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I opened the latest issue of Esquire with very pleasantly modest expectations. I was looking forward to a helping of the smart-but-mostly-vapid entertainments Esquire tends to serve up so well – glossy spreads of $15,000 wrist watches, listicles on the Top 5 Things Your Sternum-Length Beard Says About You (in reality, it’s only one thing: you’re an insecure douche-bucket), that sort of thing. In the past, I’ve sometimes found these things a bit annoying, but they were just what I needed this time around, and for most of the issue, they’re exactly what I got: the Sacred Manly Bond of hand-destroying illegal fireworks, the Country’s Best Steakhouses (which somehow seem to change every three issues), and the cover feature this time around, an engaging interview with 5-foot-tall 6-pack-a-day Game of Thrones starlet Kit Harington on how the success that’s made him a millionaire is a bit inconvenient. So far, so good.

Then I came to a surprise. In the back of the issue was a short piece by novelist Richard Ford – about the book reviews he’s received over the course of his career.

This kind of thing is something of a rarity. Most big-name authors don’t talk about the entire Penny Press industry that depends on their books – much less the entire section of the reading populace that depends on that industry. And there’s a good and self-evident reason why authors avoid those subjects, but self-evidence isn’t always safeguard enough: every once in a while, an author will break ranks (and the fourth wall) and talk about the Kakutani in the room.

It’s never a good idea. Talking about your critics, as a wise man observed almost a century ago, invariably devolves into complaining about your critics, and complaining about your critics is “the surest and fastest way to confirm that they were right about you all along.” So spoke the unsung genius of the Great White Way. Too bad word of it never reached the Great White Wordsmith.

Ford opens his piece, called “Perilous Business,” by telling the story of the first time he read a review of one of his books. The review was by Larry McMurtry, and it was politely negative, and Ford has stewed over it ever since. He tells us that he “can’t make himself” to go and look up just what it was McMurtry wrote – a totally unconvincing gesture of indifference, since it’s pretty obvious he has the thing memorized – but that it was withering, a harbinger of every bad review Ford would ever receive. “The only way I can take a bad review of my book is personally,” Ford writes, “as something bad that’s happened to me.” No thought given to the possibility that his book was something bad that had happened to its readers. I certainly remember the book in question; in his review, McMurtry was being generous.

It almost never fails with stoic, guy’s-guy writers: they’re full of terse, tough kharingtonesquireassessments of all and sundry whenever they’ve got an interviewer’s microphone in front of their face, but the instant they find themselves on the receiving end of such an assessment, they start blubbering like a slapped toddler. In the case of Ford – who’s written one good novel, one good memoir, and a massive sloughing mountain of third-rate junk – the self-pity is mixed with lots of invidious gossip. It’s not just that he’s a great writer who really shouldn’t be handled by pissy little book reviewers in the first place (except for the handful he singles out as “reliable” – reliable! I can’t think of a higher compliment … if it’s coming from an editor. But having a writer call me “reliable” as a reviewer? The skin crawls), no, it’s not just that he’s competent at his job – it’s that book reviewers are incompetent at theirs. He has it on insider authority, you see:

Recently, a highly placed official in a semi-prestigious reviewing organ remarked to me, in a taxi, that in her view all reviewing is completely subjective from the git-go and shouldn’t be worried about. Which was to say that while book reviews may make a big difference to a book’s success in finding readers, they’re mostly all just a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with.

“Book reviews,” he informs us (when he’s not hearing taxi cab confessions, that is), “are always written at the mercy of a reviewer’s williwaw state of mind.” Unlike serious novelists, book reviewers don’t actually sit down and think about what they’re doing. There’s certainly no craft involved. They’re under-educated. They’re overworked. They’re underpaid. They’re badly distracted. They’re just so willawashy. That’s why, we’re told, “there’s neither a deep nor a wide recent tradition of high-quality reviewing in the U.S.” (“And there are blogs,” he tells us, adding – although by this point he scarcely needs to: “I don’t know much about them”) See? It’s not just a few reviewers who haven’t been “reliable” when it comes to praising Richard Ford books … it’s the whole gosh-darned field! All these dozens and dozens of book reviewers out there letting the side down, willawallowing in their own petty affairs while serious novelists are trying to create serious novels!

The essential problem with this whinge-fest and others like it is always the same: a willful misunderstanding of what book reviewing actually is. Ford isn’t the first novelist I’ve encountered who seems to think book reviewers are just another arm – a nice “reliable” arm – of their publisher’s publicity department, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. Every pouty word in “Perilous Business” shows that Ford no better understands the world of book reviewing than he understands the world of novels written without posturing cliches. “To knock a book down in print,” he tells us, “is like coming upon a hitchhiker on the side of the road and rather than passing him by, deciding to run over him.”

Wrong. Completely wrong, of course. Passing a hitchhiker (“on the side of the road” reminds us that in every single piece of Ford fiction, we’re always, mechanically, informed that meals are cooked “in the kitchen” and sleeping is done “in the bedroom”) is easy; a hitchhiker makes no claims on any individual passing motorist; a hitchhiker has no advertising budget. Therefore, swerving to hit a hitchhiker is an act of motivationless malice. If a novel were a hitchhiker, the only thing printed on its front or back cover would be its price.

mrbeansholidayNovels aren’t hitchhikers on the side of the road. Novels not only want things from you – important things, like your money, your attention, and your acclaim – but they’re also willing to lie to get them. Picture a hitchhiker with a sign saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” You see that and pull over, but the hitchhiker turns out to be a flat-broke cat-lover who may or may not be fizzing with Hepatitis C. You’ll wish somebody had run over that hitchhiker long before you fell for that sign. At the very least, you’ll wish you’d been warned.

I can’t speak for the brainier practitioners of my profession, of course. Book reviewers like my Open Letters colleagues Rohan Maitzen and Sam Sacks are often dealing in deeper verities, pitching at least part of their discussion for states unborn and accents yet unknown (the fact that Ford would dismiss them as “a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with” makes the ol’ Southie blood boil). But for myself, I’m not the guardian to the gates of Parnassus – I’m the watchdog of my readers’ time and money. They’ve got a very limited amount of either to spend on fripperies like new novels, and when they’re browsing the New Releases tables of their local bookstore, they’re confronted with one sign after another saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” So I’m naturally less than effusive in my sympathies when an overpraised novelist starts talking about his paycheck:

Whenever I think about reviews of my books, I usually only think about the bad ones – the ones, again, that drive readers away, take bread out of my children’s mouths, devalue half a decade of honest effort, steal money out of my pocket, and cast a dark shadow over my future … I wonder if those bad-review writers would do it if they knew the chain reaction they’d set in motion. If they would, then they deserve what they get both here and beyond. I wouldn’t want to know too much about these people’s personal habits – how they treat their spouses and pets. I know, I’m way too sensitive.

Too sensitive, yes. Also a blockhead, and yet the implication that book reviewers are being mean is so common as to be almost williwall-to-wall. The idea that a negative review is taking bread out of the mouths of over-privileged children and otherwise dipping into their college funds is so wrong-headed and vain that it just had to be a novelist who first thought it up. It’s like blaming a restaurant’s crappy food on its bad reviews.

A book reviewer – at least, the unreliable kind – doesn’t care about the money in your pocket, or about the bread in your children’s mouths, or about how long it took you to create your latest boring slice of late-middle-age suburban angst. They care about whether or not your latest book is any good. They’ve read all your earlier books – no williwalk in the park, if you happen to be a slog of an author – and they know the claim your name and reputation (“Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies”) make on readers who are trying to decide whether or not to shell out $35 for your latest book. What those readers want in a book reviewer is an ally and advocate. Book reviewers who are thinking about how a novelist is going to make his next pool payment might be reliable, but they’re also bad at their job. And a novelist who complains about critical reviews – especially one who implies that the reviewers who don’t like his books are incompetent – well, that novelist is a bit of a putz.

So: a spike of adrenaline buried in the pages of what I’d hoped would be a nice diverting issue of Esquire. Our regularly-scheduled sushi-shop ratings will resume next issue – I’m devoutly hoping.

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