Blog Pause Interrupted


Of course now that I’ve declared a blog pause, I’m breaking it. Isn’t this how it always goes? But — I got called out on Twitter! And it made me think. Which means a long form follow up.

Ten days ago, I posted some questions regarding the role of writers as reviewers. Today, I had direct experience with it.

I have a family friend who is a writer and reviewer — and before we go any further, let me state up front that I haven’t spoken with him about any of his reviews let alone the book I’ll mention. Last night when I was catching up on Google Reader, I noticed a NYTimes book review by James Parker. I thought — oh, I wonder if it’s our James. He’s the entertainment writer for The Atlantic, but I didn’t know he reviewed for the Times, as well. So of course I clicked through, and within a paragraph realized it was written by the James I know — his writing style is completely over the top and hilarious. His voice, whether in fiction, nonfiction, or email, is unmistakable.

The review was tough. But it also kind of made me want to read the book — The Technologists by Matthew Pearl. I love genre fiction — whether crime novels or paranormal fiction — I think a childhood filled with Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift novels did it — and this sounded like a potentially fun genre piece. As James describes it:

There is romance, there are fisticuffs. Laboratories explode. The manliest of the Technologists is haunted by his memories of the Civil War. “Say, what puts you in such a brown study this morning? That little social call yesterday from the men in blue?” Somebody says that. You see the elements assembling. What we have in “The Technologists” is basically a ripping yarn with some war-of-ideas apparatus and plenty of period furniture, the whole accompanied by a distracting space-junk drone of bad writing. Like this: “Entering the college’s study room, Marcus and Frank were pre-emptively hushed by a table of students in the corner before they even said anything.” And this: “He lifted his hand to his hat, but she simply looked the other way with a crimson bloom tainting her pale cheeks.” Now that’s Victorian melodrama — Victorian pornography, almost. In a more ironic text, or one more aware of the possibility of pastiche, it might work; but Pearl appears to be using his 19th-century setting as a license to write extra-badly.

As I said, a tough review where the writing is concerned, but the plot sounds fun, right? After all, fisticuffs! Exploding laboratories!

Reader, I tweeted it:

James’s wife, who is also a friend, happened to be on Twitter and wrote back. We exchanged 2-3 tweets and then took our conversation offline. And that was that.

Until this morning. When Matthew Pearl, best-selling author of The Dante Club, whose books, as James noted, have been published in over 40 countries, responded on Twitter:

My response?

Now here’s what made me pause: I apologized, which implies that I was at fault for something. So what did I do that was wrong?

Tweet a link to a tough review? Isn’t that okay? I mean — this is an internationally best-selling author, and he was reviewed in the NYTimes. If that isn’t okay to tweet, what is?

Is it because I thought the review was funny and referenced one of the toughest sections of the review in the tweet? Does that make me a bad person? But I always enjoy James’s writing, whether he’s interviewing Stephen King or writing about Diary of a Wimpy Kid. My amusement with James’s verbal pyrotechnics wasn’t personal.

But that, I think, was exactly the problem. To me, Matthew Pearl was a random celebrity whose book was the subject of a review by someone I know. To Matthew Pearl, I wasn’t a random person who happened upon a review. I was a friend of the reviewer piling on.

Let’s break down Matthew’s tweet: (1) I’m sure your friend would love to be treated with that level of unprofessionalism. (2) Luckily, no human beings involved.

I can’t get into whether or not the review was “unprofessional” — I’m not a reviewer. This isn’t my field. I do know that James writes for publications like the NYTimes & The Atlantic which indicates a certain level of professionalism. I’m also undoubtedly biased toward James, whom I know to be a solid guy who doesn’t get his kicks from writing tough reviews.

However, I was struck by the second part of the tweet. I felt bad that Matthew felt bad, and I didn’t want to add to that — regardless of who reviewed his book and how. It’s the human aspect that bothered me.

Prior to his tweet, Matthew Pearl was the internationally best-selling author of a couple of books — one of which I read and enjoyed. He’s a celebrity outside of my sphere of influence. For him, the review was personal. It’s his work, after all.

Was it right for him to tweet his dissatisfaction with the review at me? After all, he has no idea whether James is my best friend (he’s not) or someone that I met 2 1/2 years ago and like and hang out with on occasion, usually at parties or dinners (he is). Either way, I’m not responsible for James’s opinions, nor do I have his platform.

Because he’s an author, Matthew’s work is out there to be reviewed. That’s part of the publication process. And James has a job as a reviewer — to give people an idea of what they’re about to pick up, his thoughts on it, and why.

And me? The only reason this feels at all complicated is because as a writer, I feel for Matthew. The review hurt. I don’t want to add to that, and as I said in my tweet to him, I wouldn’t want to receive a review that was so critical of my writing. At the same time, James wrote a thorough review with examples and analysis. As a reader, I think he set my expectations and therefore did his job as a reviewer. He hasn’t prevented me from picking up the book — if anything, his review will make me pick it up.

Would I have tweeted the review if it hadn’t been written by a friend? Probably not. I read one of Matthew Pearl’s books nearly ten years ago, and while I remember enjoying the book, I only clicked on this review because someone I know had written it, not because of the subject of the review. Would I have tweeted the review if it had been written about a friend’s book? Probably not, unless I wanted to call out the reviewer and stand up for my writer friend.

Ah, subjectivity.

The social media lesson of the day: every tweet lacks context for at least one of your readers. That doesn’t mean you should self-censor, but anyone could be reading, and you have to be ready for it. I get why Matthew responded to me even though I feel like a rando in this situation, and I hope he gets that I didn’t mean to make him feel bad.

But when it comes to reviewing, what’s a girl to do? Stop tweeting and/or writing reviews? Ignore personal feelings because this is a professional domain and reviews go with the territory? Stop over thinking the matter? Your insights and experience would be much appreciated! The community is tiny, and balancing honesty, politeness, the personal, and the professional can be challenging.

3 Responses to "Blog Pause Interrupted"
  1. Call me old fashioned, but no artist should ever gripe in public about a review, no matter how caustic or ‘unprofessional’. One can’t expect to enjoy all the praise and avoid any criticism.

    I’ll wager Matthew Pearl isn’t griping about any positive reviews on account of them lacking professionalism. The guy’s wasting too much time recriminating on twitter when he could be getting the ultimate revenge writing a brilliant book.

    • To be fair, he didn’t hop on Twitter and start ranting about the unfairness of the review. He sent two tweets, one to each of us, when he saw our exchange, and that was it.

      He actually saw this post the next day and sent me an email asking if we could chat, and we ended up having a great conversation. I’m glad he followed up.

      Your comment reminded me of a review by Helen Vendler and the subsequent rebuttal by Rita Dove. While I agree that griping about a review isn’t productive, I appreciate thoughtful disagreement!

  2. (sorry, I’m only just now catching up with your blog!)

    “But when it comes to reviewing, what’s a girl to do? Stop tweeting and/or writing reviews? Ignore personal feelings because this is a professional domain and reviews go with the territory? Stop over thinking the matter?”

    I’m constantly pondering these questions, especially as I’m networking more and starting to meet more authors and editors. Sometimes I honestly just don’t connect with their books and I’m not sure what to do. Do I inflate my star rating because I want to help them sell books? Or should I be honest so that I don’t have to tell my friends “Oh, I just rated it that because I know the author. I actually didn’t like it so much.”

    On the one hand, I really love writing honest reviews on Goodreads and my blog, but on the other hand I don’t like hurting people’s feelings. And as a writer I know how hard it is not to take critiques about your writing personally. Maybe I just don’t have thick enough skin to review books in such a public way?

    I really don’t know what the right answer is!

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