Thursday, 7 May 2009

Reeling from Reviews

In most professions, people don't see fit to comment on how you are doing your job. You might have an annual review, but that's, at most, a slightly uncomfortable hour with the boss. Your colleagues in the office don't tend to lean across their desks and deliver a devastating precis on your plus and minus points, and nor do complete strangers tend to tap you on the shoulder on the bus and say that they've observed you through your office window that afternoon and that they think they could have been doing a much better job in your place. And that's just how it should be. But for us writers, the world is a rather different sort of place - something that has been particularly brought home to me in the past couple of months. Yes, I'm talking about reviews.

Most writers, once they've plucked up the courage, show their work to a trusted friend or family member once in a while. But the harsh truth is that the vast majority of friends and family members don't really review our work. They read it, clouded by the knowledge that it has sprung from the pen of someone they will have to face in social situations for many years to come. Perhaps they're blinded by its brilliance, simply because they can't believe that someone they know is capable of writing a book. Perhaps they think it's awful, but can't bring themselves to blurt the words out. Either way, the end result is usually much the same: a bright smile, an enthusiastic "I really enjoyed it!" and perhaps a couple of diffident criticisms about the odd comma here and there before boomeranging back to praise. All very nice, but not perhaps a robust enough preparation for the big bad world out there when you become published.

In the past couple of months, my novel, The Art of Losing, has been reviewed by the Independent, the Guardian, and the Financial Times, amongst others. I was ecstatic to learn that the "big boys" thought my novel worthy of a paragraph... and yes, the reviews have - thankfully - been pretty good. But it's amazing how your eye flies, like a precision bullet shot at point blank range, to the most negative thing you can find. Forget the endorsements that the novel was "gripping", "finely-crafted", "tautly written" and possessed of a "curdled sensuality" (I particularly liked the sound of that, actually)... They thought it was "too clever"! They thought the "twist" was "predictable"! It's incredible how much emotion a few little words can provoke. First there is grief (if you'll permit a little hyperbole). Sobbing, hair-tearing, all that. Next is anger. "It wasn't even meant to be a twist! It was meant to be predictable! Oh they've TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT."

But then, thankfully, comes acceptance. Grudging acceptance, maybe... but ultimately, I found myself falling back on the inevitable realisation that not everyone will unreservedly love your work. In fact, probably hardly anyone will. How many books have you read, of which you have absolutely no criticism at all? Not many, I'll bet - and if you do, please share which ones so that we can all expand our reading! Reviews may hurt - but after the first shock has died down, you'll be able to look back and find the compliments you first missed. And then when a rave does come along, it's all the sweeter.

Of course, that's just professional reviewers. Don't even get me started on the evil amateurs of Amazon...

15 comments:

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Becky, your post reminded me that reviews are yet another part of the rollercoaster ride that is writing - whether 'formal', in-the-world reviews (brilliant that the 'big boys' reviewed you and so favourably)- or critiques and feedback from others. I've just been reading the first six chapters of a young writer who is, quite simply, brilliant. I've tried to make that clear. Yet this writer had a 'bad review' from a partner which really rocked her confidence.
I keep telling myself that these things are subjective to some degree. But they still hurt.
For me, the hardest reviews in a way are the silent ones. As a painter there is little more uncomfortable than showing your work and receiving no feedback at all!
Susiex

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Hi Becky, what a thought provoking post. I was in contact the other day by email with a friend (published) who had been practically brought to tears by several particularly nasty Amazon reviews. And they were nasty. Who has the time eh?! ANyway, that too brought your point home to me. This whole process - from getting your thoughts on paper to making them commercial, to finding an agent who has faith in your work, to praying that agent can do their job to getting published. What a rollercoaster and all the while we have to layer up. Add another thick layer of skin because as you say, you just can't please everyone.....I look forward to reading the Art of Losing. Was going to order it on Amazon but am fed up with them at the mo so will source it elsewhere! Fx

Rebecca Connell said...

Thanks both! Susie, you're so right, silent reviews can be the worst of all... I've had a fair few of those. And Fionnuala, I know what you mean, it does make you wonder who has the time to sit and spout vitriol about an unknown author! You're right though, you have to develop a thick skin very quickly.

CarolineG said...

Very interesting post, Becky, and interesting how those stages you go through mirror those you feel when your work is rejected. I guess this feels like your work HAS been rejected albeit post publication. But as you say, it's all too easy for your eye to skim over the real praise that's there too. And you're right - what books attracts no criticism at all?

Derek Thompson said...

Becky, most importantly, congratulations on successful publicaton. Critics by their very nature are a fickle bunch. Some are just trying to make a name for themselves. The important thing is that your work is out there and you have a platform to build from for the next book as well. If you've attracted criticism that simply means your work is distinctive enough to have made an impression.

Gillian McDade said...

I too think reviews are better than a wall of silence! But many will hurt and there are reviewers who will miss the point altogether. But a review (good or bad) is publicity after all.

I remember having my short documentary reviewed by a large paper. Thankfully the reviewer loved it, but I ended up looking up each word they'd used in the dictionary just to get its full meaning!

Samantha Tonge said...

Yes, i some times have nightmares about the sort of reviews my light histfic would provoke from the kind of people who watch films and take glee in listing all the historical inaccuracies instead of just sitting back and enjoying the story...

But at the end of the day you did it. You got your work out there and no one can take that away from you.

Imagine what Barbara Cartland must have put up with for all those years. It didn't stop her writing hundreds of books.

Katy said...

Great post Becky, thank you, and conratulations of course too on both your book and the reviews.

Lots to think about in your thought provoking piece. I guess writing is such an individual, solitary act that it's easy to forget that once it is published it becomes 'public property'. When I read reviews, it not necessarily whether the reviewer thought a book was good or not that I'm looking for, rather a flavour of the book itself and if it will appeal to me as reader.

Rebecca Connell said...

Thanks again all! I suppose you just slowly train yourself to focus on the more positive points of reviews, and less on the negative points. There must be some books which are just totally slated, though... that must be awful.

Deborah Durbin said...

Becky, I know exactly what you mean. One book I had published was about the changes in women's experiences of midwifery care and childbirth over the past 50 years. All the reviews apart from one were lovely - including one from the Dean from City University telling me how helpful the book was to their midwifery students, but the one that stuck in my mind was a catty remark made by an editor for a two-bit parenting magazine saying that I was self-indulgent and had written the book because I'd had to have a caesarean birth with my daughter and had therefore had probably never properly bonded with them! Talk about getting personal! In case you were wondering, I did receive an apology but despite all the other good reviews, that was the one that stuck in my mind.

Clodagh said...

Excellent post, Becky. I can really relate to what you say about homing in on the negative bits in a review - I've been there!

But you have to put it in perspective, and any publicity is good. Well done on getting so many positive reviews from those 'big boys'!

Rebecca Connell said...

Thanks Clodagh! Deborah, that's awful - glad you got your apology.

Jeff said...

I find most book reviews not very useful. Generally, what I look for in a review is along the lines of what Katy said in her comment above...not whether the reviewer thinks the writing is good or not, but the flavor of the book and whether it might interest me as a reader.

emmadarwin said...

Oh, Becky, it's so true, and we're so ill-prepared for it, because in no other part of life do we have to hear, and put up with, criticism from total strangers - even a boss doing an appraisal, or a tough interviewer, has some sort of human relationship with you. And then there's the way that the bad things hurt much more than the good things please... at least at first reading.

I, too, have been very lucky with reviews, on the whole. I don't know which is more frustrating, though, the ones who just don't get it, and take the book to task for not being something it was never trying to be, or the ones who do get what you're trying to do, and tell you you've done it badly.

Horrible Amazon reviews are such a pain. But I do think that readers do know the score: it's so obvious when someone's putting the boot in from sheer poisonousness.

Rebecca Connell said...

I think I'm probably the same, Jeff, though I do admit to a morbid fascination when it comes to reading horrible Amazon reviews, even of books I've personally enjoyed...

Emma, I think both options are pretty undesirable, but the idea of people "not getting it" frustrates me more - at least if someone thinks you've "done it badly", they're judging you on your actual work, not a dreamt-up image of what they think you were aiming at! I prefer unqualified praise though ;-)