CLENCH YOUR PEN AND KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!
Authors are constantly advised not to respond to negative reviews. I fully agree; you simply cannot argue with another person’s opinion. It is worth remembering that many literary classics suffered a hatchet job when first published. I particularly love this example;
‘Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting on it is that it will never be generally read..” James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Poor Charlotte, poor Emily!
There have been well documented cases where aggrieved writers have engaged with a negative reviewer and lived to regret it. But what do you do when a review contains glaring factual inaccuracies?
My narrative non-fiction book The Water Doctor’s Daughters (Robert Hale, 2013) was reviewed by Boston academic Diane Greco Josefowicz, for the The Victorian Web. As a debut author I erred in submitting my book to this scholarly on-line site, as it was never intended as an intellectual treatise. However, Josefowizc later explained; ‘We don’t ordinarily review books in non-scholarly genres because we are overwhelmed with demand for reviews of scholarship that is our first commitment. I made an exception for your book, which meant. among other things, leaving other books unreviewed. Nevertheless, I believed your book to be of substantial interest to readers of the Victorian Web, and I hoped to link your work to its larger historical context in a way that would not simply promote the book, but would stimulate scholarly interest in the Marsden case more generally.’
Yes, well that was all quite flattering I guess. Nevertheless, it was reviewed (rather unfairly ) as a scholarly work. It was fully indexed and referenced, but little wonder Josefowicz complained of ‘scant footnotes.’ To be honest, I think there are only three.
I wasn’t actually aware of the review for some time, and when I did read it I was shocked to find serious errors. The most incomprehensible example referred to Mary Campbell, a patient who became the water-doctor’s second wife, Josefowicz wrote;
‘Upon her instalment in the household, moreover, Campbell seems to have devoted herself to torturing Marsden by making him jealously lovesick.’
This was a complete invention. On the two pages referred to (62-3) there is not a hint of Mary Campbell attempting to make Dr Marsden jealous; nor is there any mention of it elsewhere in the book.
Further on, she commented that one of the doctor’s daughters murdered her sister. This too, was incorrect. Worryingly, I received an email from someone familiar with the story who read the review and questioned the accuracy of my research. However, I was still reluctant to pursue the matter. Fortunately, other reviews appeared, and I simply tried to pretend that the Josefowicz piece did not exist.
The following year the book was long-listed in the prestigious literary award, The Nib, awarded for excellence in research. It reached the final fifteen from a field of over 150 entries, and was a wonderful validation of my work. By now I was feeling more confident. When friends asked why I did not protest about the errors I decided that perhaps I should.
Josefowicz somewhat reluctantly acknowledged (and rectified) her mistake over the ‘murder’. However, I have never received an apology. To my astonishment, she simply refuses to admit to her more serious error regarding Mary Campbell.
Oddly enough, when I searched on-line for other examples of factually incorrect reviews I could find very few. No doubt we are all afraid to protest publicly, for fear of being labelled defensive and thin skinned. However, as I commented in an email to Josefowicz, authors are called to account for their errors, and reviewers should be as well. Furthermore, once a review appears on-line it is virtually impossible to have it removed.
In a slightly different scenario, a fellow writer told me a horrifying story about a publisher’s reader. Her children’s book was rejected, and when the manuscript was returned the reader’s comments were inadvertently attached. One read;
‘How disappointing that the author has chosen to portray the only Aboriginal child in the story as a slow learner.’ In fact, the complete opposite was true. The Aboriginal child had been portrayed as very bright, helping to coach a struggling non-aboriginal classmate. Clearly the reader had been tripped up by her own subconscious prejudice. As a result, the author was wrongly accused of perpetuating a stereotypical image of Aboriginals. . Was this the reason the book was rejected? We will never know, but it would certainly not have helped. I was incensed on my friend’s behalf, and asked if she had addressed the matter with the publisher. Of course she had not. No-one wants to be ‘blacklisted’ or considered a trouble maker, especially if they wish to submit future work.
One interesting case where a publication was forced to retract a review involved The Economist, and Edward Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told; Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. In part, the anonymous reviewer wrote; ‘Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery; almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains….this is not history; it is advocacy.’ The Economist issued a public apology to Baptist, a Cornell history professor. The whole story can be read HERE
Publishing is an increasingly competitive world for writers. Anything that damages our reputation or unfairly represents our work is a serious issue.
For a more lighthearted piece on the writing world, click here to read about A NOT SO SECRET LITERARY AGENT.
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