NC reader Bill Hayward just alerted me to this latest dust-up in the book review wars. The NY Times‘s book reviewer Janet Maslin has been caught, embarrassingly, giving a bad review to a book (This Bright River by Patrick Somerville) while making major factual errors in her description of the book. Did she even read the book? And how could a reviewer at this level manage to get a book so wrong (see below for details)? The questions seem all the more ironic given that I spent Thursday evening listening to Vermont College of Fine Arts President Tom Greene interview the Washington Post book Critic Ron Charles about the state of book reviewing in America (not good, hundreds of book reviewers and editors losing their jobs).
The first excerpt below is the author’s response in Salon. And beneath that is an excerpt and link to a bit of commentary from The Rumpus.
Last Sunday night I spent a good five minutes lying facedown on my couch, my head pressed into the crack between our old tan cushions, my arms pinned awkwardly under my chest, emitting a sequence of guttural moaning noises as my wife silently read Janet Maslin’s newly posted New York Times review of my novel, This Bright River, and then – after some gasps and one very disconcerting, empathy-laden, “Oh no” – attempted to describe the review’s contents aloud. I’d only been able to read the headline.
“It’s not positive,” she began firmly, and I pressed my head deeper into the couch, trying to get to its springs and asphyxiate. My wife, the sole adult member of our family, paraphrased the review: “Lack of purposefulness” was the first representative phrase she picked, and she next moved on to “jerry-built,” “desperate measure” and finally circled back around to “soggy.”
“No,” I said. “It does not say soggy.”
“It says soggy,” she repeated. “It does say soggy.”
As I am an atheist, I made noises directed at no one and nothing. I then, without removing my face from the couch-hole, picked up a throw pillow and gently placed it on the floor, blind.
Patrick Somerville via Thank you for killing my novel – Salon.com.
Being panned by the NYTimes is a high class problem to have. Nobody, including Pat, could possibly expect any of you to lose any sleep on his behalf over this hardship. A review in the Times, even the worst possible one (which this isn’t) sells more books than not having a review in the Times. Most writers, myself included, have never been reviewed there and have wet dreams about having to take to drinking because Janet Maslin panned us. Stephen, when we were discussing this, pointed out that of his 7 books, and the 4 more he’s edited, only one of his books has ever been reviewed there, and never on a weekday–”Nobody,” he said, and often says, “is owed anything.” And I agree with this, really primally in fact. A bad review in the Times is nothing anyone really has an unalienable right to get up in arms over. No writer, no matter how good, is somehow “entitled” to coverage, or to a certain kind of coverage.
What makes this incident, however, an interesting discussion is that This Bright River was panned in part based on factual misinterpretations of the book. Maslin literally gives wrong information in her review, thereby misinterpreting an entire character–the novel’s central character, in fact. In the original version of the review (which has since been corrected by the Times), she says that the novel’s narrator, Ben Hanson, suffers a head injury in the prologue. But in fact the prologue’s head injury happens to an entirely different character, sixteen years prior to the main action of the novel, and it’s not even a “head injury,” it’s a murder.
I”m glad you’re circulating Somerville’s excellent essay. I thought it was great because of how it expresses the near-universal ambivalence about reviews and extends to interesting dialogue on this subject, not because of any “right” he may have thought he had. In fact he specifically says, near the end, that one person speaks and another listens, and the speaker has no control over what the listener hears.