Review: All Hail Our New Literary Genius?

Garth Greenwell has a new book out and when he published his debut a few years ago, the response from critics reminded me of my many years reviewing for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications.  Back then my colleagues sometimes struck me like a pack of wolves. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo everywhere. The raves often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really earth-shattering?

The panegyrics about What Belongs to You when it came out had put me off, but a creative writing student of mine told me he found it interesting, so I decided to read it.

The narrator was a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who got involved with an increasingly demanding hustler he met in a public toilet. One British reviewer said this novel actually made her tremble, while another hailed it as “incandescent.”  That’s apparently the official word of choice for Greenwell’s work since it’s been applied to his latest book, too.

A New York Times reviewer called that debut an “instant classic” and compared the book to a Jackson Pollack painting, which seemed wildly inappropriate given its overall lack of energy.

Aside from listless prose, the major problem I had was the obnoxious, dishonest grifter. We were supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to this Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features were a chipped tooth and being well hung.  The sex scenes were minimal and boring, which was problematic since the narrator’s sexual obsession seemed design to drive the book forward.  They didn’t.  It crawled.

While the novel’s framing sections were way too languid, the middle section worked best because the prose was more direct and compelling, less writerly.  In those pages we experienced the narrator’s shameful memories of growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book and my iPad screen didn’t glow, but I felt the author was far more deeply engaged. He spoiled it, though, when the narrator found a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of that section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Yes, dude.  We totally got it.  The narrator was trapped.  Thanks for clarifying that.  The sequence was like one of those corny songs at the end of a movie filled with lyrics explaining what you just saw in case you were too dumb to understand the two hours you’d just sat through.

Nobody recommended the new book Cleanness to me, but I started it anyway out of morbid curiosity.  I found the same overlong, airless, flat sentences that weighed down What Belongs to You and had to give up.  Greenwell is being compared to Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and D.H. Lawrence.

Calls for a Nobel Prize are probably next.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

What Should Writers Do With Bad Reviews?

A friend publishing her first book just got a negative review on Amazon, but it’s the only really bad one among about two dozen positive reviews.  And lots of those were raves.

I told her it was a mistake to read bad reviews.  Ever.

Years ago, way before Amazon, when I heard Philip Roth give a talk, he was asked about his reviews during Q&A.  If you don’t know know his work and his history, he’s been attacked for all sorts of things–including anti-Semitism!–as far back as his short story collection Goodbye Columbus.

I remember being struck by his response.  He said that he had never really learned anything about his work from a reviewer.  I’m sure some people in the audience thought he was arrogant to say that, and Roth had the air of a dyspeptic hawk, so that might have added to the impression.

philip_rothBut my friend’s distress about her negative Amazon review made me reflect about my own review history.  It includes raves from The New York Times Book Review–as well as some really nasty attacks that I wish I’d never read.

Over several decades of hundreds of reviews in print and on line, by professionals and amateurs, I don’t recall learning much, either, about my work from what they wrote.  People have liked or disliked my books for various reasons in various ways.  I’ve been thrilled by raves, enjoyed the pats on the back, and been disappointed by pans: “Don’t they get what I was trying to do?”

But have reviews made me write differently, tackle different subjects, change anything major or even minor?

Not really.  The many fine editors I’ve worked with have been the ones who’ve had a lasting impact on me; they’ve challenged me and helped me deepen my work.

As for Amazon reviews–like those on Goodreads–they can often be mindless and cruel, sometimes little more than cyber farts.

Reviews can reflect different tastes or simply contrariness, as when people feel the need to trash great authors like Jane Austen or George Eliot.  A full 10% of the 644 people reviewing Middlemarch on Amazon gave it only one or two stars.  Obviously not fans of Victorian fiction or her brand of it, anyway.  Perhaps they might have liked it better with zombies.

middlemarchOne of my favorite staycations was taking a week off from everything to re-read Middlemarch a few years ago and I was even more blown away than the first time I read it in college.  I’m in awe of that novel, the world it creates, the depth of her psychology, and the author’s all-encompassing love for every one of her characters, even the deeply flawed ones.

You can’t and won’t please everyone as an author.  But you can please yourself by avoiding the bad reviews.  They’re not likely to make a difference in your work because they seldom offer constructive criticism–but they can make you waste time.  You can obsess about them and even make the mistake of replying, something authors should avoid because it makes them look cranky and vulnerable.

To truly grow as a writer you need to find writing mentors or colleagues who can really help you, and you need to keep reading widely, deeply, passionately.  Bad reviews should never be on your list.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael