July 26th, 2017

Reviews aren’t for authors; or, cry on your own time

Here’s the caveat–I am so so lucky. I know it, make no mistake–all three of my books have been reviewed in a good number of publications, often in a really thoughtful and insightful way, often even positively. Lots of fascinating and fantastic books don’t get that. I am lucky. Of course.

But publishing a book means taking years of your life and a lot of your heart, soul, and brain, and putting it into a package that invites comment, which is terrifying. It is necessary for work to be criticized and discussed–if no one is thinking hard about a book, what is it even for? But sometimes writing doesn’t feel like work–it feels like love. And it would be horrible if strangers criticized how we love our partners, our families, our children–if they said said we didn’t really love them properly, could have done better, could have done more. And a book isn’t a person and writing isn’t an emotion, but sometimes it feels that way–so it gets confusing.

The best piece of advice of advice I ever got about reviews, which I think I have mentioned in this space before, came from my friend Scott, a serious reader and all-around thoughtful person. I was agonizing over a review of my first collection that felt not constructive nor thoughtful but simply mean. I didn’t know what I should do with it or learn from it, what lesson I should take. “Reviews aren’t for authors, they’re for readers,” Scott told me. “You don’t need to do anything with it.” I don’t remember exactly, but I bet he suggested that if I was going to get so upset, I might be better off not even reading the reviews.

He was, as usual, very right. Reviews are written for readers–to help us decide what books are worth our attention and interest and reading time, not to mention book-buying dollars. Criticism–and I’m going to leave it up to you where the boundary line between reviews and criticism is–tries to engage the book in a larger conversation about what people are writing these days and ever and why and how and what it responds to and how that’s all going. Both forms strive to be interesting writing on their own, even if the reader has never and will never read the book in question. Helping the author is really nowhere on this list of things to do.

I would love to say that, from that day forward, I never worried about reviews but stopped reading them or just skimmed them with a quirked eyebrow, remarking “Interesting!” before going about my day. That is not true, though I manage the latter sometimes. I’m never going to stop reading reviews, nor do I even want to. It is so very hard to write a book, to get all those thoughts and ideas into the universe, and why do I do it if not communication? I love these pings from the universe back, these signals that I’ve been heard, my ideas thought about and engaged, even if not wholly positively. Or positively at all. I am always grateful for that engagement. It’s not just lip-service above about being lucky.

And I’ve learned things from reviews. Sometimes someone will say, “This is what this section of the book means, for these reasons!” and it will ring utterly true, even though that was not in my head when I wrote it. Reviewers–professional and otherwise–have connected things within my books in amazing ways, making me think harder about what I even knew when I wrote it. Sometimes it’s readers at events, or folks on Goodreads, who make a fascinating point, giving me credit for an idea I didn’t even know I had! Of course, sometimes they are criticizing a deficit I didn’t know was there but is glaringly obvious the second it’s mentioned and I want to crawl into a hole. “Oh, yes, that ignoble failure, now I see it.” Nevertheless, I want to know about these things, even if it results in spending the evening on the couch staring at the ceiling while clutching a squirming wailing cat. Though reviews are not for writers, sometimes there is good stuff in there for us, if we have the patience and strength to go looking.

Unfortunately, those are not the only kinds of review-reading experiences a writer can have. I have read reviews of my own work–both pans and raves–that seem to be reacting to another book entirely, and I can’t recognize anything they seem to be reading. They give me credit/blame for things I never thought I was writing and, unlike the kinds of reviews mentioned in the previous paragraph, no matter how carefully I read, I never get what they are talking about even if all the characters have the same names and experience the same events. These sorts of reviews feel terrible even if they are positive–no one likes to be misread, even if it’s every reader’s prerogative to interpret events through their own filters.

That is a difference of interpretation, I suppose, though a wide one, but then there’s differences of fact–occasionally you’ll run across a review that’s so riddled with errors it makes you squirm. Sadly, most book reviews have at least some tiny errors in them–I’ve noticed this in those of my own work and those about many others. Book reviewers get paid pretty little and I don’t blame them for not wanting to go back to see if the character’s name is Bill or Bob, or whether they get on the boat before or after the dance party, but it can be unnerving to read a review with lots of those little mistakes. I’ve never seen one egregious enough to make me write to the editor, who perhaps wouldn’t care anyway, but privately, it makes me nervous.

There are also negative reviews where, yes, I see how a reasonable person could hold that view, but I respectfully disagree. There’s nothing to do with those but quirk that eyebrow and move on, but they stay with me late at night. There’s nothing I can argue with, most of the time, in reviews like this–it’s like arguing about whether chocolate tastes good. I believe it fervently, but it’s not like I have any proof. The definition of an opinion is that there can be others–if there’s only one possibility, then that’s a fact, which “this book is good” could never be. But I feel so terrible when someone doesn’t like my work–see first paragraph–even when I accept that they aren’t wrong. I can go around and around in circles in my head for hours, trying to construct an argument about why the reviewer is wrong, but it never amounts to anything. Reviews in this category can be well or poorly written, intelligent or simplistic, but are always very sad for the author. I wish I could say that, when an intelligent thoughtful review of my work comes out and basically makes the point, “This book is bad, don’t read it” I share it around and say “isn’t this interesting” but that isn’t what I do. I cry privately and do nothing. There’s a couple such reviews out there for So Much Love–feel free to google, I just can’t bring myself to provide links.

The final category of reviews is the saddest: the vitriolic review. With these, the reviewer hates the book but also seems to hate the author or at least finds it appropriate to reference the author as someone who has deliberately or through great failure of intellect and heart written a bad book. These reviews are usually but not always poorly constructed–without references or examples, just an outpouring of emotions the reviewer feels about the book (ie., great distress, often rage). They can be smart, well-constructed pieces but they usually aren’t–a personal feeling of affront and thoughtful argument don’t often go together. Although occasionally you just get a really smart, insightful writer who for whatever reason, hates the book in a deep personal way–very devastating. Though it’s actually not all that much less devastating to be ridiculed in a badly written review.

In all but the final category, I can chat politely with the reviewer for a few minutes if I run into him or her at a party. It may not be a long or personal chat–if the best thing I have ever done, which I spent years of my life doing, did not impress you, I don’t think you’ll enjoy my restaurant recommendations or stories about my cat–but I respect you as a literary professional and I’ll try to be one too, even if I might have to cry in the bathroom later. Reviewers in the last category, at least in recent years, I google and find a photograph, which I memorize. I told someone this once, and before I could finish the thought, the person jumped in “So you can punch them?” which is insane, given my personality. So I can RUN AWAY before anyone attempts to introduce me. I cannot face a human who hates my work–and by extension me, I really make no distinction–that much.

I would never punch anyone. I would never even be rude to a reviewer unless they did something horrible like attempted to stop me from fleeing. Reviewing is a hard job–it takes 6-10 hours to read a book thoroughly and thoughtfully, and perhaps 3-5 more hours to write even a short pithy review–for this, most reviewers make $100-200, some less, some nothing. They do it for the byline and exposure, maybe, a little, but mainly most of them do it for the good of literature. To incite dialogue, to start a conversation, to offer a new perspective. If I think a reviewer is wrong–and I think lots of people are wrong about a whole world of things, including traffic signals and mayonnaise–I might politely try to open the topic, but not about my own work. Too close, too raw, and to dangerously likely to be a vested interest. I think I have clarified all my emotions about reviews into a fine intellectual strata, but witness this cat who has not been able to get free in several hours and perhaps that is not true.

So I keep my mouth shut, or rather I bitch to people I know for a fact love me and don’t bother anyone else. Anyone I have ever seen come aboard of a reviewer about a review of their own work has come off sounding pretty pathetic, even if the review was in fact poorly reasoned or poorly written or both. Basically, it doesn’t say much about our faith in our own work if we can’t let others speak freely about it, even if the wider group of “others” occasionally includes some morons. Trust that the truth will out. Or don’t. Find a cat. Write a very long blog post. Even better: write another book. Leave the reviewers alone–they’re working hard too.

5 Responses to “Reviews aren’t for authors; or, cry on your own time”

  • Emily says:

    Can I just say how nice it is to be able to read your writing on this blog? It tides your rabid fans over until your next book! :)


  • Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    Thank you so much, Emily!


  • Alice says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and agree with everything. Well-reasoned and genuine.


  • Deanna says:

    You have a beautiful way with words. Which, I am sure, comes from being a thoughtful, kind and smart human. Thank you for this piece of writing. And all your other pieces of writing.


  • Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    Thanks so much, you guys–I’m really glad this piece resonated with you!


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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