Sunday, November 17, 2013

Perspective on Bad Reviews

Many years ago at a science fiction convention I was seated next to a famous writer in a well appointed hotel lobby for a book signing – his most recent novel and my first attempt. The idea was that convention attendees offered bought books for a personal autograph, except the many sci-fi fans were there to wear skimpy costumes, read comics and watch animee, and maybe get laid.

The writer and I chatted during a long series of quiet moments while infrequent shy readers approached and he flourished the felt tip pen. One reviewer came by carrying four weighty copies of new books and forty extra pounds under a tucked-in and buttoned-down shirt. “I reviewed your book,” he said.

The famous writer looked over his glasses while he finished an autograph for a young reader. “You said I played fast and loose with time, and the events were out of sequence.” The reviewer registered surprise and pleasure that the writer quoted his words back to him.

“You said the last chapters needed editing,” the writer added, “and the ending was too fast.”

The reviewer took out his phone and glanced at me like I might be willing to serve him to capture the moment.

“I’m reminded of a famous Van Gogh painting that hangs at the Art Institute in Chicago,” the famous writer continued. “Maybe you’ve seen it. The painter’s bedroom is depicted in too-bright yellows with the furniture outlined in squiggly strokes, and the bedposts are too big so they seem to loom off the canvas. I visited the gallery with my mother who claimed that was her favorite painting. She felt confident providing a critique because so many elements were obviously wrong.”

The reviewer’s countenance fell so he resembled a wax figure that was melting. He turned on his heel and marched away with fat thighs and buttocks pumping. The famous writer showed me the briefest smile before he reached to sign the next offered book for a fan.

Of course, we all know that the wrong elements made the painting recognizable at a glance as a Van Goth. Writers also seek a style that’s instantly identifiable for paragraphs taken out of context like with Flannery O’Conner, Margaret Atwood, or even Joyce Carol Oates. O’Conner was slammed for too much violence, Atwood for word smithing, and Oates for, well, everything. 


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