Many of us, I'm sure, have participated in workshops in which the gag rule was in effect: Don't argue with the person critiquing your work. Just listen. It makes sense, because it's too easy to try to defend yourself, and in the process, miss something that you really need to hear. And you do need to hear the critique because you are there to improve your work.
How many of us have also received reviews of our work that we felt like arguing with? There is a gag rule in effect here, too. There is no space, in print or online, that I know of, in which a writer can defend her or his work against a reviewer. But does this make sense? Once the book is published, there's nothing we can do to change it. It's too late to go back and revise. So at this point, shouldn't we be given carte blanche to respond to our reviewers? After all, the review isn't about helping us as writers, it's about helping the reader decide what to read, isn't it? So shouldn't the reader get to hear another side?
The workshop format does allow for differing opinions. I've been in many workshops where one member seemed to simply hate my work, while others were great proponents of that same maligned piece. There is an exchange of dialogue between the two camps. That exchange was always helpful to me as a writer. I am thinking that kind of exchange might be helpful to the potential reader of a published work. And why shouldn't the writer participate in such an exchange, once the revisions are finished and the gag rule serves no purpose?
As you may have gathered by now, I have had some stinging critiques of my published work. When I read these negative reviews (yes, that's plural), I always want to have a conversation with the reviewer, to find out whether or not that person got what I was trying to do in my book, or whether that reviewer was simply the wrong reader for it. But I can't have that conversation, it seems, because writer/reviewer etiquette has that unspoken,understood gag rule in place.
But does this gag rule serve the reader who may be considering purchasing the book? Or does it really serve the writer of the review and the publication in which it appears? Perhaps the reviewer's purpose has grown too far removed from that of helping the reader to make a determination about the book.
Take The DaVinci Code, for example. How many good reviews did that book get? Not many. Yet, we all know there were millions of readers who decided that the book was something they wanted to read. So, does it serve the reader if a reviewer writes a scathing piece about the literary value of the book? I don't think it does. If I were to review that book, even though it wasn't my cup of tea, would it be my job to dissuade those who might enjoy it from reading it? I don't think so. Don't we want people to read? At the very least, perhaps the publication should give equal time to someone (the author, if he or she so desires, or another reviewer) who sees the book from a perspective that is different from the (sometimes jaded, or sometimes too too clever) reviewer's. This might be a better way to serve the reader. At the Movies gives us the opinions of both Ebert and Roeper. If the two critics disagree about a movie, the potential viewer of the movie gets to decide. Shouldn't it be the same with books?
Those lousy reviews have been crushing for me as a new writer, especially when it seems as if the reviewer was just not the right person to be reading my kind of writing. And when I have received these reviews (two of them so far) my knee-jerk reaction is to do two things: argue and explain. But I can do neither. Because the gag rule is in effect.