Bitter review by Liz Breslin: a response

A challenge to a hateful piece of writing by Liz Breslin

Opinion by Michael Botur

UPDATES OCTOBER 20 

  • NZSA has coerced me into removing mention of Liz Breslin’s age, and I have done this
  • I’ve changed the title of this opinion piece from ‘Bitter reviewer Liz Breslin’ to ‘Bitter review by Liz Breslin.’ 
  • I’m still shaking my head at the irony that the NZ Society of Authors, which is supposed to uphold the free speech values of PEN International is attempting to scare a writer into unpublishing an opinion piece. Hypocritical, unethical, and laughable. 

 

Sigh. Usually I concentrate on the positives around writing – setting examples for other authors; putting out encouragement, praise and support. I put on shows with the Poetry Posse; I encourage people to enter awards; I tutor creative writing in community classes. 

Mostly I’m a pretty positive guy, but the following hit piece by bitter Otago reviewer Liz Breslin, published in takahē #96, can’t go without a response.  

So, here’s some perspective about the short story collection True?, which received its only negative review from Ms Breslin in takahē #96 in August 2019 – a deliberately cynical, bitter review presumably motivated by …. God knows. 

Breslin writes:

“Whether written in the first, second or third person (all of which are used in different stories across the collection), these stories fail to hit the mark.”

> Yeah, nah –  please see reviews from experienced reviewers who have had training in writing. https://nzshortstories.com/reviews/

“But the writing is often too authorial, poorly proofread and possibly offensive,” Breslin writes. 

> Breslin – who, again, has published very little – appears to have an ulterior motive in publishing her hit piece. Some kind of hate-jealousy-bitterness. Not very professional. Let’s read on. 

“The cumulative effect of pages and pages of casual, barely-disguised disability-bashing leaves a pretty sour taste.”

> Considering one of my day jobs recently was organising a conference for people with disabilities, it’s outrageous to suggest the author has done some “disability-bashing.” I’m waiting on an apology for this particular line. 

“It’s hard for the reader to move beyond offensive cliché and find a place of empathy,” Breslin writes. 

I have empathy for all my fellow writers in New Zealand, and it would have been nice if this fellow writer of Polish ancestry has shown some empathy for a fellow Pole. Sadly, NZ writer Liz Breslin has brought hate and bitterness into her writing. It’s a shame and a waste.

Again, Liz, I beg you – please get some advice from experienced reviewers who have had training in writing literary reviews. https://nzshortstories.com/reviews/

 

Update October 20 2019: 

On October 19 and 20 I received emails from two NZSA representatives pressuring me to remove this piece and to not stand up for myself. 

Neither of the emails asked if I was okay, or asked why I felt hurt, or offered to help, mediate, or assist. Instead, the emails attempted to blackmail me into accepting the nasty review. 

The first email – from a senior NZSA leader – claimed my opinion piece – which, remember, was standing up against a nasty review with personal comments – was “clearly defamatory, and could also be described as ageist. […] Your post is possibly libellous, could be described as cyber-bullying and is defamatory. “

[actually, opinion pieces are not defamatory if they are somebody’s genuinely held opinion. Breslin’s opinion is genuine and not defamatory; likewise, my opinion is genuine and not defamatory.]

The second email – from a local NZSA member – said “You’ve damaged yourself more than Liz and I think this is incredibly sad, especially after the work you do to help other writers in the north. […] Jenny Nagle has asked us as your branch to discuss and then contact you regarding your post on www.writeupnorth.co.nz re Liz Breslin.”

The committee of the Northland branch have made the following decisions:

  • This personal attack on a reviewer is unprofessional and not supported by NZSA Northland. The use of the photograph of branch members at the top of your blog implies that this post is endorsed by us. Since we do not endorse it, we request that you remove the photograph immediately.
  • You have promoted your website as being “set up to share the work of writers of all ages from Northland, New Zealand. The site is especially designed to promote Northlanders who have never had their creative writing published before”. On the basis of your aim we have been promoting this blog through PenNorth, but because an unprofessional and personal attack on a reviewer is not supported by our branch we feel we must remove the link to your website from PenNorth.

My response, in brief: free speech means I have the right to publish an opinion on anything. When I have been impugned in a published piece of writing, I have even more right to respond. 

I have a policy of never yielding to bullies. It is surprising and sad that the NZSA has chosen to bully me, but I am taking a deep breath and moving forward ( and also removing the photo they asked me to remove, because I’m a nice guy and I like to do favours for people who ask).

 

 

Full text of the nasty review below:

True? Short Stories by Michael Botur
Whangarei: Michael Botur (2018)
RRP: $25. Pb, 309pp. Available from Amazon
ISBN: 9781721058129
Reviewed by Liz Breslin

‘Truth, Dare or Promise?’ asks an app in one of the sixteen short stories in Michael Botur’s fifth collection. The collection’s preface, from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, reads: ‘A true autobiography is almost an impossibility … Man is bound to lie about himself.’

There are, of course, at least two kinds of truth to stories: the factual kind, and the kind that makes a character, a turn of events or a location resonate with a reader. With this in mind, let’s examine Botur’s stories to see how they ring.

The stories are driven by plot and by premise. In ‘Better than Jail’ a guy learns how the ‘straightos’ also go crooked when he starts data work at a finance company as his first job out of jail. In ‘The Sword of Damocles’ a burgled man turns bully on the woman shifting his son’s bike as stolen goods. ‘Because I love him’ sees a teenager collude in the ransacking of her parents’ house while her mum is otherwise busy at her dad’s funeral. ‘Schrödinger’s Scoop’ is the story of a journo who sets out to destroy the career and reputation of a politician who is pretending to be more Moriori than he actually is.

Many characters are involved in the three-way trilogy of sex, drugs and violence.  The guy on a detox in the back of Aussie beyond. The anaesthetists locked in a harder faster destruction race. The summer of student debauchery. This could be fascinating stuff, and there are interesting situational set-ups, but, whether written in the first, second or third person (all of which are used in different stories across the collection), these stories fail to hit the mark.

There are some indications of Botur’s poetic leanings – here, for example, in choppy fragments:

Fire at the airport. Norovirus in the Beehive. Korean popstar threatening to jump off the Harbour Bridge … Latte, long black, Americano, green tea, black tea, Pepsi, vodka, Red Bull, Burger King, Burger Fuel, Murder Burger, Velvet Burger. Your face melts into the palm holding your head above the keyboard. (‘Schröedinger’s Scoop’, p. 94).

But the writing is often too authorial, poorly proofread and possibly offensive.

Offense can be a truth when you’re writing irredeemable characters.  Clever writing can give you a chance to explore and even empathise with the complexities of lives. But here it is unclear where the division between Botur and his characters lies, giving the impression sometimes that it is Botur’s own viewpoint we are reading.  The daddies’ rights clanger at the end of the collection, for example, is practically polemic. ‘That Tingling Sensation’ (which has some of the best dialogue in the book if you disregard the capitals every time someone shouts) dispatches people with disabilities:

They did a gig for the Special Olympics. Some sort of 11 year-old disabled child became too clingy for JT. The kid said, ‘You’re the best daddy’, about a hundred times before JT barricaded himself in a portaloo until security took the kid away. (‘That Tingling Sensation’, p 300).

Read in isolation, this sentence may not offend. However, the cumulative effect of pages and pages of casual, barely-disguised disability-bashing leaves a pretty sour taste.

So too does Botur’s treatment of the newly-famous:

 24 year old born Miranda Lilith Pruitt – the same lass who’d begun her poetry career at our trite tavern get togethers reading entries from her journal in a voice so frail she struggled to be heard over the sound of people sipping the foam off their beer – was to be presented with the People’s Choice Award. With the award came a cheque for $10 000, budget to publish a hundred-page poetry collection, and she would have her name engraved on a roll of honour at the English department up at the university. (‘The People’s Choice’, p 229).

Though the writers’ group decide to show up and cheer Miranda on at the awards (big of them), there’s a disbelieving contempt that runs through this story, of this woman, of this industry, of these awards. And it’s hard not to read it as coming from Botur himself.

It’s another writer, recently-separated-Sallyanne, who gets another of the precious-few happy endings in this collection – she starts attending a local writers’ group run by young, tortured alcoholic novelist Jeremy. Sallyanne takes over the running of the group, gets together with Jeremy is offered a newspaper column which magically skyrockets in popularity. She declines international syndication – not wanting to be pigeonholed. Truth?

The stories here could be engaging and provocative. The groundwork is laid. Botur knows how to set up a situation. But the job of a writer is partly to shine light on the broken bits.  Here, there is scant light, and it’s hard for the reader to move beyond offensive cliché and find a place of empathy. As it stands, this collection does not make me want to go and seek out more writing by Botur. The reader deserves better. The characters deserve better. The stories deserve better. They deserve true.