I have always been wary of novelists reviewing other novelists, especially in places that attract serious readers of serious novels like the New York Times Book Review which, despite its diminishing influence, still has an effect on the reading tastes for the discriminating consumer of books.
Perhaps I am uncomfortable with the practice because mainstream non-genre novel writers are, despite loud protests to the contrary, in fierce competition with other mainstream novelists. They compete for attention, notoriety, praise and prizes in a kind of nebulous pantheon of imagined immortality and secretly hope to be part of the literary canon of the future.
Many, not all, believe they are destined for that role and because of that, maintain that they are the true keepers of the faith of literary excellence and taste, and their opinions are sacrosanct. They seem to believe, too, that they are therefore qualified to judge the literary merits of their fellow novelists many of whom, ironically, probably harbor similar ambitions. They are, therefore, contenders and there is a good argument for keeping them out of the critical loop of judging other contenders.
A case in point was a recent review in the Times of a novel by John Burnham Schwartz titled Northwest Corner. It is a sequel to Reservation Road an earlier novel by Mr. Schwartz, which became a fairly successful movie. Apparently, it was a novel that gave Mr. Schwartz some heft as a serious novelist. The review was written by Julie Myerson, who Google tells me is a British novelist who also writes non-fiction and has won a number of prizes in Britain.
That said, I have never met Mr. Schwartz and have never read his novels or those of Ms. Myerson. Thus, my judgments are based solely on Ms. Myerson’s review of the novel in the Times Book Review, which clearly underlines the wariness that I have cited.
The review by Ms. Myerson is one of the most mean-minded, snide, sanctimonious and dismissive diatribes I have ever read in a book review written by one allegedly serious novelist about another serious work. Worse, I don’t understand why the editors of the Times Book Review, which ascribes its own biases to the publication, let it pass.
Since I am a practitioner myself, having written many mainstream novels that have run the gauntlet of reviews from glowing to terrible, and been subjected to the highs and lows of humiliation and praise, I offer this defense, however ineffective, to the novelist victim who goes naked and alone into the harsh jungle of public criticism.
In her review, Ms. Myerson accuses Mr. Schwartz of not working hard enough. She calls his character’s emotional states “lazy and forced” and hates the way his chapters end. She declares his similes and metaphors “clumsy.” She openly ridicules some, like “hard and cool as a Greek statue” and “hemophiliacs walking through a forest of thorns,” both of which I find rather interesting and original.
She accuses him of bad recall, whatever that means, and composition offenses too numerous to mention here. Worse, she ends her review with this ugly stab in the creative stomach: “If such writing can pass for muscular fiction, what hope is there for authors who spend long hours deleting easy clichés and pointless similes, working hard to create something that feels fresh and startling and true?”
I assume she means herself and her self-crowned works of genius. My guess is that she is suffering from the “how comes.” How come this guy gets to be thought of as a serious novelist whose books become movies while I, a “genius” who deserves such a reputation, fall short?
Moreover, Ms. Myerson’s review sounds like the kind of payback one delivers to a former lover or spouse, which is probably not the case, but it sure sounds like it.
If one proclaims herself the standard bearer of literary excellence and is allowed to spew such invective against another artist in an allegedly serious review publication, one wonders if the editors of this publication have some unrevealed agenda. I am far from a conspiracy buff, but I cannot understand why the editors would choose to publish a review that is so far beyond the pale of what might pass as a negative review. This review was a literary assassination.
When a novelist or any artist creates his or her art, he or she knows full well they are fair game for critics and must learn how to deal with both the pummeling and the praise. It comes with the territory. But then, even torture has its limits.
Nevertheless I cannot believe that Mr. Schwartz’s novel, vetted by a respectable publisher, edited with some degree of attention, written by a serious author and ultimately gaining the attention of the Times editors to be worthy of a review can possibly deserve such a brutal assessment. Something else seems at work here.
In this case, perhaps I should point my sword of indignation at those editors for allowing this murder to occur on their watch. To avoid such accusations in the future it might serve the editors well to cease using novelists as reviewers of other novelists work or, at a minimum carefully vet the reviewer to uncover any personal antagonisms or secret agendas.
Yes, dueling literary figures abound in the history of the literary art. Open contempt, jealousy and outright hatred often brought out rivers of recriminations and antagonisms among authors. Somehow this example seems different and unsavory.
Besides having been in Mr. Schwartz moccasins on various occasions, I know the feeling of helpless suffering that one must endure at the hands of a vicious self-righteous egotistical public scold.
As for Mr. Schwartz’s novel, because of Ms. Myerson’s so-called review, I fully intend to read it and make my own decision as to its merits.