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Why I Feel So Bad: Reviews and Guilt

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Every time I write a negative review of a war memoir, I have one of two reactions. The first is fear. Some of the authors I've reviewed are famous, acclaimed or successful; others are opinion makers or high up in government. Criticizing these authors could come back to to get us.

But the second reaction hits me deeper: I feel guilty.

I feel guilty criticizing works by other writers because I respect anyone who has not only finished a book, but gotten it published as well. Even if it isn't very good, they've accomplished something I haven't yet. I admire that.

This doesn't apply to every negative review. If you’ve read my Jarhead posts, you know I detest it. Nihlistic, ugly, war porn--it portrays the worst side of the military possible. Equally bad, in the exact opposite way, is the almost fascist, sloppy ghost-written Lone Survivor, (which we plan on tearing a new, um, orifice in a few weeks. Look for it.) a paean to President Bush and the "War on Terror". One impossibly pro-soldier, the other impossibly negative; both unrealistic pieces of propaganda.

Both books are so deliberate in their approaches, I feel free to trash on them. Luttrell didn’t even write his book, and his political asides are both so needless and so innaccurate, that he desrves to be criticized. Swofford, on the other hand, is clearly a good writer. I don’t feel bad criticizing him for choosing to focus on such ugliness, and releasing his book at the most politically convenient time possible.

Some authors don't need my praise, including Hemingway, Ursula Le Guin, Orson Scott Card, and Tim O’Brien. They’ve won literary awards and sold millions of books. They don't need or care if I praise or criticize them.

But then comes the other books. I really respect Fick, Van Winkle, Friedman, and Mullaney for doing what they’ve done. But even the memoirs I liked, like The War I Always Wanted, Soft Spots and One Bullet Away, I criticized. These authors wrote memoirs, which means they put themselves out there. This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. They put themselves out there, but in doing so, they open themselves up to criticism.

And critique. Their memoirs aren't bad, but they weren’t good either. Even though this is true, I feel bad writing this and I feel the need to get this off my chest. I want everyone to know I don't write negative reviews lightly.

At the same time, I want (and need) to be honest. That is what really matters.

ten comments

Fuck it, who cares? Look what this guy did to Jarhead’s author Swofford (via talking about Buzzell’s My War): http://tiny.cc/2cwya

“[…] I found Swofford’s review of My War to not only be, pardon the pun, entirely off the mark, but startlingly offensive. The crux of his review seems to be a critique that Buzzell’s writing is not seasoned and is not “literary” enough, and comes off more like a collection of blog entries…again, more supplicating, or shall I say sucking up, to his Columbia Journalism Review audience.

Buzzell’s writing is indeed not seasoned, it is charred and sizzling meat plucked straight out of the fire-it’ll burn you while it nourishes you. Buzzell’s writing does perhaps lack some kind of literary flourish-but so what? Again, when I read Jarhead, I’m reading the witty, dry prose of a University of Iowa Writers Workshop project […] When I read Jarhead, I’m sitting in a freshman creative writing class[…] When I read My War, its right after the last formation and I’m up on the third floor of the barracks, with my BDUs still half on but with a bottle of Mad Dog hoisted to my lips…

Swofford’s various critiques are rather pointless, trifling, and somewhat irrational. He mocks the fact that Buzzell was a “typical Northern California stoner kid” who joins the Army in a typical way, complete with taking pains to pass the piss test and marrying for the extra cash […] Who the hell does Swofford think joins the Army (or Marines for that matter)?

[…] Many a Gulf War soldier left the theatre with a nagging and certain knowledge that their experience was but a prelude of something way bigger to come…we knew we’d be back. We knew that “next time” we’d be going to Baghdad. The common rejoinder was “next time, dog, it ain’t goin’ to be no joke.” And it has not been a joke. […] My War is captivating in a way that Jarhead never could be…we knew the desert slaughter was giving birth to the surreal urban nightmare that our soldiers now find themselves in, and Buzzell documents it for us in a language we well know.

In time, history students and lovers of the literary will look to My War as a defining first person account of the overall Army experience in the Middle East, while Jarhead will rightly be passed off as some kind of Tim O’Brian wannabe. Swofford’s review reads like a severe case of penis envy.

My War Rocks.”

Great review of a book, done while skewering another book and review. If you are honest and can make your case while not sounding as bad as the book you are ripping, then have at it.

Any link to Swofford’s Bluzell review?

I’ve sort of come around to the idea that there’s a social contract between author and reader, in the sense that the author attempts something, a thesis or a concept or a structure, and the reader works through that (or chucks the book across the room) to see the results. In that sense, I would find your guilt misplaced, because you were reacting in the only way you could. You do exactly what you must do, as a reader; experience and judge the book from your encounter with it.

You just become a little more vocal than other readers, that’s all!

@ Karaka – Yeah, I think the guilt isn’t that in that I don’t like the books, that’s my reaction and I’m entitled to it. it’s the putting it in print (or online) that evokes the reaction.

Anyways Karaka, like your website, I’ll be checking it out.

Cheers, Eric. I like yours too!

And it’s not as if we don’t all talk about the books we read to other people! There’s usually some level of public response from readers; vanity googling and public websites just make it easier for those responses to be seen by others. I think every day I post something I wonder who is reading it. And then I hit the button anyway, because in that sense, I become the author and someone else becomes the reader, and it all starts over again.

I think that “meta” cycle you describe is perfectly illustrated in the first post: A review of a review.

I think my concern is that people will think I’m being unfair, or uncharitable, to the people I review.

But you’re totally right. Sometimes you just gotta hit publish, and see what happens. And honesty, even brutal honesty, is the best policy.

Sometimes I feel people who are to afraid to spark a controversy or who feel bad after a bad review probably have no business writing a book, even if it is a memoir. I wish more people would have their memoirs crapped upon, picked apart, and checked for accuracy and “truthiness”.This is especially true when its seems to not only be one of the primary mediums for a part of the veteran community to disseminate information to the wider public but also being used increasingly among politicians and public figures in general to portray a slick ghostwritten PR fantasy and promote their platform / market themselves.

@ Chris C – In a few weeks we’ll be reviewing Marcus Lutrell’s Lone Survivor, he did just that.

Chris C.‘s last point is dead on.

I have been waiting to use that guy’s review somewhere, someway, for soooo long…I came across it a long time ago, and read the review of which he speaks then. It appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review. The link for the review is broken now. It seems that a recent redesign of their website broke the link to the article (2006, June, I think), but if you have a university subscription through your library maybe you can get to it that way. Sorry not to be more helpful.

Actually, we had a letter appear in the Columbia Journalism Review, but we never had a chance to double check if it appeared.

I’ll have to find a source to get access to it.