A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
I am a huge fan of Alice Hoffman’s novels. Like the critic Roberta Silman, who recently reviewed Ms. Hoffman’s latest novel, “The Story Sisters,” in the Boston Globe, I came to love Ms. Hoffman’s books first by reading “Illumination Night,” which I admired as much for the writing as for the tale.
Nothing about the latest Twitter scandal, in which Ms. Hoffman supposedly ranted at Ms. Silman in a series of ever-more-frantic Tweets, changes my mind about her work. And, like writers everywhere, I can relate all too well to her feelings of anger and her desire for retribution over a negative review.
Lord knows I’ve had my share of negativity. Although I had some very warm reviews and high praise for my first novel, “The Jewel of Medina,” there have been some doozies, too. One reviewer made fun of my writing and skipped the rest — probably because, as I happen to know, she got her copy at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, read the book while on a weekend trip with her boyfriend, and turned the review around in time for Monday’s paper. I was so frustrated, I wanted to cry out! I wanted to tell the world about her chicanery. But I knew better. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the controversy over my book, it’s how to keep my mouth shut. Most of the time.
When Geraldine Brooks’ scathing review came out last December, I sat down and cried. She’s one of my literary heroes, and each snarky put-down hit me like a blow. I cried all weekend. Another critic, who hails from Random House, said books like mine don’t deserve First Amendment protection. Wow! At least I could laugh over that one.
Some tried to tell me how fortunate I was to see my book reviewed at all. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” others would tell me. I didn’t believe them. I still don’t.
We writers know how much work and commitment it takes to finish a novel. You become one with your characters; you eat, drink, sleep, and dream them, until they inhabit your skin like a second self. Releasing a book into the world is indeed like bringing forth a child — and every criticism strikes as sharply, and tastes as bitter, as if a family member were being attacked. Like a lioness guarding her cubs, you want to strike back.
But this is art, and as a writer you know that, in producing something and calling it “art,” you have opened yourself up. No matter that most book critics are writers these days, with agendas and jealousies — and loyalties — of their own. (Why is writing the only art form in which this is so? You don’t see theater directors or playwrights critiquing plays, or visual artists reviewing one another’s shows.) The desire to retaliate, or at least to complain, is naturally, humanly, there.
A fellow writer, hearing my lamentations, gave me better advice. “I always write a thank you note when I get a negative review,” she said. “It’s good for the soul.”
That sounded right to me. I wrote an email to Geraldine Brooks, telling her I was sorry she didn’t care for my book but that I was honored that she’d read it. She responded with kindness, telling me the New York Times “skewered” her first two novels, “Year of Wonders,” my favorite, and “March,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Her reply had a double effect: It gave me closure, allowing me to let go of my disappointment, read her review more carefully, and vow to learn from it. And, by sending love to her in exchange for her negative words, I felt my own capacity for love increase. I hope to meet Ms. Brooks in person some day, and in fact I look forward to it as one of the highlights of my life.
One writer I have been priviliged to meet is Jane Smiley. I asked her about book reviews, and she smiled. “There’s no such thing as a bad novel,” she said.
There are, however, bad reviews, and Alice Hoffman got one in her hometown newspaper, and there are bad responses such as hers. With her lashing out — including the posting of Ms. Silman’s phone number with an invitation to harass the critic — Ms. Hoffman has surrounded herself with negative energy. She has infused her book with it, as well. Here’s hoping she finds a way out — with, say, a public apology to Ms. Silman. The next time around, maybe she’ll write a thank-you note instead of a diatribe. It really is much better for the soul.