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On Second Thought: A rave! But, er, wrong

July 21, 2008 | 11:15 am

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there were any reviews they regretted. One in a series of occasional articles.

Second_thought_220 I’ve been a book critic for 20 years, which means I’ve written a lot of reviews — more than 500, by my own unscientific count.

In that time, I’ve shanked my share: Dale Peck’s 1998 novel “Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye,” for instance, which I read in the midst of a fever and recall as if it were a hallucination, a book whose surreal charms, as I then saw them, were almost certainly a creation of my overheated mind. (One of the main characters is named Justin Time. Just in time. Need I say more?) Or Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” which, I now think, I overpraised when I reviewed it in 2000.

But my biggest regret as a critic has to do with a book I didn’t so much mis-review as entirely misread. In the fall of 1993, when I was book editor of the late, lamented Los Angeles Reader, I reviewed Annie Ernaux’s splendid little memoir “Simple Passion,” the story of an obsessive love and its effect on the author/narrator — and I flat out got it wrong.
When I say I got “Simple Passion” wrong, I’m not talking about how much I did or did not like the book; as it happens, my review was a rave. But it was a rave for the wrong reasons, for reasons that had more to do with me than with what Ernaux set down on the page.

It is inevitable that we read — that we do anything, frankly — through the filter of our experiences, our biases, our preconceptions of the world. And yet, it’s also essential that, as reviewers, we remain aware of these external influences, that we test their boundaries, that we try, to the extent that it is possible, to reckon with a book on its own terms.

-- David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Review Editor

In the case of “Simple Passion,” I couldn’t do this; I couldn’t get the necessary distance on the book. The situation it described was one I’d been through, and to read it was to find myself catapulted back into that experience, into my uncertainty and doubt.

The book cut too close — not just in its explication of obsession, but in the subtle way Ernaux delineates the shifting border between reality and illusion, the way daily life begins to feel like its own odd form of fiction before the laser-sharp intensity of desire.

As a consequence, perhaps, I ended up writing about “Simple Passion” as if it were less a piece of emotional autobiography than a book in which “the lines between fact and fiction are almost willfully obscured.”

There is, to be sure, a case to be made for such a reading, since part of what Ernaux has in mind in “Simple Passion” — as she does in all her books — is to explore the distinction between living and writing, the way that putting something into language inherently fictionalizes it by giving it a structure and a shape.

This, though, is an aesthetic stance, even a philosophical one, and to suggest, as I did in my review, that she consciously meant to blur the boundary between memory and fabrication is simply incorrect.

I knew it as soon as the review was published, knew that I had missed it, that my discomfort had made me back away. This is the only time I ever published a review that left me feeling like I owed one to a writer, and when Ernaux’s next book, “Exteriors,” came out in 1996, I wrote about it as an act of penance for having put my point- of- view before her own.

Reviewing is a subjective medium, but it’s a rigorous one, as well. The reviewer’s responsibility is to say what he or she thinks, pro or con. There is, however, another responsibility, which is this: Never let it become personal, never put yourself before the book.

Mostly, that applies to negative reviews, especially in a culture such as this one, where, increasingly, people believe that critics operate out of ulterior motives, to advance agendas or to settle scores. This is idiocy, of course, but that’s the subject for another essay — about the rise of gossip, perhaps, as literary currency.

Yet what my review of “Simple Passion” taught me is that the reviewer’s rigor has to cut both ways. It’s not enough to like a book, in other words, if you don’t have the fortitude to read it right.

-- David Ulin