Literary reviews: If you can’t say something nice…

Kingsley Amis said that “a bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn’t allow it to spoil your lunch.” That’s because Kingsley, bless his vindictive old heart, was probably too busy spoiling someone else’s. Believe me, a bad review leaves a bad taste all day long.

That’s not because of any insecurity about my writing. If a review is negative or even mildly snarky, I know the reviewer got it wrong. It’s the mere existence of negative thoughts about me or my work floating around out there, even if it’s only an aside in an otherwise positive review – that’s what makes my lunchtime hummus taste like glue.

It’s a feeling highlighted by the gratitude of a good review and the sheer love felt for the writer of a really glowing review. Right now, for example, I’m quite in love with Joe Hartlaub, reviewer for Bookreporter.com. A couple of days ago, Joe published a review of THE FOURTH ASSASSIN, my latest Palestinian crime novel. He wrote:

“Matt Beynon Rees, a Welsh journalist living in Jerusalem, writes a series known as the Omar Yussef Mysteries. If you pick up anything at all that is bound between two covers, you should be buying and reading them even if you hate mysteries. If you happen to like mysteries, please read THE FOURTH ASSASSIN, the latest Yussef novel, and recommend it to an unenlightened friend.”

You’re very kind, good sir. But wait, Joe goes on:

“Take a look at the first four pages or so. The book begins with Yussef, newly arrived in the United States, climbing the stairs of the Fourth Avenue subway exit in Brooklyn in the heart of Little Palestine. Much is familiar, and much is different. I may have read better written passages recently, but I don’t think I have read any that I have loved as much as the ones contained in these opening pages. This is classic work that will stand up 20 or 30 years from now when you (maybe) and I (almost certainly) are gone, and the problems that currently exist will still remain. Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, THE FOURTH ASSASSIN is strongly recommended.”

Thirty years? Joe, may you live to 120.

My delight in this review isn’t the same as kick my two-year-old gets when I tell him he’s the most handsome boy in the world. No, it’s rather that someone has chosen to do exactly what I try so hard to do day by day – to be positive.

And being positive about a book seems strangely hard for people to do.

Many reviews, positive ones in particular, measure out the encouraging phrases as if they were sugar to a diabetic.

Truly negative reviews, of which I’ve only really had one, seem entirely a reflection of an almost psychopathic need to be both right and a little cruel at the same time. (That’s why Alain de Botton infamously fumed when he received such a review for his book a year ago. Someone was being a smartass at his expense, and in a forum where he felt he had no comeback. Like being sassed by a cool kid at school when you’re unable to talk back.) There’s also a degree of showing off in a negative review which always makes them deeply suspect, in my opinion – was this a bad book, or simply something about which our reviewer needs to show himself to be the most knowledgeable fellow in the world?

Few writers these days claim to never read reviews. But it’s a dangerous pastime, particularly with the plethora of blogs and even reader reviews on amazon.com. Reviews on amazon are mostly conscientious, but every book seems to have at least one review on that site which begins “I couldn’t get past the first chapter, don’t know why, maybe it was just me, but I gave the whole book only one star anyway.”

A couple of years ago I decided never to write a negative review. I was sure that in a karmic way it’d come back to haunt me. I expressed this view to a literary editor who had sent me a true stinker for review. He twisted my arm; I wrote the review; something mildly unpleasant happened soon after. I know why. It won’t happen again.

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Comment by Pepper Smith on March 8, 2010 at 1:36pm
Many reviews, positive ones in particular, measure out the encouraging phrases as if they were sugar to a diabetic.

You know, this was exactly how I felt about a recent review, but I would never have thought to put it in those words.
Comment by I. J. Parker on March 8, 2010 at 4:33am
Oh, I totally relate to this. A bad review haunts me, even if the reviewer proved clearly that he/she didn't know much about the subject or misread the book. Vindictiveness, of course, may be due to having had little success oneself in the field. Rejection letters from academic journals bristle with years of accumulated anger.
The thing about Amazon's stars is that even a four star verdict attached to a highly enthusiastic review can ruin the average. And one star automatically wipes out all the five star responses. Okay, maybe I'm a little hung up on perfection. :)

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