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Oct 19, 2004 6:01 am

When You Get A Bad Review ...

Sharon Howard at Early Modern Notes led me to think about how a writer should respond when he gets a bad review. It happens to all of us at some time or other. The only people that I know of who've never had a bad review are people who haven't published a book. So, if you haven't published your book yet, you had best get ready because your baby will be paraded before people who don't think she's so beautiful.

Good general advice, I think, is to ignore a bad review. It appeared in such an inconsequential rag that you hadn't even noticed. But some rags can't be so easily dismissed. Even then, it is awfully difficult to respond to a bad review in a way that makes a good impression on other readers. I recall wincing deeply when one of my graduate school mentors wrote a letter to the editor in response to a harsh review of his book. Almost inevitably, the author of the book sounds defensive and seems to engage in special pleading. However correct your points may be, however justified your protest, it is very difficult to lodge it in such a way that you win bystanders' support.

If the criticism of your book is so biting and unfair that you must respond, the short dismissive note to the reviewer is the best revenge. If the lines are memorable, they'll pass by word of mouth into the treasury of retorts. Take Max Reger's reply in 1906 to a savage review by Rudolph Louis in the Muenschener Neueste Nachrichten, for example. Reger said:

I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.
What an elegant dismissal! Shunning vile language, it is deeply contemptuous and absolutely clear in its meaning.

Of course, if you do this well enough, you run the risk of your lines becoming better known than you are. Max Reger was a relatively obscure 19th century German musician. There's some consolation to him and all of us who get bad reviews that no one recalls who Rudolph Louis was. Unfortunately for Reger, his reply to Louis was so good that it is now better known than its author is. The all-knowing Google tells us that Reger's fine quip gets attributed to: Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, H. L. Mencken, Channing Pollock, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, and Oscar Wilde.

My conclusion from all of this is that it may be best to ignore a bad review. If you can't ignore it, don't burden readers with point-by-point refutation. Most of those issues are too obscure to be of interest, but the memorable dismissal becomes triumphant when it is passed along by word of mouth. Your only problem then is to become so famous that the quip doesn't outshine the reputation of its author. Otherwise, it may become the property of those who are noted for such things.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 10/19/2004

Reger's not so obscure in the world of organists. Thanks for adding a touch of the personal to his counterpoint.

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