The Exception That Proves the Rule

Years ago I wrote a review of an album by an obscure (even by prog standards) band. It was a middling album and I gave it a middling review. Fairly soon after I got a hateful email from one of the band members taking issue with the review. Aside from one factual thing I got wrong (which I changed) the rest was an odd mix of special pleading and attempts at sympathy. They put themselves out there, shouldn’t that count for something? Didn’t I care that another band member had just died and wasn’t it a shitty thing to do to write a less than positive review at that time (as if the obituary made it outside the band’s local area). It was an interesting experience.

And an understandable one. After all, once a creative person looses something on the world it’s inevitable that somebody, somewhere isn’t going to completely fall in love with it. Dealing with negative opinions of your work is just par for the course. If you can’t handle that, don’t publish books, release albums, or put your paintings on display for all to see.

Given that, the general wisdom in the writing world is that a writer absolutely, should not, never under any circumstances, respond to a review. Down that path lies madness. Even if there’s a clear error in there somewhere, it’s better to just let it go than be perceived as some thin-skinned artist whose feelings have been hurt. Because guess what? Nobody cares – unless they care enough to laugh at you.

Naturally, there’s an exception to that rule. At least if your Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese’s last film, Silence, wasn’t the critical darling and commercial success I’m sure he’d hoped for (full confession – haven’t seen the move, read the book a long time ago). In particular, a review in the Times Literary Supplement in the UK caught his eye. Scorsese decided to respond, both to correct a factual inaccuracy and to take issue with something the reviewer said.

“Bad move!” you cry! Not quite – as a result of Scorsese’s letter to the editor, he was invited to write an entire column unpacking the philosophical issue in the review he’d taken issue with. And, verily, there was no storm of shit produced by it. So how did he get away with violating this golden rule?

For one thing, he’s Martin Scorsese. He’s entitled to a little bit of leeway. Having said that, fame doesn’t prevent things going wrong, so there must be something else.

And it’s this – although Scorsese responded to a review, he didn’t complain about the review’s verdict of his work. He made two discreet points – one factual and irrelevant to the film’s merits, one philosophical that dealt with issues well beyond whether Silence was a good movie or not. In other words, he actually engaged, constructively, with what the critic said. He didn’t get defensive.

As I’ve said more than a few times – reaction to art is personal and nobody’s opinion of a piece of art can really be “wrong.” So it’s pointless to take negative reactions personally. Constructive engagement is one thing – hair-on-fire literary retaliation is entirely different.

Still, there’s a reason that the rule about responding to reviews is one that almost everyone can agree with. Think of it this way – if you’re tempted to write something about a negative review of your work, ask yourself, “am I Martin Scorsese?” Chances are, you aren’t. Act accordingly.

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