The wisdom of not reading your reviews

I somehow have very bad luck with New York Times reviews. Most authors would say that it is very good luck to have your book reviewed in the Times at all, not to mention that any publicity is good publicity. They would also say that it isn’t wise to complain about such a powerful institution.

I have huge respect for the Times. I’m addicted to the paper, and feel proud every time I write for it. It’s simply the best paper in the country. My experiences writing for the paper have shown me that they are very, very careful professionals, and respectful of their writers.

So when a review appears from a writer who is snide and disdaining, particularly, it seems, of women, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach. Worse to think that almost every person you know will read the review and feel–I don’t know, pity?

When my first book, Losing It: America’s Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It, came out, Gina Kolata gave it a very bitchy review, randomly plucking lines that seemed foolish out of context. A few months later she made extensive use of the book in a piece on the history of dieting, without credit. A few more years later she wrote a book on a similar topic. But first, she did what she could to bury mine. The Washington Post gave Losing It a great review, and its topic was featured on the cover of Newsweek. It made a contribution to the discussion about weight in the United States.

An Italian Affair was ignored. All Over the Map was included as part of a travel roundup, reviewed by Joshua Hammer, a Newsweek bureau chief and war correspondent. It might have been nice if the reviewer had been a woman, or at least someone who was capable of reading a book about a woman’s internal as well as geographical journey and not call it “embarrassing.” I was not embarrassed, and I think it says a lot that he was. My book was one of seven reviewed; five were by men, and the last two listed were by women–and one of those women, Rosita Forbes, has been dead for decades. I guess they needed a live woman in the mix.

I realize Hammer had to read a lot of books and digest a lot of material for his reviews. That could account for his weary tone; he had a lot of pages to plow through.

Writers are sensitive, so you can read the review yourself:

I was  annoyed, of course, that the reviewer described parts of my book as “Eat, Pray, Love Lite.” I’m not sure what it is about going to Rwanda to look at reconciliation projects after a genocide, or interviewing sex-trafficked women in Italy, that counts as “lite.” And no slam to Elizabeth Gilbert, who seems like a lovely person, but I wrote An Italian Affair about six years before she packed her suitcase, and I’m tired both of the comparisons to her book and the notion that my book was inspired by hers. It was not. Isn’t there room for more than one book about a woman uses travel as a means to find herself?

Does one complain about a review? Ordinarily, you’re supposed to roll with the punches, and hope that discerning readers like the book better. In this case, I could have shrugged off the digs I just mentioned and been happy that even a mixed review was better than none.

My friend Tim Redmond, Executive Editor of the Bay Guardian, and a friend whose judgment I respect hugely, told me, “It was bad, but not that bad. It’ll still sell books. It mostly seemed as if the reviewer totally didn’t get the book at all; I think even to categorize it as a “travel book” is wrong. But it’s okay; I don’t think it will dissuade people from buying it.”

I think he’s right. Many of my other friends said I was over-reacting and that the review was positive. My agent, editor, and publicist were not happy with the review, but suggested I let it go. I would have, but for one line in the review.

There was one wild inaccuracy in the review, and it had to do with a scene I described where I was drinking with some Samoan fa’afafine, males who act in the roles of women, and then took a walk on  the beach, where I was sexually assaulted. I included this scene because one of the themes of the book is the price that women pay for independence and freedom, all over the world. It was not an easy scene to write. In fact, I had written an entire novel about the incident, which I threw away, leaving only that one scene.

Hammer described this scene as a “drunken flirtation” that ended in rape. But nowhere in the text was there any indication that I was flirting with the Samoan surfer. In fact, I disliked him from the moment he sat down, when he asked me to help read a letter in English from a poor girl who’d fallen for him, and his attitude toward her was completely derisive, crumpling up the paper and throwing it in the sand. Plus, he was about as smart as a refrigerator. I couldn’t very well tell him not to walk on the beach near me because it was his beach; I was a visitor in the country. I was just getting air. I made my disinterest in him clear in the book. Anyway, it’s a memoir. I know what happened. I’m the expert here.

I decided I had to write a letter to the Times. Here’s what I wrote:

To the Editor:

Joshua Hammer’s review of my book, All Over the Map, contained a grave inaccuracy. He described a scene in my book where “an alcohol-fueled flirtation with a surfer on a beach ends in rape.” Nowhere in the text is there an indication that I flirted with the man who raped me; that is an assumption, and a wildly inaccurate one. One of the themes of my book is about how, worldwide, women who either desire to be independent or who are compelled to strike out on their own are punished by members of their cultures who are still vastly ambivalent about changing women’s roles. Sadly, Hammer’s review proves that point by insinuating that because I was out drinking with some Samoan drag queens, I must have been flirting with the rapist who joined us, and therefore to blame for the ensuing rape. Aren’t we past the notion that “she had it coming to her”?

The editors have acknowledged the letter, but haven’t told me anything else so far. I don’t want to make a stink; I’d just like to raise a little consciousness. That part of my book was subtle, and I deliberately did not want to make a big deal out of the incident, which I don’t want to do in print in the Times. I just wish someone would apologize. That Samoan surfer did, the next day. It didn’t make the bad incident go away, but it helped me realize that he was human, too.

Update: The Times has agreed to run my letter about the review. I appreciate their professionalism and consideration.

2 thoughts on “The wisdom of not reading your reviews”

  1. I’m glad you shared that part of your story — it’s one of many times I really related to your experiences. And your clear, but restrained, response to Mr. Hammer’s review (with his obvious lack of personal experience or empathy) is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  2. I’m sorry the Times didn’t assign a more skilled reviewer. Both of your books are wonderful reads, far superior to Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”. Does the writing transcend the specific and reach the universal? Yours does. Hers doesn’t.

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