Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Salon: About Reviews and Reviewing

There is an interesting article in today's newspaper about Orlando Figes, Rachel Polonsky, Kate Summerscale and Orlando Figes's wife, Stephanie Palmer.

Rachel Polansky wrote a savage review of Orlando Figes's book in the TLS in 2002. Kate Summerscale's book was awarded the Samuel Johnson prize beating Orlando Figes's book which was shortlisted.

Recently an anonymous reviewer on Amazon 'Historian' with secondary nickname 'Orlando-Birkbeck' gave negative reviews of the Polansky and the Summerscale books and a highly positive review of the Figes book. Now Orlando Figes's lawyer has issued a statement:' My client's wife wrote the reviews...'

This story of malice and oversensitivity interests me because in 2004 my last novel was reviewed by Eva Figes, Orlando's mother, in the Guardian. It was not kind. My American editor said he felt for me. I tried to laugh it off but in truth it destroyed me for a while. I lost so much confidence that I resigned from my teaching post at a local university.

Luckily my book was also published in the United States and the reviews were all much kinder over there. It gave me back a little of what I'd lost.

The whole episode taught me an important lesson in writing my own reviews. I know reviews have to be honest but they don't need to be vindictive - and saying nothing is always an option.

28 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think one has to realise that a review is only an opinion and everyone is entitled to one. The hardest thing I find it putting myself in other people’s shoes and realising that a book I might have struggled to get through will actually be a bestseller (as was the case with a crime novel I read recently). Or, as in the case of The Road, a book that will completely polarise opinions. In that instance I felt it was only right to present both arguments and leave it up to readers to decide. And you’re right, you can always say nothing. I’ve recently been sent a book where the blurb says it’s “every bit as good as Flashman” and, to me, that sealed the book’s fate having had a Flashman novel in my possession for the better part of ten years – a present – and never having even peeked inside. How anyone could have thought it would appeal to me I have no idea. The thing is Flashman sells but no way is it my personal cup of tea.

I’m rather glad that the power of the critics is beginning to wane a bit. I rely heavily on online reviews these days. I take pride in the reviews I write but I’m not alone. There are others out there who are also doing a stellar job and the best thing is that what they have to say stays around for a very long time.

Sun Apr 18, 02:42:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Jim. Yes, very important to get balance, I'd say, and yes many on-line reviewers do sterling work.

Sun Apr 18, 03:31:00 pm  
Blogger readerbuzz said...

Oh dear. This is the kind of thing that gives us all a bad name.

Sun Apr 18, 05:50:00 pm  
Blogger Debra Hamel said...

I've never understood why people feel the need to be obnoxious in reviews. As you say, it's possible to be critical without being a jerk about it. Sometimes reviewers seem to act like the writer has willfully written a bad book and thus deserves abuse.

Sun Apr 18, 05:55:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

But there are excellent reviewers too, Readerbuzz.

Exactly, Debra. It's a strange viewpoint.

Sun Apr 18, 06:23:00 pm  
Blogger Maxine said...

Oh how awful, Claire. What a story. I saw Orlando Figes give a talk at a conference about his book on the oral history of people's lives under Stalin in Russia - and he seemed so nice, and sincere, and to be doing such a good thing in capturing this fragile but so important information so that it was not lost for ever. Then I read something like this. How awful.

I cannot understand why people write vindictive reviews. If I read a book I do not like, I do not review it. If someone has commissioned me to write a review of a book and I don't like the book, I contact the commissioning editor and ask if I might be let off, or at least, alert him/her to the fact that my review, if I write it, will be negative. If I "have" to write the review, I focus on what people might like about the book (there is always something) and opine that although I did not enjoy it, there are good things about it.

What a sad story. I am so sorry. It is important in life to be professional, direct and thoughtful. Nobody needs to be mean. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from it and a lot to be lost.

Sun Apr 18, 08:18:00 pm  
Anonymous Thomas M. Wagner said...

Well, if you're looking at dueling wives spitefully sniping at one another's husband's books, that isn't even really reviewing at all. It should be dismissed as childishness at best.

There are good reviews and bad reviews to be written all the time, but occasionally a real savaging is warranted. The fiercest review I ever wrote for a book was of a science fiction novel released a few years back in which the heroes — I am not making this up — were resurrected Nazis. The actual thematic goal of the book was to provide moral redemption for the Nazis. Plus the writing was simply dreadful. Seriously, in a case like that, getting out the chainsaw isn't merely appropriate, I'd call it a moral imperative.

Sun Apr 18, 08:53:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Maxine: Yes I remember you talking about the talk and thinking it sounded fascinating. I'd still like to read the book, and I agree what he was doing was an excellent idea. I don't think this story should dissuade anyone. The work is still good.

I think your approach to writing reviews is an admirable one - and one that I would adopt in your situation.

Thomas M Wagner: I would have ignored this book too - but for a different reason. Once I had found out what the book was about I would have stopped reading, and would certainly not dignified it with a review...or given it the oxygen of publicity.

Sun Apr 18, 09:34:00 pm  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

So sorry to hear that, Clare and glad you have moved on. That woman was dreadful in taking such an approach. It's too easy to write and not think of the consequences, which can be immense.

As for the current 'scandal', there's plenty of this subterfuge on Amazon. Some are easier to spot than others. And now that Amazon has pages which collate the reviewers' comments it's easier to spot the suspect ones.

Sun Apr 18, 09:47:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, I've moved on, CFR, and regret now that I allowed it to affect me so much, but it did. Yes, I agree, it is easy to write and not to think about the consequences - which in a way takes us back to Jim's point about empathy (although not with other reviewers, but the author).

Yes, the collation feature is a good and useful one in many ways.

Sun Apr 18, 10:33:00 pm  
Blogger Debra Hamel said...

Wait. Amazon collates reviewers' comments? Do I know this? Where is this located?

Sun Apr 18, 10:33:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Debra: I think CFR is referring to the 'See all my reviews' link at the top of each review.

Sun Apr 18, 10:35:00 pm  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

Debra: yes. If you click on the reviewer's name it leads to you a page like this:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A17LM7J2QNHSC0/ref=cm_pdp_rev_all?ie=UTF8&sort_by=MostRecentReview
(An example of one 'suspect' who really likes to slate a book now and again & will repost if his previous has been taken down through a complaint. Yes, sad, isn't it?)

Sun Apr 18, 11:11:00 pm  
Blogger Kay McKenzie Cooke. said...

I am so thin-skinned I would curl up and die if I got a bad review ... I live in terror of it happening. I can absolutely appreciate your reaction Clare - and can I say ? SO undeserved because your writing is terrific.

Mon Apr 19, 01:22:00 pm  
Blogger Belgravia wife - sort of said...

Hi there Clare - I am really pleased to have read this - I am sorry of course that you had a knock but glad you have moved on. I read the article and thought the whole thing was gruesome - if not frankly juvenile. Reviews can and should be candid and subjective but I really can't see the merit in a reviewer being overly acerbic or cruel. I'm not surprised it upset you.

Mon Apr 19, 01:37:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Oh, thank you Kay - you're so kind! (I can't imagine your writing ever getting a bad review - I am your big fan!).

Mon Apr 19, 01:42:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hello Belgravia wife (a great title, BTW). Agreed about the article - pretty embarrassing, really. It detracts from the important thing really, doesn't it?

Mon Apr 19, 01:47:00 pm  
Blogger Debra Hamel said...

Ah, okay. Thanks for the clarification.

Mon Apr 19, 02:29:00 pm  
Blogger Debra Hamel said...

Do you think Figes really didn't know his wife did it? How embarrassing.....

Mon Apr 19, 02:33:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I don't know, Debra - strange business...

Mon Apr 19, 06:17:00 pm  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

What's the saying? Oh yes: "The reason literary criticism is so vicious is precisely because there's so very little at stake."

I've been on the receiving end of vindictiveness bordering on psychosis, on more than one occasion—usually for simply being honest—so I sympathize with your experience, and wish for you to receive better treatment in future.

I firmly believe that honesty in reviewing (or any form of criticism) is essential—and that, in the end, it's just my opinion, and worth only that. My experience has taught me that this sort of vindictive behavior is ultimately tribal-level behavior, and is firmly rooted in basic insecurity, fundamental lack of self-esteem, and a desperate attempt on the reviewer's part to build themselves up by tearing others down. It's kindergarten psychology at best, and sociopathic at worst. One likes to believe the best of people, yet actions always speak louder than words.

Mon Apr 19, 07:28:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

This sounds wise to me, Art. Yes, honesty is important and yes, I think I've recognised quite a bit of the "build themselves up by tearing others down" element.

Mon Apr 19, 08:26:00 pm  
Blogger Maxine said...

I think the problem is that these days it is so hard to get published at all. One cruel review can actually make that sort of difference to an author, who is a serious person. A reviewer should be honest and professional in everything she does - after all, she takes only a short time to write a review whereas an author takes many years of effort to write a book and have it professionally published.

Mon Apr 19, 10:08:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Exactly, Maxine (and don't I know it!). Yes, a cruel review in an influential place can make all the difference. It can destroy a book's chances - and that of its author's.

Mon Apr 19, 10:31:00 pm  
Anonymous Mary said...

Claire - I am so with you on the saying nothing bit. I have a terrible time writing reviews of books, mostly because I think, who am I to judge? If I don't like a book, I don't like it. That doesn't mean someone else won't like it.

I'm sorry you had to deal with a nasty critique. My goodness, you gave up a teaching position! I would have loved to have been in your class. If you'd had a blog back then (did you?), you could have told your readers about it and we would've jumped to your defense. Isn't the internet wonderful?

We've got your back!

Wed Apr 21, 04:00:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Exactly, Mary - it's a bit like that with the teaching of writing, I feel. Although there are obvious things that can be corrected, and I believe there are certain rules that apply to all good writing, a lot is still a question of taste. If I don't like a book (or maybe that should be when I don't 'get' a book) I say nothing.

Thank you for your comments about my teaching - it was much like books - some people liked my style, some didn't, but after that review that 'who am I to judge' voice in my head grew overpoweringly loud. I suppose everyone has it to some extent - and maybe some people could actually do with having it ring out a bit louder.

Wed Apr 21, 08:04:00 am  
Blogger Maxine said...

It now turns out that OF's wife did not write those reviews at all, but that he did.

By the way, in response to someone's opinion up in these comments - I think there is a difference between a nasty bit of UGC (user-generated comment) on Amazon or somewhere, as people don't give much weight to (pseudonymous or anonymous often) UGC. It is when an edited publication does it (as with Eve Figes) that I think it can be really damaging for an author's persona and her book.

Sun Apr 25, 05:11:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Maxine - very embarrassing for him, isn't it? Such a shame.

Yes, I agree about the relative weights of the two sorts of reviews. The damage does depend on the source. It is a great responsibility to write a review for an edited publication.

Sun Apr 25, 11:42:00 pm  

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