J K Rowling’s latest book – her first for adults, The Casual Vacancy, has reportedly been slammed by critics.
I am intrigued at the way books are sometimes attacked by reviewers in papers and magazines. In New Zealand it happens mainly because the field is so small that reviewers are often authors themselves, or in debate with the authors they are reviewing. The anger of those who feel their private territory has been invaded – or that one of their sacred cows has been tipped – is vicious, emotional and usually couched in a veneer of intellectualised justification.
The usual technique pivots on the ‘straw man’ – deliberately defining ‘right’ as something a book was obviously never written to do, then using that construction to ‘prove’ the book is worthless. The techniques are the same every time. Usually the critic will wring unintended meaning out of the title or jacket blurb, then ridicule the content on the basis that it fails to present what the critic insists was promised. Or they will look for questions the author poses in the introduction and deny they were answered. Frequently the vengeful critic will trawl for anything they can twist into an alleged ’error’, authenticated only by their own assertions. Or they will ridicule the sources, thus denying the scholarship of their target author. Sometimes all these techniques are deployed – arguments as hollow as they are specious. But because the review is apparently ‘fair’ assessment – where editors back reviewers’ indignant assertions of ‘professionalism’ - it is difficult for the target to respond.
I find myself targeted by one or two strangers wallowing in this froth of self-righteous hostility virtually every time I publish a book. These people, without exception, have their own competing interests. They never contact me – I learn about them from the newspapers. I am not the only one it happens to, of course. But it’s poor. If someone has a problem with my existence to this extent, I reasonably expect them to have the integrity to approach me first. It’s courteous. It’s ethical. What are they afraid of?
The real question is why. I suspect the problem stems from a conflation of self-worth with expectations of status in the field of personal interest; in this view, other work – by existing, or by questioning something they believe true - becomes a personal attack that must be avenged. If everybody else is smashed, the victor becomes the only one owning the topic. The fact that this destroys the worth of the field along the way is less crucial, it seems, than exclusive ownership of the crumbs.
It has a lot to do with self-validation. Humanity has an unerring ability to rationalise and intellectualise what are, in fact, selfish emotional needs.
Needless to say, I think there are better ways. Kindness and inclusion always work, particularly in writing where the ‘pie’ grows with its contributors. Everybody has something of their own to add, and should be encouraged and helped to do so. The way to get ahead, in short, is to make that ‘pie’ better all round - to welcome and help everybody. And guess what, you rise with them, and you’ll have trusted friends who support you, just as you support them. Everybody wins.
I also think people have the power to change themselves for the better. If they want to.
What do you think? Have you ever had experiences like this? Do you write reviews yourself – and how do you approach them? I’d love to hear from you.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012