Who Cares What Critics Have to Say?

Dan Zak points out over in Style that the movie Transformers has received some of the worst reviews ever--"A horrible experience of unbearable length"; "Striking, shrieking incoherence"; and so on--yet its ticket sales are approaching box office records. Which makes one wonder, of course, whether critics have any influence anymore.

The Post's critics have risen in defense of their profession, including Ron Charles who offers a plaintive plea for book reviewing.

But this week has also given us two testimonials from one group of readers to whom critics matter desperately: authors

Testimonial #1: Alice Hoffman responds to a negative review of "The Story Sisters" by tweeting the Boston Globe reviewer's telephone number, among many other angry comments. She has since closed her twitter page.

Testimonial #2: Alain de Botton responds to a negative review of "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" by leaving a comment on reviewer Caleb Crain's personal website that says, in part, "You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review." De Botton also tells Crain that he hates him.

Somebody cares.

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  July 1, 2009; 10:34 AM ET
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I care what critics say. To me, it's very helpful to read what an informed reader thinks about a book before I buy it. Whether a critic likes the book is not especially important, but the description and analysis of the book can help me decide if it's the kind of thing I would like. I bemoan the loss of fiction reviews, partly because the reviewing profession is the only force to keep standards high; without them, all we would ever be able to read is Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele, who are not to my taste. We are all better off if there are well-read people who can say "Here is what I thought was good about this book, then I'll tell what I thought could have been better."

Posted by: sageprairie | July 1, 2009 11:34 AM

"But this week has also given us two testimonials from one group of readers to whom critics matter desperately: authors"

This week? Doesn't this kind of thing happen every week or so? I especially loved T.J. Stiles complaints in May on Amazon about 1 star reviews of his book The First Tycoon (see the customer discussions section on the Amazon page).


The 1-star reviews were complaints about the pricing. I believe Stiles left a 5-star review (which Amazon pulled) where he complained about the arbitrary nature of judging a book based on stars, before the discussion was started.

Okay... Stiles wasn't quite as moronic as asking one's fans to threaten a reviewer (and posting the contact info for the lazy vigilantes) or saying "I will hate you until the day I die", but nevertheless I felt he had the same passion (and the same apparent regretfulness considering his deleted comments).

Nothing makes for more delightful reading than an author's response to a review of his book in the next week's NYTBR letters!

Posted by: prokaryote | July 1, 2009 1:06 PM

Actually, I know who pulled T.J. Stiles's 5-star "review" of his own book on Amazon. It wasn't Amazon, it was me—because I'm T.J. Stiles, and I realized within a few hours that it was really, really stupid. More precisely, I saw that *I* was really, really stupid to post it in my righteous fury. (As it turns out, the issue I was upset about affected a lot of authors, and soon after was the subject of a piece in the New York Times.) Yes, that's right, I said I was really, really stupid.

The point is, it doesn't matter if you have truth and justice on your side: if you're an outraged author, you really should just keep your mouth shut. In the end, the quality of a good book will win out over inappropriate or wrongheaded reviews. Or over non-reviews venting about unrelated issues, in my case.

I blog about writing at vanderbilog.blogspot.com, and my current post is about Alain de Botton's explosion against Caleb Crain's review of his new book. I try to explain the point of view of the outraged author, but then make clear that I think de Botton hurt himself badly by exploding in public. As hard as it is for an author to accept, readers understand that they're reading opinions when they read a professional critic—and they certainly take customer reviews on Amazon with several grains of salt. A review is not a piece of reporting; it's an informed but subjective reflection, ultimately a personal essay. And that's a formula for lots of disagreement—which is why a good review is interesting to read.

Posted by: tjstiles | July 7, 2009 2:02 AM

"In the end, the quality of a good book will win out over inappropriate or wrongheaded reviews. Or over non-reviews venting about unrelated issues, in my case."

Yes. Anyone who bases their purchase of a book based purely on the number of stars received on Amazon is-there's no nice way to say it-a moron. I'll grant you that a moron's money is just as good to you as any other reader's money, so inappropriate reviews could harm your prospects. But very little I hope. If it offers your wallet any solace, I did buy the hardcover of The First Tycoon. (It's been on my to-be-read bookshelf since May.)

Posted by: prokaryote | July 8, 2009 12:31 PM

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