There is a place in readers’ memories, if not on the musty shelf of literature, for an author’s published rebuttal to a harsh review, and this is best evidenced by the widespread and seemingly obvious wisdom on the matter. The poetry critic David Orr has advised, “The best way to respond to a bad review is simple: don’t respond. And if you must respond, don’t type angry.” In a 2006 NPR interview, Erica Jong similarly tells how a brutal review triggers in her a torrent of revenge fantasies, never to be acted on. “Am I cowardly or wise?” she asks herself. “Wise by default. I know that revenge springs back on the avenger.” And Paul Fussell, writing in Harper’s in 1982, paints a grotesque picture of less-restrained writers and the products of their spiteful pens: “Sputtering away, the veins of their foreheads standing out, these little compositions generally deliver the most naked view of the author’s wounded vanity. And never with subtlety, for they are conceived in fury and scribbled in haste.” Fussell even does writers the service of christening the author’s letter of complaint the “A.B.M.—the Author’s Big Mistake.”
And yet. Here is Richard Kluger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who last August read the review of his book, Seizing Destiny, in The New York Times Book Review, which wound its way to this conclusion: “Kluger’s writing is some of the worst I have ever had to read…. If I had not agreed to review this book, I would have stopped after five pages. After six hundred, I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown.’’ Two weeks later, the Times printed Kluger’s 550-word reply:
Here at last, I appreciatively recognized, was a critic astute and forthright enough to do for me what no other reviewer had done before: tell me I am a clown, not a writer. How sad I was for the publisher of my four books of social history, Alfred A. Knopf, which has gained its eminence by bringing out books by similarly dreadful authors. How bad I felt for the four eminent writers and scholars—Joseph Ellis, David Kennedy, Justin Kaplan and Dan T. Carter—who had unaccountably offered admiring words about ‘‘Seizing Destiny’’ for the back of the book jacket. And how insensitive Kirkus was for calling it, in a starred prepublication review, ‘‘brilliant.’’
This excerpt, emblematic of the whole in its sarcasm and name-dropping, does not lack for entertainment value. Does it lack for good judgment? It’s understandable that writers, who are ostensibly aware that pugnacity and even name-calling have traditionally counted among the possible ingredients of the book review, might think differently of that tradition when they find themselves on the receiving end. To be sure, reviewers are not always judicious in the throwing of punches.
Plenty of writers learn this the hard, publicly humiliating way. It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of Tova Reich, whose novel My Holocaust was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review in May, upon reading the review’s first two paragraphs, which eschew her actual work and instead criticize her book’s cover and one of its jacket blurbs. In a territory as subjective and nebulous as the book review, this approach still manages to come across as petulant on the reviewer’s part. And so Reich, in the same space Kluger treated as a firing range, rezones it as a funhouse. After noting in a sort of preface that she finds the review “wrongheaded and surprisingly ad hominem,” as well as “strikingly at odds with the many other very positive reviews that have appeared,” Reich goes on to write in the voice of one of her novel’s minor characters, who is, of all things, a professional writer of letters to the editor:
The authoress Mrs. Tova Reich has turned to me because of my credentials to write this letter. Mrs. Tova Reich is not so young and beautiful anymore, so there’s nothing in this for me, but that review you printed was such schlock that I’ve agreed to dictate this letter of protest. The authoress herself has promised to write it down word for word.