Written by
Hope Edelman
August 2009
Written by
Hope Edelman
August 2009
Fielding the Early Reviews Kirkus Reviews files first, followed weeks later by Publishers Weekly and Booklist. In between come the advance reader reviews online, the ones that sprout overnight like random mushrooms. And this can be where things get real interesting real fast. For the most part, online advance reviewers are regular people like you and me, except that most of them aren’t writers. They’re book club leaders, teachers, librarians—anything, really, but most of all avid readers--who belong to online programs that provide advance reading copies of manuscripts, and who therefore get to print their opinions first, before anyone else has a chance to read the book. The first four online reviews for my new memoir were the kind every author hopes for: four and five stars, recommending it to everyone and their great-aunts. The kind of reviews that make you cartwheel across the dining room shouting, “They like me! They really, really like me!” in some kind of manic cross between Shawn Johnson and Sally Field. So far, so great. Then came the fifth review. The one that pretty much eviscerated me not just as a writer, but as a person. Or, more accurately, as a privileged white woman who witnesses poverty in Central America but doesn’t reach any larger insights about it. The upshot, as I recall, was that I don’t have much of a social conscience, though I might be paraphrasing wrongly there, since I could only bear to read the review once. It got worse than that, condemning my husband as well, but I’ll stop there. My point isn’t to whine about a renegade review, but to talk about the way they cut authors to the bone, and what we can do about them to avoid sinking into what my eleven-year-old daughter calls “the sticky acid pit of doom.” My first, immediate reaction was to think, I can’t take this so personally. But I’m afraid that would require a complete personality transplant. Criticism has always rattled me more than just about anyone I know. Oh, to be like my husband! The one who just shrugged his shoulders when he read the review and said, “I know I’m not like that, so who cares what some stranger thinks?” (In an interesting twist, I actually do have thinner skin—physiologically speaking--than most people. You can see my veins right through, and if you pinch me even a little, I'm likely to bruise. Plus, I'm so fair I burn every time the sun smiles.) My husband told me I was being too sensitive (though he did say it kindly). I said, "Oh, honey. Please." What kind of crazy paradox is at work that allows me to easily shrug off criticism from someone close to me, but immediately take it to heart when it comes from a stranger? Shouldn't it be the other way around? My second, immediate reaction after reading the review was I have got to stop reading my reviews. That should be easy enough. I haven’t read online reviews of some of my books in years, and for other of my books, never. I stopped because the one- and two-star reviews made my heart sink to my knees, and I was already getting enough love mail, like mail, and hate mail from readers to have an idea of what their reviews would say. Normally, I ask my literary agent to screen my reviews and shield me from the bad ones until I’m done promoting the book. But now that I’ve finally recovered from that last review, I’m reconsidering the request. Because—and I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this—despite the shock and the injury I feel upon reading critical reviews, I've begun to think they're more useful to an author’s development than the glowing ones. Not just because they can point out weaknesses in our writing and challenge us to improve, but because they offer us the opportunity to engage in the special form of alchemy that can push our books into a broader cultural arena, if we’re willing to try it. I’ll explain. The best reviews, I believe, either positive or negative, are the ones that tunnel beneath an individual book or author to root out the larger issues of philosophy, politics, or craft at play. Beneath the request for the narrator of my book to exhibit more social conscience lies the larger question of whether a white woman can authentically write about an experience in a Third World country without addressing matters of race or class, and if so, how. If not, why not? Can she even have an experience that doesn't involve matters of race and class? To me, that’s a much more interesting and relevant discussion than whether a singular narrator has a sufficient social conscience, and offers the kind of analysis that distinguishes opinion from culturally creative criticism. Many, though not all, print reviewers do provide this larger context for the books they discuss, but we can’t expect it from reviews posted by all readers. And ordinary readers now make up a large portion of online reviewers. So we, as authors, need to identify the larger cultural questions in our reviews and bring them to public attention ourselves. I wish the reader who’d reviewed my book so harshly had been willing to discuss it this way. Because despite how crappy it feels to get such a review, if there’s a chance for it to promote a cultural dialogue, I say, Bring the criticism on. If there’s a chance to get people talking, even if it means taking shots at my own conscience, I’ll learn to stomach it better. Because then the negativity is for a reason. The book gets to serve a purpose greater than itself. (Isn't that something we all hope for as writers?) And a forum for discussion emerges in which I can explain, without coming across as reactionary or defensive, that I deleted the sections of my book that spoke at length about the poverty in Belize—which deeply disturbed me; how could it not?—because it felt horribly reductive, unfair, and frankly colonial to describe the Belizeans I know in that manner when they don’t think of themselves as poor, and especially when they are, in my mind, richer and wiser than I am in countless different ways. I'm curious to know how other authors field, absorb, dodge, or transform their own reviews. And also how authors who review books balance their dual perspectives. When I used to write reviews, I couldn't stop thinking about how the authors would feel upon reading them, and trying to find the right balance between emotionally subjective author and intellectually objective reviewer was so crazymaking for me that I finally gave it up. It was an empathetic twist on the Thin Skin Syndrome. One day, I'm hoping the thin skin will somehow work to my benefit. Until then, I'll be slathering on SPF 50 for writers. At least for the next 45 days.

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  • Casey D.D. Nicholas

    I just read the PW review... can't wait to read your latest, Hope.

  • Hope Edelman

    I did see it, a few days after I posted this was a huge, huge blessing at this point. I don't take the good ones for granted, that's for sure.

  • Marie Gauthier

    I can't tell by reading this if you know PW gave you a starred review this week or not, so check it out here! Congratulations.

  • Pamela Jane

    Hope, I loved your blog and the topic is perpetually timely (i.e. universal) for writers. I remember reading in a bio on George Eliot how her partner, George Henry Lewes, shielded her from all reviews, especially the negative ones. When I read it, I thought, oh, the lucky! She was a genius AND protected. But what I really think is that the thin skin is often part of who we are as writers. I remember a guy coming up to me at a party once and saying, "Oh, you write children's books. I'd like to do that, too, and I have really thick skin." I told him the thick skin would come in handy when he started sending his manuscripts out and later, when he got reviews, but he'd need a some thin skin for the creative part. Congratulations on your memoir, AND all the great reviews!

  • Hope Edelman

    Came across this Proust quote yesterday, which seems to speak directly to what you're saying Christina:
    "A fashionable milieu is one in which everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others. Has everybody a different opinion? Then it is a literary milieu."

    And also, from the same smart French guy: "Every reader finds himself. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself." Amen.

  • Hope Edelman

    Just randomly came across this today, from that smart French guy Proust: "A fashionable milieu is one in which everybody's opinion is made up of the opinion of all the others. Has everybody a different opinion? Then it is a literary milieu."
    Speaks right to what you were just saying, Christina.

  • Christina Baker Kline

    Hope, my new novel comes out in exactly a week, and I am so there with you on all of this! I, too, got the early glowing reviews ...and then "Google Alerts" picked up a customer comment on B& by a librarian who didn't like it, and I was crushed. I'm posting the first 500 words of BIRD IN HAND on my blog tomorrow, and I just typed "Let me know what you think -- unless, of course, you hate it (there's nothing I can do about it now!)" -- and then erased it because it sounded ridiculous. Remembering that members of my own book club rarely agree on whether they like a book does help me keep it all in perspective. People have different likes and dislikes -- sometimes it's as simple as that!

  • Jennifer Lauck

    He's my partner's cousin...I'm just loaded with funny, perfect Vonnegut quotes!!! Wish I was there.

  • Hope Edelman

    Amy, you made me laugh out loud. I, too, at this moment am inspired/encouraged/ready/armed/scared shitless/optimistic/thin-skinned/thin-haired/sunburned/excited and also, Jen, loving that Vonnegut quote. The house where he once lived in Iowa City is just up the street from me right now. I need to pay it some serious homage this week.

  • Hope Edelman

    Thank you for all of these wonderful comments, SW members!! You know, I was thinking today about how I always tell my writing students when we gather to discuss a classmate's pages that we're not there to discuss or criticize the life choices the classmate made, but rather to discuss the choices made by the character she created to represent herself on the page. With that in mind, critics who read our books, but don't know us personally, cannot possibly be criticizing us, only the narrative characters we've imagined into print. Still, it's amazing how fast that theory goes out the window when it's your own work that's being reviewed. I think I need to take one of my own classes, and soon.

  • Zoe Zolbrod

    This wonderful post--and especially your comment about the usefulness of reviews tunnel beneath the specific work to tap into the current underneath--caused me to order your book. It sounds wonderful.

  • Dorothy Hearst

    Really great post. And congratulations on writing a book that generates this type of reaction.

    My first book came out last year and I was certain that, as a seasoned veteran of the publishing industry, I'd be immune to hurt feelings. Ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. The thing I finally realized, after hiding under the covers with chocolate for a week or two (okay, it was a month), is that it comes down to this: some people like my book and some people don't. That's really all that the reviews mean.

    I absolutely agree about thoughtful reviews. When people offer good, thoughtful criticism, I am grateful for it, because it will make me a better writer, and they can open up interesting discussions about the book. But I'm learning to just let the snotty ones go. The snotty ones are more about the reviewer than the book they are reviewing, anyway. I also absolutely love this answer from Philip Pullman in his Q&A on his website:

    How does it feel to receive a good review or an award?
    I feel pleased to live in a world where there are such good critics.

    And how does it feel to receive a bad review?
    I feel sad to live in a world where there are such poor critics

  • Deanna Zandt

    A *great* post, Hope! My first book is due out April 2010, and I'm already steeling myself. heh.

    Another piece of advice a smart lady once gave me is to think of it all like aikido; when stuff comes at you, you can turn it around and/or get out of the way. I was criticized for some crowdfunding I was doing for my project recently, and I got to practice a little when a woman I didn't know tweeted that she thought it was "tacky." I asked her for even more feedback; in the conversation, it came out that she thought it was more an industry problem than a problem with my approach. She thanked me for asking in the end, and I felt better. -Ish. I'm also fair- and thin-skinned. ;-)

    Btw, the editor at my publishing house (Berrett-Koehler) just tweeted after reading this: "I know lousy book reviews are painful, but if it's any consolation, even good reviews don't sell books. Repeat: reviews do not sell books."

  • Amy Ferris

    well, okay ... i'm now replacing the shrine/altar i had intended for my very patient, amazing, glorious and oh so kind husband with one dedicated for you!
    thank you, hope, thank you for this piece.
    i am inspired/encouraged/ready/armed/scared shitless/optimistic/thin skinned/thick haired/excited and oh ... love the vonnegut quote.

  • Jennifer Lauck

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote about critics and how no one has a right to be one. To stand in judgment of the creation of another is to stand in a place you simply cannot stand. This is why I don't do reviews and will never do reviews. Heck, I don't even like telling a writer, in a class, what I think of their work because I just cannot know the vastness of the writer and what their ultimate creation is about. There is simply no such thing as subjectivity. I can visit the land they create but really, truly, to be in awe is be witness is also be confused is also what I can offer. To judge is not my place.

    Having said that...Hope...your new work is vast. A small mind cannot comprehend what you have taken on be it. The review says all that needs to be said of the mind doing the reviewing...swerve right and let that negative pain body mojo race on past.

  • Meredith Gould

    Ouch...and you make great points. As an author who also reviews books, I've made it my policy to take a pass on books that I don't like unless, as you point out, there's a larger cultural conversation to be opened via panning. Thanks for the reminder.

    Much as I wish I had SPF 50 lathered on thicker skin, I have to admit that personal attacks on my work still burn. How could they not? Writing is such a labor of...everything.