Jun 15, 2009
The other day I was happily clicking through various links online, and I stumbled across a librarian’s blog that had some interesting stuff on it. Then I scrolled up the page and practically had a heart attack when I saw she had reviewed Ash. I read it sort of with one hand in front of my eyes, as if I were watching a horror movie. Lucky for me, the review was well-written and pretty positive. But it made me realize that there will only be more reviews in the future, and I had better figure out how to prepare myself for both the good and the bad to come.
Like most writers, I have mixed feelings about reviews of my own work. Obviously, I love hearing praise, but at the same time, it makes me feel a bit like I’m sampling crack. And then there’s the fact that some reviews can be downright harsh. Take these for example.
As much as I’ve tried to develop a thick skin (and it’s been tested many times during my work at AfterEllen), the fact is that Ash is my first published novel. I don’t think of it as my baby, but there are big, huge chunks of me in that book. And nobody likes to get rejected.
So, herein my declaration: I am no longer seeking out reviews of my work. This means I am not on Goodreads (and probably never will be), and I won’t Google myself anymore, either. Obviously I can’t prevent myself from accidentally finding reviews, and I’m sure I will see some of them (e.g., the ones other people send me). I don’t mind that. (And if I find a review that is particularly useful for readers, or that makes me especially happy, of course I will share it.)
But I refuse to be drawn into the psychosis-inducing vortex of Amazon/Goodreads/Google doom that befalls many writers! (she declares convincingly)
The problem isn’t that my book is getting reviewed. Reviews are good and useful things — for readers. I used to write reviews, in fact, when I worked at AfterEllen. But after writing Ash, I realized that there is so much work that goes into writing a book. Sometimes I get a little annoyed by reviews that seem to flippantly dismiss the characterization in a novel, or declare that the pacing was slow, or whatever. Because yes, these things may be true, but now I know just how many hours of labor went into creating a character, or in attempting to rectify a pacing problem, and, you know, I can’t help but wonder if the reviewer understands that.
For writers, the book that is being reviewed is already completed. No other work can be done to it. So what’s the point, really, of reading criticism of something you can no longer fix? Some people may argue that it’s good to read the criticism so that you can avoid those mistakes in future books. But every published writer has people who are paid to help them avoid those mistakes — they’re called editors (and, in some cases, agents).
I also have found that I can no longer write book reviews. I do know how much work goes into a novel, and I don’t think it is my place — as a writer who knows this — to critique the already finished work of someone else.
And yes, I think that a proper review, whether it’s in the New York Times (which I do read, because most likely they’re not going to be reviewing Ash anytime soon!) or on a litblog, should be a critique. It should provide a thoughtful analysis of the triumphs and problems in a given book, and preferably set it in some context. There truly is an art to good critique. Some of it has been lost in the quick-paced world of blogging, but you can still sometimes find it.
I just can’t do that anymore. But I can and will continue to recommend and write about books that I absolutely adored. There may be faults with these books (what book is perfect?), but if I’m recommending them, those faults made little impact on me. To be honest, it’s rare that I read a book these days that I unequivocally loved. When it happens, though, it’s a wonderful feeling.
Most recently, I read The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (note: not YA). It’s a haunted house story set in postwar England. There is class conflict, a ghostly presence, and a potentially unreliable narrator. It’s brilliant. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.