Michiko Kakutani hated it, Jonathan Lethem loved it, and both read the same book and reviewed it days apart in the New York Times. How often does this happen? Almost every time. The critics, our culture police, are no different from you or me. Criticism, even in the hands of highly paid professionals, is not an exact science. It's all arbitrary.
I like chocolate, you like vanilla, and there's no one to say who is right and who is wrong.
Still, book stores and libraries stock up (or down) upon the word of a handful of literary experts writing in literary journals. That's scary.
Suppose the reviewer of your particular book or short story got up with a headache, then got a traffic ticket on the road to the newsroom?
Take cover and DUCK.
Personally, I've been lucky with reviews - knock wood. Or, maybe my wife keeps hiding the bad ones, along with other sharp objects, in a separate drawer. I should note that the reviewer for one of my novels totally misnamed the hero throughout, which means that he or she never bothered to glance even at the back cover, never mind inside. (I wonder if other writers have similar stories to tell.)
Some reviewers, as i've experienced just today (Nov. 21, 2011) are terminally small-minded; they are unequal (inferior) to the book...and yet they "review." On the bright side, we have America's top reviewers as in Linda Shelnutt, John W. Cassell and Eugene Narrett. They are writers themselves so they know WRITING. On the dark side, well, you know who you are...Thanks for the thumbs up, lady, but please learn how to READ and Write! (Tweeting is not Writing.)
In many cases it's not the book that fails to meet expectations, it's the reviewer. I'm pretty smart and yet I'd never have the chutzpah to review "Ulysses."
But imagine Ian McEwan. This is the novelist who got ripped by the Times' Kakutani. She wanted his latest book "On Chesil Beach" to be quarantined, or so it seemed from the following snippet of the full review: "A small, sullen, unsatisfying story." McEwan is a big time author, but oh boy, who'd want to be in his shoes when he read that blast.
Who could blame his wife (if he's married) from hiding the sleeping pills.
But then came Jonathan Lethem who swooned for McEwan. His review, of the same novel, was positively worshipful. He called it "dazzling."
(For sure the dust jacket will go with "dazzling" rather than "sullen.")
Some reviewers sell themselves rather than the book they're supposed to be reviewing. Something like Words Gone Wild begins to happen.
Lethem went bonkers in favoring McEwan and praised McEwan for: "metafictional postlude" and "the oceanic retrospect of a ruminative mind."
Wow! "Metafictional postlude." You can't say that often enough.
As for me, I won't read any article or book that arrives with the demand MUST READ. I stopped trusting movie reviewers years ago when nearly all of them gave 10 stars to some flick called "Claire's Knee." Zero stars from me. However, the flaw may be mine. They - the experts - may have "got it" and I didn't. My mistake.
(I still wonder if "scoring" a book or any kind of writing as if it were a ball game is really proper and fair.)
Usually, when critics praise something I know it must be bad and when they pan something I know it must be good.
Anyway, generally speaking, there's no accounting for taste.
On art, one person's two-headed monstrosity is the next person's Picasso.
How about literature? You like Philip Roth and I say he's written one book and the rest are repeats. You like Don Delillo and I agree that this man can write but that sometimes we catch him "writing" which is the same crime as when we catch an actor "acting." That's too fancy. I also have trouble reading Thomas Pynchon. I know this is practically unlawful, so forgive me.
My favorite authors, given my mood at the moment, are Charles Bukowski and James M. Cain. They write plainly, no clutter, no posturing, no strutting, no metafictional postlude. I love Hemingway, truly I do, but even with his reputation for sparseness, he goes for too much description of landscape. We want the people and their emotions, not their surroundings.
"The Sun Also Rises" can be cut in half for all the words spent on grass, trees, hills and valleys. Cain would have cut all that out. Cain knifes us straight to the drama. Trust Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice" to learn how to move a story along without "writing." (Hemingway did get it near-perfect with "The Old Man and the Sea.")
But what do I know? An hour from now I may change my mind.
That goes for professional critics as well, two of whom ingest the same book and yet emerge with entirely different opinions, as happens more often than not.
Even the same critic can be of two minds over the same work. On Monday she'll send up blessings and on Thursday, with a toothache, she'll bring down curses.
Reputations (of those who write the books) rise and fall on such whims and all you can do is pray that the reviewer didn't get a flat tire on the road to your book.
About the author: Novelist Jack Engelhard's memoir "Escape From Mount Moriah," which was honored for Writing (MPA) and Film (CANNES), is now available in paperback. http://www.amazon.com/Escape-Mount-Moriah-Triumphs-Homeland/dp/1935232436/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_2
Engelhard, the author of 8 books, wrote the international bestselling novel "Indecent Proposal" that was translated into more than 22 languages and turned into a Hollywood motion picture starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. His website: www.jackengelhard.com or, www.indecentviews.com