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.
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)...