I’m happy to say that most reviews of my books have been favorable, both in Asia and in the West. But, of course, every writer will sooner or later get dumped on and it comes with the territory. As Harry Truman used to say, “If you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen.” A balanced review is no problem and even an intelligent mainly negative one can still help sell books, but sometimes a reviewer is so inaccurate as well as so desperate to be nasty that the suspicion of a hidden agenda emerges.
This is a letter I wrote about six years ago to the Editor-in-Chief of Publishers Weekly, the bible of the publishing industry, in response to a review of Kingdom of Make-Believe which appeared in their pages. Even if you haven’t read Kingdom of Make-Believe you may find it interesting because it deals with a Western woman's concept of and attitude toward Asian women.
Ms. Nora Rawlinson , Editor-in-Chief
Dear Ms. Rawlinson,
I sent you a short letter regarding the review of my novel, Kingdom of Make-Believe. I assume it will not be published and that is up to you. However, I firmly believe the novel did not so much receive an objective review but rather a slam from a feminist with an agenda; a woman who knows nothing about Asia. In all my years of writing novels this is the first and only time I have responded to a review and I would appreciate it if you would at least read the points below so that you will understand why I am pursuing this.
1. "Drawing on his Vietnam experience..." I was never in Vietnam except passing through the airport in 1968.
2. "...his 17 years in Asia..." Twenty years is the correct figure.
3. "the hero...once stationed in Vietnam." He was once stationed in Thailand. Did your reviewer read the book?
4. "Nalin, a former art student working as a go-go-dancer /stripper." There are no "strippers" in Bangkok; the reviewer is projecting her American work experience, perhaps?
5. Nalin calls him "Uncle Brian"; he dubs her "Little Tadpole." No, he did not "dub" her Little Tadpole; in a somewhat poignant scene he used her childhood name to alert her as to who he was; it's part of the plot.
6. "Soon they're sleeping together, too." Yes, but because the reviewer neglected to point out that Nalin is the daughter of a Thai woman's *previous* marriage to a Thai, she makes it appear that the young woman is the daughter of Brian's late brother, hence, incest.
7. "A subtext about the attractiveness of submissive Oriental women colors Brian's feelings toward Nalin: 'He found her allure most compelling when she dressed in traditional Thai dress and wore no makeup; when she seemed to look and act and think more like a traditional Thai.'" How this reviewer inferred that for a woman to "look and act and think more like a traditional Thai" implies submissiveness is beyond me. Throughout the 19th century, travelers to Siam were amazed at the independence and freedom of Thai women especially when contrasted with other women of Asia.
Any objective reader of the novel can tell what I meant was that by looking and thinking and acting like a Thai, the woman was seen to Brian (a former Buddhist monk) as intelligent, independent and, above all, that her way of seeing the world had been suffused by her Buddhist upbringing.
8. The reviewer charges that the narrative collapses among conflicting goals and "unexamined stereotypes" (see above). Another of her examples: "She, and other Bangkok beauties, seem to him 'impossibly exotic.' Is that what the narrator said? Here's the line: "She had inherited her mother's almond-shaped eyes but they were even more impossibly exotic, made narrow by eyelid folds which swept outward and ended in an upward curve....there was an intelligence and self-confidence in the face...." It was a description of one woman's eyes.
The only unexamined stereotype is the one on the part of the reviewer who assumes men who find Asian women attractive must prefer submissive women. Never in my 20 years in Asia did I meet a submissive Asian woman and I certainly did not write such nonsense into the novel, in text or subtext. In fact, I'm rather proud of the fact that I created two very independent Thai women (and one very independent American woman). And, frankly, compared to my Cantonese ex-wife, American women seem a bit submissive.
Anyway, a reviewer's opinion is just one person's opinion; we all know that. But it is your reviewer’s ignorance and obvious agenda that bothers me. I think this review is not only inaccurate but falls far beneath the standards set by PW.
Thanks for listening.
Publishers Weekly did in fact print my short letter, and Kingdom of Make-Believe continues to sell well. Unfortunately, PW reviews are the first thing one sees when going to Amazon.com and so no doubt this review continues to do damage. And, unfortunately, biased reviewers with agendas seem to be sprouting up like mushrooms after a spring rain (or like bargirls in Pattaya during a severe crackdown in Bangkok).
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