Very few people are familiar with the name of Rufus Griswold. On the other hand, there are also very few people who don’t know the name Edgar Allan Poe. The irony is that much of what the average person “knows” about Poe was written by Griswold and these fictions, which appear to have been intended to harm Poe’s reputation and destroy his literary legacy, only served to increase Poe’s popularity. The dark descriptions Griswold wrote about Poe being an individual of poor character actually drew more interest in Poe’s work. This strategy of slander backfired and today most people know Poe’s name and literary work while Griswold is all but forgotten.
Certainly, there are a lot of mysteries surrounding Poe and his death, but the biography Griswold wrote adds another layer of darkness that further obscures the truth. In fact, we can’t even be certain that Poe would disapprove of the false accusations, given how much it has brought attention to his own work. However, it brings to mind some of the reviews that I’ve seen authors giving other authors on retail and book related sites. It’s not uncommon for some authors to give low ratings or write unfavorable reviews for books that may compete with their own books for readers or market share.
Like most literature enthusiasts, I enjoy some books more than others. However, if I read a book that I don’t like, I simply don’t review it. Just because a book doesn't appeal to me doesn't mean that it was a bad book. In fact, more often than not, the reason I don’t enjoy a book is because it’s not relevant to me at the point in my life in which I read it. That doesn’t mean that the book would never be relevant or didn’t have the potential to take on meaning for me at a different point in my life. A reader’s experience is subjective and may be completely irrelevant to the quality of a book. Therefore, it’s important to explain why a book appealed to you in a positive review and carefully choose your words if you decide to write a negative review. But even well written negative reviews can reflect poorly on the reviewer.
Negative reviews often tell you more about the reviewer than the book being reviewed. Dislike for something that is strong enough for a reviewer to take the time to record it publicly tells you what’s important to the reviewer or where the reviewer struggles. Negative reviews are also frequently emotionally charged, thereby giving hints to the reviewer’s real issues. These are often unrelated to the book and more likely related to the subject matter or something about the author that reminds the reviewer of someone else. In the case of Griswold and Poe, Griswold’s real issue appears to be one of jealousy.
This brings about another important issue of authors writing negative reviews of another author’s work. Remember that your criticism isn’t simply evaluating the author’s writing: it is actually far more critical of the publisher’s and editor’s work. It’s the editors who determine if a book is well written enough to be published and who are also responsible for catching many of the issues that you may be criticizing. I’ve spoken with more than one editor who has said that they refuse to work with authors who write scathing reviews of other authors’ works because they feel that these individuals tend to have difficult personalities. So before writing a negative review, think twice about how it may reflect upon you. You could hurt your own chances of eventually getting published because, as one editor put it: “No one wants to work with a know it all, and people who constantly criticize others give the impression that they think they know everything. I don’t have time to deal with someone like that.”
Today when I read strongly negative reviews I’m often reminded of Poe and think, “something that evokes so much hatred must be worth reading.” Hatred isn’t a neutral reaction. In fact, some people argue that hatred is not the opposite of love and that indifference would be the true contrasting reaction. More often than not, truly bad books are simply ignored by the reading public because they aren’t recommended. It stands to reason that if someone takes the time to write a negative review in order to deter others from reading the book, that it was done for a reason.
Hatred is counterproductive on so many levels, and allowing your disdain for someone else’s writing could cause you to lose readers. Most people feel that individuals who need to push others down in order to lift themselves up probably don’t need to be elevated at all because they’re not demonstrating that they have anything worthwhile to say. After all, the main purpose of writing is to say something that’s worth reading. So instead of writing negative reviews, try expressing appreciation for the work of others that you do enjoy. This can help you to gain a larger audience because potential readers will better understand your work by the literary company you keep.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
I read a lot, but it’s rare that I come across a book that I just can not put down. The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn The Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth was one of those books. I read the whole thing in less than 24 hours, deftly ignoring deadlines, emails, and people screaming in my face in order to accomplish this. It was worth it.
As a writer, I’m interested in the technical information in the book - how some of the best authors in history utilized these building blocks called the figures of rhetoric in their craft. The author doesn’t explain every figure in existence — just some of the ones more commonly used. What’s great about this book is how the author provides specific examples from classic literature, and those frequently come from the works of the Bard, himself. What better example could we have?
Aside from the fascinating content, what makes this book unique is the engaging manner in which it’s written. Forsyth makes learning about the figures of speech fun and entertaining. He cracks jokes and doesn’t take himself or the language too seriously. Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“When healthy people fall in love, they buy a bunch of flowers or an engagement ring and go Do Something About It. When poets fall in love, they make a list of their loved one’s body parts and attach similes to them.”
“Polyptoton remains incorrigibly unsexy.”
“Lawyers are like Cole Porter and Alfred Lord Tennyson with a blender.”
“I would no more write without art because I didn’t need to, than I would wander outdoors naked just because it was warm enough.”
If you’re a word nerd, purveyor of prose, or literature lover, such as myself, then you should check out this book. Note: I just used several of the elements of rhetoric in that last sentence, but I won’t tell you which ones or how many. You’ll have to read the book for yourself to figure it out!
If you know a writer or English teacher, this book would make a great gift. If you fit into one of these categories or you're just a word junkie like me, then buy it for yourself.
Friday, December 13, 2013
A friend posted this meme on Facebook and it got me thinking that a lot of what applies to jazz also applies to life. So here are my thoughts on life and jazz this morning.
1. It exists in the moment. You can’t store it up or save it for later. It must be experienced now.
2. You have to constantly improvise for things to keep moving.
3. It’s always the right time to listen to others around you.
4. Everyone who wants it gets a chance to solo, if even for a brief moment.
5. It works best when everyone respects their peers.
6. You can jump back in and join the song at any time as long as you play well with others.
7. The more you play, the better you get.
8. If you’re dwelling on something other than the moment, things could train wreck. You can’t spend your time thinking about what happened at the beginning or trying to figure out where everything will end.
9. It’s beautiful when it’s done right.