when existing in a cocoon.
Still, there is an unspoken code that says that it is simply not cool for writers to challenge their reviewers. While, for instance, it is quite common for reviewers in Poetry to be challenged by defenders of a certain writer’s work, it is rare for that writer to send a letter to the editor complaining about the idiocy in the reviewer’s comments on his or her work. For some reason, this will be viewed as self-serving (yes), undignified and somewhat impolite (duh?).
Having just picked up a negative review for my novel, She’s Gone, I have been contemplating this issue. Do I write a letter to the reviewer laying out what I think is misguided about the review, or do I simply ignore it and move on as most people do? I admire people who ignore reviews, who seem unfazed by negative reviews and appear to be so self-assured about their work that reviews have no impact on them. half the time, I think they are lying, but they are not. There are people like that. Not me, I am interested in what people have to say and I want to understand why they have a problem with the work. As much as positive reviews make me feel good, negative ones are downers. My books are not quite the same as my children, but the metaphor is the best I can muster--I really am bothered when people say negative things about my children--I want to protect them.
My publishers are, of course, in a very awkward position. It is their commitment to share with me all the reviews, good and bad. They are hoping for good reviews as those sell the book. They are also hoping for some validation of what they have suspected about the book—why they have published it in the first place: that it is good. So, negative reviews are not fun for them. But add to that the prospect of having to see the disappointment in their authors and to listen to authors either angrily venting or trying to discuss away the reviews can be quite difficult for publishers. My publishers are victims of the latter—me trying to offer sardonic and falsely blasé dismissals of the negative reviews. My publishers know that they have to be encouraging, to empathize and agree that the reviewers are morons, but this must become tedious after a while.
But this, too, will pass, which does not mean that I won’t write to that reviewer to say a few words. I am genuinely curious about what other people think on this matter. Perhaps more people take on reviewers than I imagine. I have heard from perhaps two authors whose work I reviewed less than favorably. I did not try to defend myself. I took it in and then made an impossible vow to look for more positive things next time. I was embarrassed, though, and felt somewhat caught-out. I felt that an unwritten code had a been broken. But this was hypocritical. When authors have confronted me with gratitude for my lovely and positive reviews, I have relished those comments and the encounter--no code-breaching there.
Since I don’t see myself as a gate-keeper in the sense of one who is trying to alert the world to bad writing and destroy anyone’s attempt to perpetuate bad writing, I feel no need to champion the unassailable position of the reviewer. But I do suspect that if reviewers lived in fear of reprisals for their reviews, this may not be a good situation, at all.

Originally Published: March 5th, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. March 5, 2007
     Pam Woolway

    I admire the honesty and willingness to look at both sides of the review. Considering the writer is also a reviewer, it just seems wise and courageous to start a dialogue the way she did with her negative review. I too have always been advised not to read reviews--although as of yet I do not have a book published---and I asked myself if I could actually resist reading the bad ones. I learned something here today and thank you.
    Aloha, Pam

  2. March 5, 2007
     Rosemarie R.

    Kwame, interesting comments! And so nice to read you here! Before my first novel came out, a well-published author told me: You will only remember the negative reviews, and in a glowing review, the only specifics you will recall are the less than superlative. The word "tepid" for example, to describe one small characterization in my book, is still the only thing I can recall about a particular review that was otherwise very positive. The truth is, writers cannot help but be wounded by negative reviews, and telling ourselves that the review is merely someone's opinion helps not at all. That's because when we write, every word issues from us, is the product of our most intimate inner landscape, so the negative opinion is not really about a piece of writing, but about us. About WHO WE ARE. To make matters worse, the dressing down in a negative review is humiliatingly public. All this to say, I agree with those writers who do not look at reviews. But not all of them come to this position out of great confidence. Many of us who never read reviews are simply trying to preserve that thing in us that beats and sings when we write. We know it is fragile, but worth saving.
    An irony is the fact that the reviewer, also a writer, shares our vulnerability. It's why many reviewers feel vaguely emabrassed and abashed when called on a possibly misguided review. The response is the same: What, you don't appreciate my sincere effort? Which is to say, you don't appreciate ME.
    I, for one, appreciate you and love your writing, Kwame. I'm off to to buy your book, She's Gone. Didn't realize you'd published this novel. Very exciting.
    One love,
    Rosemarie R.

  3. March 5, 2007
     geoffrey philp

    Great post, Kwame!
    And welcome to the world of blogging.

  4. March 5, 2007
     Jacqueline Elliott

    That was wonderful that you were not timid in asking the reviewer questions. What was even better is that they actually took the time to respond to you as opposed to outright ignoring you. There have been at least two occasions I have felt it necessary to e-mail movie reviewers or columnists on points that were either misleading, it seemed as if they had not actually seen the film or had no clue as to what they were writing about; but had instead based their opinions on hearsay. Each time, the confronted individual was silent.
    The point you mentioned about more people taking on the reviewers was a fairly good one in the sense that perhaps that is why no response was sent to me (too many e-mails from others). Whatever the reason (s), having questioned the critic as to why they felt one way or the other about the writing was justified. If they can't explain why they liked or loathed the work, then perhaps they should not have written the review in the first place.

  5. March 5, 2007
     Annie Paul

    hey kwame,
    i'm finally getting initiated into the world of blogging so decided to check yours. enjoyed it very much. as a reviewer and sometime critic myself it's interesting to hear the other side. I've never found it easy to take criticism myself though i'm accused of dishing it out with relative abandon and relish. alas this is true. yours is a thoughtful little piece which may actually make me a little less damning the next time i review something.

  6. March 6, 2007
     Ray McManus

    A very provocative piece and I enjoyed it greatly. You pose a tough question. Ideally speaking, I think it comes down to responsibility. It is the foundation, the compass, and the fulcrum that prevents subjectivity from dominating criticism -- responsibility to justify and explain justifications. If I review anything, I justify my decisions as eloquently and responsibly as I can. I want my readers to understand what I am saying, and ultimately look very smart in the process. And if I haven't done that, then I would expect someone to call me out for it. When reviewing, we are entering into a dialogue, and the readers we include in the dialogue can be the very writers we are reviewing. As long as writer and reviewer are responsible in their approach, the dialogue can be extended in complex and interesting ways. No harm in that. But you also touch on the heart of what makes bad reviews especially bad -- when a reviewer has preconceived expectations and feels slighted when those expectations are not met. As I suspect with the review for you novel. Don't know what to do with that except call it out for what it is and hopefully change the culture a bit. Get folks to realize that using intelligent language to judge a book by its cover and offer a plot summary negates the art of reviewing and insults the art it claims to objectify. But I see no worries for bad reviews. Thankfully we live in a time where there are still a large percentage of intelligent folks who will read on anyway and form their own opinions. Of course I say this having received neither a good nor bad review for my work in print. So I guess ignorance is bliss.
    My two cents.

  7. March 7, 2007

    i enjoyed the post. what do i think? i kinda agree with you, writers should feel free to challenge perceptions and mistakes a reviewer makes. i know i've read a few reviews that seem like blatant attacks. but then again, i know sometimes people write and really get into it. so what seems an attack, is really just the momentum of the fifth or sixth domino falling down. and if the writer doesn't challenge the reviewer, the reviewer will keep the same misjudgment, if it is a misjudgment.
    i mean, there are a few books i thought were bad for months. then had someone say something to me that caused me to re-examine the book. to look at it in relationship to what it was trying to do, as opposed to what i wanted. and sometimes i've changed my opinion. imagine had i reviewed the book on my initial take. it would have existed as a negative review in the world, but more importantly, if no one spoke to me, i would have never got what the book offered.
    i don't know though, i get long winded. i could see a reviewer feeling bludgeoned after dealing with point after point of where i thought he slipped. but wouldn't it be interesting if they published the author's review of his own book, beside a critic who had issued with it?

    A funny proposition, but you know that few poets want to review their own work. The irony is that we want to be reviewed. It means someone has read our work. The sad truth, though, is that we want more: we want the reviewer to like our work. But as you say, we are all fallible. Not much we can do about that.
    One love

  8. March 7, 2007
     Tara Betts

    I really appreciate this healthy, balanced approach to a touchy topic for some. I think it is important to correct the factual errors and even sometimes explain the contexts in which the work is couched. Frankly, I think some people don't read deeply or try to dig into allusions and subtleties of what they read. Sometimes, reviews illuminate that reality. I'm also interested in what Dwayne said about reviewing your own work. It seems a little self-absorbed, but how often do people reflect on the writing process involved in a particular piece of work? In any case, I think reviewers need to be mindful of what the literature is trying to do and how the writer constructs the attempt, whether the reviewer likes it or not. After all, some people actually read reviews to get some insight about whether or not the book might be a text they'd like to read. Imagine that...

  9. March 7, 2007

    very very interesting & thoughtful post, mr. dawes. i've only had one person review my book, & i, too, had no idea (still will walk around pretending that i have no idea. i find blinders rather attractive) that writers do not contact reviewers who have examined their work. my review was positive, i suppose, so i didn't write to contradict anything the reviewer said. i wrote to say "hey, thanks for reading this, examining it, and showing how you read it." i felt compelled to do so, for some odd reason. it's similar to teaching someone's book. i write authors a note to let them know they're being read. i think it's as important for reviewers to know they're being read as it is for writers to know they're being read. but the question still remains, doesn't it: why do we write about our own work? protectiveness? defensiveness? self-indulgence? weakness? pride? all of this, none of it, more...?