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. 

 

Gregory Beyer is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.