WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

When “respected” authors get bad reviews

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I wish this Francine Prose review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in the New York Review of Books were unlocked. She essentially tears Tartt a new one for… bad writing.

And I say bravo! I had a post a few months ago about how we might approach self-published books we review, but when New York puts out a novel that is as flawed as Prose reveals, seems to me that spades should be called spades. I haven’t read Tartt, but I have a feeling that her huge success with The Secret History might have set her up for a fall. According to Prose, though popular, The Goldfinch is pretty much a mess.

Prose is stunned at how well-received the book has been so far by readers.

What do you think? Why do crappy books get a free pass?

By the way, has anyone read The Goldfinch yet? Let us know what you thought of it.

 

 

 

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31 comments on “When “respected” authors get bad reviews

  1. J. S. Collyer
    January 17, 2014

    Established or indie I think all published fiction should strive to be as well as judged to professional standards. More for the writer’s sake even than the readers. Having said that, I would think hard before posting a bad review for an indie book: whereas it might not stop trad-published book getting somewhere, it could kill an indie book dead. And as reviews usually are all about taste I think it would be a shame for a potentially good book or promising writer to fail just because it wasn’t my cup of tea.

    Even this inclination of mine, however, is not set in stone. When you release a book, you are putting yourself out there to be judged. You’re selling a product. There’s no rule anywhere that says people have to be polite just because it’s your baby. But writers and readers are all human at the end of the day.

    I guess my point is, yes, if the book is badly written someone should be allowed to express their opinion thus. What the writer decides to do about it, trad or indie, is up to them. After all, a bad review can be just as helpful as a good one.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2014

      Right on all counts. It’s so true that a poor review can utterly condemn an indie book, and the inclination of most readers is simply not to review a book with lots of problems. And yet the risk of self-publishing is that a certain percentage of readers will simply not like what you’ve done. You takes your chances.

      With traditionally published books, on the other hand, the writer has benefited from all the advantages of professional editing and marketing, and a critical review probably won’t hurt much.

      • J. S. Collyer
        January 17, 2014

        Exactly. It really is worth thinking hard if you’ve had access to all those tools and it still ends up being ‘badly written’ as Goldfinch apparently was. I’d be interested to know it it actually is

      • J. S. Collyer
        January 17, 2014

        I’ve said all this now just you watch: my novel will end up bring pants XD

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 17, 2014

        Bring pants… Cool. 😉

      • J. S. Collyer
        January 17, 2014

        Ha! Oops. *being pants

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 17, 2014

        Dang, I thought I was learning some new British slang. “To bring pants.” Maybe I’ll use it anyway…

      • J. S. Collyer
        January 17, 2014

        Do it. Say I said it was real 😀

  2. Claire Duffy
    January 17, 2014

    Interesting! I haven’t read The Goldfinch, mostly because The Secret History was bloody awful, and also pretentious, which made the awfulness worse. I made it through about three quarters before I decided that I was losing the will to live, and gave up.

    I think that one of the most depressing (though also exciting, if you’re in the right mood) things we writers have to contend with, is that no one really knows what’s any good. I don’t even know that there is such a thing as objectively “good” – there’s just what people happen to enjoy at the given moment and in the given circumstances that they experience it. So quite often, when there’s a wildfire hit like The Secret History was, it’s all a bit Emperor’s New Clothes – everyone hears everyone else announce it’s brilliant, and goes along with the accepted opinion rather than risk sounding thick – and then the second book comes out and the author is standing there in the nuddy.

    Which may or may not be the case here – I’m unlikely to read The Goldfinch for the above mentioned reasons, so I guess I’ll never know 😉 I’m realising that this comment might sound rather negative, but in fact, accepting that there was no such thing as “good” or “bad” when it comes to writing was incredibly freeing. Now I just write the story I want to tell how I want to tell it, and if some people enjoy it, it’s gravy!

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2014

      Thanks for commenting, Claire. I LOL’d a few times! I do like the notion that there’s no good or bad, but I also have to acknowledge as a writer that if I do certain things or fail to notice that I’ve used a lot of cliches, for instance, I’m opening myself up to criticism. My impression from Prose’s review is that this book is just plain sloppy.

      But the good/bad thing applied to character, story, style, theme, etc. is wide open. We’re all different!

      I could go for some gravy now… 😛

  3. John W. Howell
    January 17, 2014

    I have not read The Goldfinch, but can imagine the author was trying to do something that might have missed the mark. Seems hard to understand how the big city editing process could let one slip through. The author may have refused to change the book in spite of editing comments and because of the first success the publisher let it go. Big lesson if so.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2014

      I think you might be on to something with the idea that Tartt rejected alterations. But, her editor let it ride. And they’re probably laughing all the way to the bank. 😡

  4. ericjbaker
    January 17, 2014

    I’ve read many follow-ups to surprise successes that were aimless disasters. I think people are more ready to believe an established author has a vision than an indie or self-pub author. Something about the aura of being an annointed author I guess.

  5. Phillip McCollum
    January 17, 2014

    Well I don’t have a subscription, so I couldn’t finish the review, but I will say that I’ve learned most writers have a different notion of what is an acceptable book. Before I started to pick up the tools of the trade, my tastes were not the same.

    Think of it as when we were kids. Try to get me to sit through a Transformers cartoon today… not sure I could do it. But man, my worn out videotapes were proof enough that when I was seven, it was the greatest example of creation on Earth.

    I think this was because I lacked the experience of what COULD be done with a story. I was satisfied with what it was. Given that most people today aren’t serious readers, they lack the same experience and as long as their lower level senses are titillated (hehe), it’s all good.

    And I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with that. There’s a lot of crap I probably enjoy in other fields of art and craft that true critics could rip me a new one over.

    Just some ramblin’ thoughts… Perhaps I’m just “bringing pants.” 😉

    Have a great weekend Kevin!

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2014

      Great comment, Phillip. I agree. There’s a spectrum of expectations for books, or Transformers cartoons, so that the reactions can be diametric opposites, depending on the reader. And, sad but true, most readers probably are reading for entertainment so they don’t impose the same standards that a critic would.

      I guess what irks me is that traditional publishers supposedly filter the crappy stuff in favor of the best, rejecting the work of unknowns on quality grounds in favor of stuff like The Goldfinch. Grrrrr.

      You have a great weekend too. And, btw, bringing pants is always welcome here!

  6. 1WriteWay
    January 17, 2014

    I’m looking forward to reading Prose’s criticism of Goldfinch. I read the hype about Tartt’s latest, but was hesitant to purchase because: (1) I listened to Secret History and almost went insane from the ending that seemed to never end; and (2) whenever I read a paragraph from Goldfinch at my local B&N, I just didn’t feel inclined to read more. While I agree with Jex that an indie book could be destroyed by one bad review (and so thoughtful reviewers are asked to keep that in mind), Tartt is not an Indie author. As you point out, she’s had the benefit of everything that traditional publishing can offer. She has probably already done quite well with Goldfinch so I doubt that Prose’s criticism would cause a dip in her sales. And that’s not really the point anyway. Prose is sharing her reaction to the book and (I assume) she does it in a far more professional and comprehensive way than many negative reviewers of Indie books. She provides a criticism that anyone, including the author, could learn from.
    Finally, yes, I think a lot of crappy writers get a free pass simply because they are a “known entity” and the publisher expects to make $$ regardless of how shallow or sloppy the writing is. That is the dark side of traditional publishing today.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2014

      You’ll like the Prose review. I was talking out loud to her as I read it: “You go, girl!”

      I never read Secret History because, my bad, I tend not to read stuff that everyone is reading. I can be belligerent that way, to my own detriment. 😉

      • 1WriteWay
        January 18, 2014

        I avoid Secret History for a long time because of the hype. Finally decided to listen to the audiobook (years later) and I actually enjoyed that until it just wouldn’t end. A good ending is as important as a good beginning.

  7. donaldbakerauthor
    January 17, 2014

    Yes, crummy books do sometimes get a pass. For instance, I had to put down a David Foster Wallace book recently because it was just too darn dull. I won’t go into which of his books it was. And I know it was maybe just me or my attitude at the time.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2014

      Yeah, DFW is a tough case. I’ve enjoyed his stories but never tackled Infinite Jest. Life’s too goddamn short!

  8. Catherine
    May 7, 2014

    I am a reader, not a writer, and my usual genre is detective/legal/forensic crime novels, but one of my book club members who is both artistic and a writer, recommended it. What a slog!! I did enjoy much of the writing and style, but as another person commented on the WP Rosenberg review, it desperately needed editing – eliminating perhaps 300 pp. of repetitive plot overkill. From this I went on to Sara Paretsky’s “Bleeding Kansas” – NOT one of her V.I. Warshawski novels. I stopped at p. 100 – I can’t get thru another one of these right now! (I never did finish “Beans of Maine” either).

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 7, 2014

      Thanks for commenting, Catherine! The more I hear about this book, the less likely I am to read it!

      I wonder when publishers stopped striving to put out the best possible product and leaned instead in the direction of quick n’ dirty…

  9. Rachel
    November 27, 2014

    I have read the Goldfinch. Mostly because I was curious to see if Francine Prose’s takedown was fair. It was.

    The Goldfinch is a ripping yarn in the Dan Brown style: high-minded reference to great art and it’s significance, but ultimately the thriller aspect prevails. As literature The Goldfinch is just irritating. Way too many little details that go awry and throw you out of the story. One example: early on the main character is sent to find a man named Hobie and deliver the message: “Tell Hobie his father is sending goons to beat him up.” Quite a potentially rich nugget right? So the main character goes to find Hobie, but the ominous warning he was meant to deliver NEVER COMES UP. It’s entirely dropped as a plot point. Also, the author lards the book with modern things like 529 education savings plans, but then characters have apparently no access to google to check out the details of such plans, so just believe whatever they are told. The absurd credulousness of characters moves the plot a great deal.

    Anyway, if you like Dan Brown, go for it (although for sanity’s sake skim pages 200-600), but I highly doubt this book will ever end up on a high school or college syllabus, because it can’t withstand any depth of analysis.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 27, 2014

      Thanks for this insight! I still haven’t read the book, but I saw it on a friend’s shelf the other day and said, “What a nice doorstop you have there.”

      Sadly, what’s clear to me after all of this is that the Pulitzer is now nothing more than a marketing gimmick and that literature doesn’t have to withstand depth of analysis — it just has to sell well enough to be noticed.

      Glad you stopped by!

  10. Kevin Brennan
    January 2, 2015

    Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:

    I thought it would be interesting to reblog my most popular post of 2014, concerning the Francine Prose review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Maybe you recall that Prose pretty much tore Tartt a new one.
    Then, in just the kind of ironic reverse that ’14 seemed to specialize in, Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize. Coming in second in my popularity ranks was the post that pondered that bit of WTF: Donna Tartt to Francine Prose: “Suck a lemon, babe.” http://wp.me/p3sx1Q-AA
    Enjoy the hilarity…

  11. kingmidget
    January 2, 2015

    I haven’t read the book yet and probably won’t. The simple reality is that some books get to where they get regardless of the quality. I mean … 50 Shades of Grey!!! Also, I think that The Goldfinch did as well as it did simply because Amazon put it on their opening screen for days and weeks. I was amazed at how much Amazon pushed the book. Day after day after day. I think, more than the quality of the story, the success of the book is a tribute to the power of marketing and Amazon’s ability to get people to buy a particular book.

    And then there’s this other thing … I’m still trying to read all of the books on the New York Times 2014 Notable Books List. What is fundamentally apparent to me is that quality is in the eye of the beholder. The number of books on the list that I did not like, that I thought were a mess, now outnumber the books on the list that I have liked. Go figure.

    And then there’s this other other thing … I frequently read extremely popular books and critically acclaimed books and am left with the question as to why. A lot of those books are a mess. There is something about “being a mess” that seems to be what interests critics.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 3, 2015

      So much of what we’re offered is supported by massive hype. This feels like a case of that. I remember when The Corrections came out, thinking, “Someone decided to push the hell out of this,” and it was true. I even think the whole Oprah thing might have been staged. (I’m a cynic…)

      As far as The Goldfinch goes, as someone pointed out in comments, it’s a very New York centric book that touches on hot button New York issues — almost as if it was conceived to be hyped. And it worked.

      • kingmidget
        January 3, 2015

        And that’s why I’ll never be rich and famous. Who cares about hot button Sacramento issues? 🙂

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This entry was posted on January 17, 2014 by in Publishing, Writing and tagged , , , , , .
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