Well-known writers have sometimes come out in the open to argue with hostile reviews, whether published in mainstream newspapers, blogs, Amazon, or community websites such as Goodreads. The Letters pages of the Times Literary Supplement are filled with authors responding to critics, sometimes to correct a small error, at other times to enter into a detailed defence. The general consensus is that writers seldom come off well when they disagree with their critics, though there are exceptions.
None of this is surprising, or even new. Anne Brontë’s second published novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, appeared in 1848. There are two narrators. One is a woman who has fled domestic abuse. The other (and a particularly unreliable one at that) is the man who falls in love with her. The novel has always struck me as having much in common with today’s psychological thrillers.
Anne Brontë wrote a Preface to the second edition of the novel. That Preface is essentially a long rebuttal of her critics. In it, Brontë tells us that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was ‘censured with an asperity’ which she was ‘little prepared for’. Her shocked reaction to sharp criticism is one that many writers will identify with. Sharpe’s London Magazine said of the novel: ‘so revolting are many of the scenes, so coarse and disgusting the language put into the mouths of some of the characters, that the reviewer to whom we entrusted it returned it to us, saying it was unfit to be noticed in the pages of Sharpe; and we are so far of the same opinion’. Ouch.
I have to confess that although I am on Brontë’s side, I find Sharpe’s damning comment arrestingly written and memorable – it is itself a kind of work of art, though an ugly one. Brontë’s novel is about extreme behaviours and emotions, and she didn’t sugar coat them – in this, she and her critics were in agreement. But they differ over the question of whether her explicit depictions should exist at all, as well as whether violent and shocking subject matter was fit for women readers and writers.
In her Preface, Brontë quotes an anonymous reviewer from the Spectator, who states that ‘there seems in the writer a love of the coarse, if not of the brutal’. Brontë is defiant in the face of this very personal accusation. She vows that she ‘will speak’ the ‘unpalatable truth’ about ‘vice and vicious characters’ even if it ‘be to the prejudice of my own name’. The interesting thing about Brontë and her critics is their consensus about what the central purpose and effect of her writing actually was: the power to disturb her reader with shocking real events. For Brontë, this is a virtue. For her critics, it is an offence. But the power to unnerve the reader is what many writers of psychological thrillers and crime novels desire. For the reader to be disturbed or upset is exactly the response that ‘vices’ and ‘viciousness’ and ‘unpalatable truths’ warrant.
Today’s book review landscape would seem unrecognisable to the Brontës, but the question of how to handle bad reviews has not gone away. For each of us, the answer must be an individual one. My own practice is never to engage with reviews, except to say thank you when a reviewer brings a good one to my attention. Sometimes, though, it is more difficult than usual not to respond. I remember a reviewer who gave my first novel one star and didn’t finish it, because she said that just to read the opening chapters made her so anxious she needed medication. A part of me wanted to reach out to her, to say that I hoped she was okay and that I was sorry for her distress. But another part of me felt that the nature of the material ought to make readers uneasy and provoke a strong response, and I had taken a deliberate decision not to prettify or omit. In any case, to approach that reader would have been an intrusion. Occasionally, a reviewer will say something in terms that I find especially hard. One complained that my novel made her want to take a shower. Another said that my heroine was to blame for being stalked and assaulted. At such moments, it is time to step away and do something else.
Generally, though, I try to consider what the reviewer is saying, weigh it against my own vision, and mull over what impact, if any, it might have on my work. I also try to remember that the review itself is a piece of writing, and that the reviewer is trying to produce something that is entertaining or moving or thought-provoking or helpful. Are they well written? This is a question to ask about reviews as well as the novels they discuss. If the answer is yes, I am inclined to think even more seriously about what the review says.
Charlotte Brontë’s letters reveal how attentive the sisters were to their readers, how heartened they were by some reviews, and how wounded by others. The public nature of Anne’s response to her critics was an exception to the sisters’ normal practice of dealing privately with reviews. The Daily News found the male characters in Charlotte’s second published novel, Shirley, ‘all as unreal as Madame Tussaud’s waxworks’. Charlotte told her publisher, William Smith Williams, ‘when I read it my heart sickened’. She went on to say, ‘Were my Sisters now alive they and I would laugh over this notice – but they sleep – they will wake no more for me – and I am a fool to be so moved by what is not worth a sigh’. These words go right through me. And whenever I am especially stung by a bad review, I read them again.
The Second Sister is published by HarperCollins