In The New York Review of Books’s letters section, reviewers often reply to corrections and complaints, and it is not uncommon for a reviewer to stand corrected and express gratitude to the reader (or even the author) who points out a mistake. In a letter last March to that publication, the anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas presents evidence that the reviewer of her book—an anthropologist who has written on the same subject—has it in for her: “I measured the length of his review—141 inches or 11 3/4 feet in all—and saw he was averaging four attacks per foot of column.” Is this what critics mean by close reading? The reviewer, who had praised Thomas as, among other things, an “exceedingly gifted writer,” is baffled, and replies that he had been under the impression that his review was a favorable one.
Such letters have one thing going for them: they are not boring. In a way they are the gems, the badly behaved children among a more straight-laced class of authors’ letters that mostly argue lengthy point-by-point rebuttals and accuse reviewers of misrepresentation or distortion. Elsa Dixler, the letters editor for the Times Book Review, said she receives from fifty to a hundred letters each week, usually including at least one from a writer who has been recently reviewed. “Our instinct is to run a letter from an author,” she said in an interview. Because authors, in their submitted letters, do not always make clear if their comments are meant for publication or for editors’ eyes only, Dixler must call them to clarify. On rare occasions, upon receiving her call, an aggrieved writer, having cooled a bit, will think better of it and ask that his letter not be published, she said.
Those letters that do get printed can, to editors’ delight, provide original material and a distinguished byline. But what is good for the letters page isn’t necessarily good for a letter’s writer. Not only does a complaint resurrect the negative review and present it sensationally to anyone who missed it the first time, but it can reek of sour grapes and suggest the author of the book lacks confidence to let the work stand for itself. To watch these letters unfold is to watch a writer step boldly out to the dueling grounds, only to shoot himself in the foot.
It’s important to note that even the most ill-advised, transparently self-defensive letter is unlikely to haunt a writer significantly, or for too long. And they need not always backfire. A 1972 collection of Norman Mailer’s work, Existential Errands, includes three letters he sent to book reviews. They are funny, irreverent, and crucially devoid of the hurt-feelings (albeit veiled) sincerity of the complaints cited above. In 1991, after a reviewer for the Times tore his most recent book and its author to shreds, Mailer punished his punisher with a biting, 1,600-word letter in the third-person, and in doing so, helped solidify the author’s letter as a minor genre.
This is not to recommend Mailer’s letters as mandatory and instructive reading for writers looking to gain the upper hand. The spirit of his jabs makes the review process more of a competition than necessary, suggesting that a bad review can and should be defeated. Furthermore, his is a case of executive privilege; few writers have such a reputation to lean on in the face of criticism. In her 2007 book Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, Gail Pool looks sympathetically on authors who believe they have been slighted in a book review. “Most letters of complaint from authors are mocked, which is why writers are usually urged—by editors, agents, and friends—not to send them,” she writes. “Authors have no viable remedy when they feel they’ve been wronged.”
But of course a book’s life is not nullified at the moment of reproach, and the frequency of writers’ counterstrikes suggests that at least some authors, some of them reviewers themselves, fundamentally misunderstand the book review as an organism: that criticism does not necessarily make a “bad” review, that two reviewers may differently judge the same text, that the annals of criticism are pockmarked with hatchet jobs of classics and encomiums to garbage, that a career of praise and prizes neither guarantees nor entitles an author to continual elevation.
Last September, the redesigned New York Times Book Review added to the upper-left-hand corner of its letters page, in a smug allusion to the cartoonish violence occasionally inflicted in that small space, a graphic of a cannon firing. The cannon is generously tilted at an angle so that the cannon ball explodes outward, as if it might land anywhere but on the stewing writer who lit the fuse.