Authors’ responses to negative reviews

In the Zulkey interview I mentioned below, John Warner, editor of McSweeney’s.net, talks about Laura Miller’s now-notorious Palahniuk review, and the author’s response to it:

I agree with writer/critic Paul Fussell, who labels writers responding to critics as an “Author’s Big Mistake.” Even when a review is savagely unfair, and the ire is completely justified, I think a response offers only additional avenues for the receiving of grief. I understand the impulse, because who doesn’t want to hit back when they’ve been wronged, but I don’t think it ultimately leads to any kind of satisfaction.

These episodes, like the one you mention above just make me feel weary. Miller’s review was clearly a hatchet job, perhaps a skillful one, but the review of the book at hand was mere pretext for the opportunity to tear down Chuck Palahniuk, his fans, and his little dog too, and the impulse to go after a writer in this manner, even a popular writer like Palahniuk, simply baffles me. When there’s real, identifiable evil in the world, some of whom are writing books that really do erode our culture, it seems like a waste of time to go after Palahniuk because his fans might be annoying, or you think he shouldn’t be popular, or other, “better” writers should be more popular. Like his work or hate his work, everything I’ve ever heard about Chuck Palahniuk indicates that he’s a decent man who succeeded through hard work, is passionate about writing and is generous with his fans. What a dick! Clearly he must be stopped. Writers who want to write books that people read and are passionate about are the worst scum on Earth, aren’t they? Laura Miller seems to have a sincere aesthetic disagreement with Chuck Palahniuk, which I can respect, but the volume of venom does not appeal to me. I’ve never seen the fun in trying to yank the clothes off of someone else’s emperor, unless their emperor is Jennifer Lopez, because who wouldn’t like to see her naked?

When these sorts of episodes pop up, I am reminded how glad I am to be almost entirely removed from the grander machinations of writing and publishing. Sure, sure, Chuck Palahniuk is a celebrity and therefore fair game, but if you listen to his audio blog where he discusses his sexuality, I think you’ll hear a man who sounds harried and exhausted, and while as a writer, it’s hard not to envy his success, I sure wouldn’t trade places with him.

This isn’t to imply that we shouldn’t criticize books, or be afraid to call bad books bad, but lets judge the work on its own terms.

Coincidentally, this weekend Laura Miller takes on The Believer’s Snarkwatch and, in seemingly general language, Palahniuk’s response to her review:

There will always be at least one person though, who considers a dunning review to be unwarranted, uninformed, ad hominem and undoubtedly fixed: the book’s author. To the panned author, it’s all snark. That, I suspect, is why that posting by the Queen-inspired poet keeps vanishing from Snarkwatch; his gripe may be just, but his opinion, the editors think, is hardly objective.

This strikes me as shortsighted. Why not let authors lash out at their tormentors, giving back as good as they’ve gotten, serving up great, vile spoonfuls of the critics’ own medicine? An odd position for a book reviewer to take, but in fact it’s fairly self-serving. In my experience, the author who responds publicly to a negative review usually does such a poor job of defending himself that he winds up validating the reviewer’s judgement….


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