Can a publisher ever be justified in responding to a negative review?
When one of our novels, English Slacker (by debut novelist Chris Morton), was shortlisted for the Not the Booker Prize recently, I was ecstatic, especially as this literary award is voted for by the public. Admittedly, it had only taken 17 votes to get on to the shortlist, but we tallied more votes than many well-established authors such as David Baddiel, Greg Egan, Anne Enright, Linda Grant, Philip Hensher, Richard Mason, China Mieville, Magnus Mills, Steve Mosby, and ooh err Jilly Cooper. The shortlisting was great also because the Not the Booker Prize is run by The Guardian, and as a small publisher, I’d previously experienced great difficulty getting any attention for my publications from the national media. In the light of this, it was splendid to see that all the other shortlisted novels came from small publishing houses like mine (although one independent, Eight Cuts Gallery Press later pulled their title, The Dead Beat, from the competition, to be replaced by Sherry Cracker Gets Normal by DJ Connell, which is published by Blue Door, a HarperCollins imprint).
However, I was still wary, as I knew that Sam Jordison (who runs the Not the Booker Prize for The Guardian) was going to review each novel, and having read his previous reviews, I had pretty quickly gathered that he takes no prisoners whatsoever, and I warned my author of this. Despite this, I was hoping that Sam would post a positive review of English Slacker. But alas! It was not to be. A couple of the commentators on Sam’s review exclaimed “Ouch!”, as they thought that Sam’s argument was pretty damning, and concluded that English Slacker wouldn’t be worth reading.
Yet I wasn’t really upset by Sam’s review, as, having read his comments on some of the other shortlisted books, I’d been expecting much worse. (Indeed, I thought that his review was quite a funny parody of the narrative style that Chris Morton had employed throughout English Slacker.) So, I regarded Sam’s main criticisms as being cheeky jabs, rather than the swift upper cuts that I’d been expecting. In my experience, criticism that is truthful hurts way more than that which is inaccurate. Sam certainly didn’t like the dialect that Chris used for his main character, Chambers, and the fact that he was a very unreliable narrator. A couple of other regular commentators on Guardian blog posts agreed with Sam. However, I was reassured by the fact that several other commentators came to Chris Morton’s defence, and argued that they did find Chambers’ voice to be quite authentic.
I held back from commentating myself, as I wanted to see what the general public had to say about English Slacker, and also because there had previously been a debate following the reviews of some of the other shortlisted titles as to whether the authors/publishers should respond, with the sentiment being that once a novel has been published, the authors and publishers should effectively let go of it, to allow the public to form their own opinion.
Despite the fact that one of the commentators believed that Sam’s review of English Slacker was “arguably mean-spirited”, I was also mindful of the recent furore that surrounded the British author Jacqueline Howlett when she responded very vigorously to a negative review of her ebook The Greek Seaman (Bullet Reviews have a splendid overview of this controversy on their website), and so I wanted to avoid making an angry, knee-jerk reaction (especially since I didn’t feel particularly angry). However, even a seasoned publisher such as Patrick Janson-Smith felt compelled to exclaim the following in reaction to Sam Jordison’s similarly negative review of Sherry Cracker Gets Normal: “This, from the co-author of CRAP TOWNS. Enough said“, along with, ”Let’s face it, Sam Jordison, yours is just a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, with no thought given to an author’s feelings“.
Although I thought that Sam Jordison’s review of English Slacker was quite a funny parody of the narrative voice, I too was expecting a much deeper level of insight from him, as his review could have been written by a nonchalant GCSE English student (which in turn would not have been marked very highly by his examiners). To be fair to him, Sam is also employed to stir up debate, and this is something he does splendidly well. As I noted above, there are others readers who share Sam’s dislike of Chambers’ narrative voice, which is fair enough, as it’s not to everyone’s taste. Yet I think that literary criticism is as much an art form as literature itself, and so I had been expecting Sam to delve far deeper into the text than the casual reader. As it is, Sam Jordison’s claim that English Slacker is “boring and repetitive” leaps out at you from the review’s high ranking on Google, to such an extent that it appears that this label may well be indelibly attached to the novel.
A few days after Sam Jordison’s review had been published, I felt a clamour within myself to defend English Slacker, for if I wasn’t going to do it, then who else would? Debut novels like English Slacker have such a short shelf life as it is, and I didn’t want Chris Morton’s literary career to end abruptly due to Sam Jordison’s unjust condemnation. Besides, for every commentator such as John Self who wanted the authors and the publishers to let their books go, there were others on the Guardian site who very much wanted us to defend English Slacker, and my decision to nominate it for the Not the Booker Prize. And so I wrote, and wrote, and ended up with a 2,500 word essay entitled “In defence of English Slacker“, which you can access here:
Although I was fairly critical of Sam Jordison’s review of English Slacker, Sam’s response was to write: “I’m sure most writers would kill to have a publisher write such an eloquent and passionate defence of their work… Kudos to Punked books on that score“. I don’t think I’ve changed his mind about English Slacker, but a fair few people have read the essay, so at least I’ve shown that there is a far more positive reading to be made of Chris Mortison’s subtle and intelligent debut.
In a way, Sam Jordison has done me favour by so unfairly reviewing English Slacker, as he forced me to defend it. Since I run Punked Books all by myself, I never had to get the agreement to publish English Slacker from say, the Sales or Marketing departments, as I would have done if I worked in a big conglomerate publishing company. I’d thought I’d published a great book, but now thanks to Sam Jordison’s bad review of English Slacker, I know for sure I have.
So, could other publishers defend their books in such a manner? The publishing conglomerates would probably be wary about doing so, for fear of offending their colleagues in the reviewing fraternity. However, if the book in question is one that the publisher feels passionately about (and one that isn’t scheduled to be rescued by a big marketing budget), then why not try? It would certainly make publishing company blogs a lot more interesting! I think that if you make your arguments in a logical, imaginative, and coherent way (rather than as an immediate angry response), then you may well win your literary debate (as hopefully I will do so with regards to English Slacker).
Publisher and Founder of Punked Books