If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should.  She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing.  Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me.  She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.

So I was surprised when I read a review of her new novel (Inside) and collection (Signs and Wonders) on Friday in The New York Times Book Review (in print today).  Surprised because the review was scathingly negative.  I haven’t read Inside, but I have read (and reviewed) Signs and Wonders, and the first thing that came to mind was this: were all those editors who accepted the stories that first appeared in Signs and Wonders – a list that includes The American Scholar, Failbetter, Southwest Review, Five Chapters, Daedalus, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Columbia – wrong?  Because they must be if this review is true.  And the second thing that came to mind – was I wrong?  Because I really liked Signs and Wonders.

Of course, I realize that book reviews are opinion pieces, and there is no objective truth.  You take a stand, support your argument, and let the reader decide.  The writer of the Times review, William Giraldi, took issue with the more melodramatic points of Ohlin’s stories – murder, pregnancy, marriage, death – parts that I enjoyed but he found detrimental.  But to label her language as “intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep”?  No, this is just wrong, and I’m afraid we’re no longer in the country of subjectivity.  Let me explain by using the word in Signs and Wonders that seems to have most offended Giraldi, “honkingly”:

Then one night I came home at six, and Stephanie was lying on the couch sobbing, truly sobbing, her shoulders shaking with the force of it. I got her a tissue and she blew her nose into it, honkingly. She sat up, her knees pulled up to her chin like a child.

That’s from The American Scholar, the story “Midnight, Tuesday,” which was renamed “Forks” in the collection.  According to Wiktionary, there are two possible definitions of this word:

  1. With a honking sound.
  2. (slang) Greatly, hugely, overwhelmingly.

So let’s go through the triad of literary sins as alleged by Giraldi:

  1. Is it intellectually inert? No, because Ohlin has combined both definitions here – Stephanie is blowing her nose strongly and emitting the sound at the same time.  This is efficient and smart.
  2. Is it emotionally untrue?  No, because her brother just died.  If your brother dies, I think you reserve the right to blow your nose however way you see fit.
  3. Is it lyrically asleep?  How it is possible for anyone to sleep when there’s all this honking going on?  But seriously.  Here’s a sentence from the same story: “I loosed her hair from its ponytail, and it sprang to life, a million curls clouding her shoulders.”  It’s beautiful, isn’t it?  Does so much with so little.

I have a feeling this was a difficult review to write for Giraldi, because he must’ve had to try very hard to find faults with Ohlin’s words.  J. Robert Lennon has written an insightful manifesto on his blog regarding this review (and negative reviewing in general), and he sums it up nicely:

But if the book is 5% awful and 95% fine, don’t spend 75% of your review quoting the worst passages. People do this when they’re angry. I understand: sometimes, when I am reading a book, I hate the things I hate far more than I like the things I like. But succumbing to the hate means that you are giving your reader an unbalanced view of the book. Indeed, your job is to characterize what the book is like–to give as full a picture as possible of the experience of reading it.

In the end, that’s the biggest failure of Giraldi’s review — that he does not convey what reading Signs and Wonders is actually like.  Ohlin is a writer who delves into people in trouble, in situations of heightened emotions.  Her language is an immediate, visceral conduit to these characters and their stories.  Read her and see for yourself.

TAGS: , , ,

SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

9 responses to “When Bad Reviews Happen to 
Good Writers”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Thank you, Sung,
    Now I’m going to read Alix Ohlin’s books, where before I might not have.
    Sometimes people are just mean and we don’t know what made them like that.

  2. Sharon Harrigan says:

    I like this line: “In the end, that’s the biggest failure of Giraldi’s review — that he does not convey what reading Signs and Wonders is actually like.” A big failure, indeed. As someone who writes reviews myself, I think we have an obligation to at least do that.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      It is the least we can do. I’ve reviewed books that I haven’t liked, but I always try to see what the author was trying to accomplish. Otherwise, the review isn’t about the work — it’s about me. And that’s a terrible review.

  3. oksana says:

    I great observations, Sung! I’ve read a couple of not so hot reviews (trying not to at all) of my book,American Gypsy, and what bothers me isn’t what they think about the writing, but when the reviewer begins to insult the people in my story. Since it’s a memoir, those kinds of reviews feel way too personal. I think sometimes critics forget what the purpose of their own writing is and it DOES become about themselves.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      This is interesting. If your book wasn’t a memoir, would you still be offended? Like, I wonder if Shakespeare would be offended if people told him what an asshole Iago is? Because, he kinda is.

      Obviously this is not the case with your book, Oksana — if readers are saying nasty things about my friend or a family member, I can totally see why it would bother me. But…if I may play devil’s advocate — you must have people in your book who maybe do deserve to have a pinch of hate sprinkled on them? So then the hate would be deserved? So is it only if the hate is misplaced, say, on your sweet grandma, then this bothers you?

      I don’t mean to belabor this point — I’m just curious. In my first novel, some people have told me that they couldn’t stand the sister character. This didn’t exactly bother me, but then again, she was a character in a work of fiction. I’ve written nonfiction essays from time to time, and if somebody were to tell me that they found me or my parents or my sisters insufferable, I wonder what my reaction would be. One thing for sure — once you write something for public consumption, you do expose yourself out there. All you can hope for is some measure of civility.

  4. oksana says:

    Exactly, Sung. A measure of civility is what many of us lack when it comes to judging others. But you’re right, of course, that once the book is out, you’re exposed and must deal.

  5. […] again.” Uh. Doesn’t sound that bad.). Fittingly, this unbalanced review provoked an unbalanced response at The Nervous Breakdown (as well as many other responses, several of which are linked below, in […]

  6. Caleb Powell says:

    Good points, Sung. Giraldi didn’t meet the aesthetic of reviewing. But I feel double strong that even shoddy criticism should be defended. Alix Ohlin now has a lot more potential readers, and Giraldi’s review, intentionally or not, generated a lot of conversation. If Giraldi’s criticism sucks, the world will find this out soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *