You've probably read a few. They're common on Amazon and other consumer book review sites. You'll sometimes read them in respected print publications, too. They pick at elements of plot, character, setting, and pacing with razor-sharp talons. They shred themes and pummel prose. They may even be right in their assessment of some novels, yet it's their scathing presentation that gives them away. I've often wondered if these reviews aren't written by struggling novelists so poisoned by envy that they lash out against those who receive the coveted book deals and critical acclaim.
A March 3, 2013 piece by journalist Alexander Nazaryan in Salon admits that his jealousy influenced his reviews of books. He says, "Consequently, the reviews I wrote came to bear a stench of bitterness, none more so than one I wrote for the Village Voice in 2008 in which I took on two debut novelists, Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich."
I selected Nazaryan's piece for yesterday's #litchat MediaMonday, hoping to scratch some difficult areas and stimulate insightful conversation. I'm not proud of it, but I've been envious of some writers who got book deals for novels I found banal, hackneyed, and precious. After reading such books, I've often gone to Amazon and Goodreads to see what others have said about the book, just to see if I'm the only one with such convictions. Often I'm not. That's when I see the reviews dripping with green ink. And that's when I feel compassion for the author. No matter how much one doesn't like a book, it doesn't deserve the vicious lashing of an unsuccessful novelist. Behind every book is a person who put his or her time and talent onto each page.
Just after my former agent shopped my novel to the big houses without success, I began to examine why it bothered me so much when other authors received publishing deals for books I deemed inferior to mine and to those of many of my writer friends whose books were also being passed.
While there is an element of competition involved--after all, there are only so many coveted slots a publisher provides each year--it's more than that. I want to earn a living writing books. I'm not so naive as to think my first book will bring in seven figures. I realize that a career novelist must write several books and keep them in print in order to earn enough money to quit the day job. While I am not envious of bestselling authors personally, I covet their success. To be a bestselling novelist I must first be published.
My envy also stems from a sense that because my book didn't sell, it wasn't as good as those which did. Yet, based on very positive beta readings from other writers whose opinions are highly respected, this is simply not true. Then I realized a deeper truth. I am something of a book snob. I simply don't enjoy most popular fiction.
While I am not a wine snob, I admit to enjoying fine wines. Trending right now are sweet wines, which I call starter wines. I am not a fan of these sweet drinking wines, although I love a good port or dessert wine following a meal. Despite my preferences, there is a growing population of people who prefer these sweet wines. Does their popularity and trendiness make them bad wines? Just because I don't like them, does that mean that they shouldn't be made?
Popular fiction is a huge market. Romance novels consistently outsell other genres. 50 Shades of Grey is credited for keeping Random House in the black. Like the sweet red wines, there will always be a taste for popular fiction.
Which leads me to the deepest truth. I want my books to be read. I write primarily because I enjoy discovering a story and mining it from the earth of imagination. But when that story is complete, it's like I want to stand on the street corner and yell, "Hey, I wrote this story. Want to read it?" Many people will read most anything if it's free. Yet I strongly believe there is value in literature. That's when it circles back to wanting to do this crazy thing called storytelling for a living.
You can read the complete #litchat conversation about Writers on Envy & Jealousy, just click the link for the Storify archive of the discussion.