We all know that authors responding to reviews -- especially negative reviews -- can be a dangerous thing. But what if the review is just... wrong? What if the reviewer messed up?
That's exactly what happened in the New York Times review of Patrick Somerville's latest novel, This Bright River, titled "Unmoored and Meandering: Two Twigs Swirl in the Eddies of Lifes' Stream." The title just about sums up the review; in short, the reviewer didn't like it. At some point, the adjective "soggy" is used--and adjective I'm still struggling to figure out how to apply to writing.
But this is not merely a question of a good review versus a bad review--this is a question about a right review versus a wrong review. Because, it seems, the reviewer for the New York Times got it wrong.
Apparently, the opening sequence of the book leaves the answer to the question, "Who got hit on the head?" a little ambiguous. The New York Times reviewer filled in the blanks... incorrectly. And then reviewed the book. And hated it. But what if she had figured it out correctly? What if she hadn't missed that one crucial distinction between one character and the other?
We all know how one thing can spiral a book into a land of dislike: a particularly unbelievable character; a shoddy timeline of events; the world's most awkward dialogue. Often, as a reader, I have a hard time re-immersing myself in a story when I have been abruptly pulled out by some piece of poor writing. But what if, as in the case of The Bright River, it isn't actually poor writing--it's just my own oversight?
I have to admit, this is one of my biggest fears when writing about books. What if I get it wrong? What if I misinterpret what the author meant? What if I read into something that isn't there, or fail to grasp some key element?
There are those that would argue that a book should stand on its own, apart from author intent; it shouldn't matter what the author meant, only what the author said. I agree with that, but I'm not talking about mere interpretation. I'm talking about instances of confusing two characters, as in the New York Times review, or the possibility of glossing over or simply forgetting some detail that is crucial to the ultimate success of a story. That strikes me as outside the author's control--but fully within the reviewer's.
For the record, the New York Times did eventually print a correction; Somerville wrote about the entire experience in this Salon piece. And to be honest, I'll bet Somerville is getting more interest in his book because of the flub than negative interest because of the poor review. Bad reviews happen all the time; mistaken reviews, we're led to believe, are less common. Or are they?