Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 7: On Reading One's Own Reviews


Yesterday on the Big Bus of Fun the talk turned to reviews, and specifically the reading of same by the writers under discussion. Long, long ago, when publishers were dependent upon a clippings bureau, or the actions of its regional representatives, to keep track of reviews, writers would have to wait quite some time to read reviews if, in fact, they ever got to read them at all. A bad review might be like a sighting of some mythical creature by 19th century explorers: rumors would eventually reach home concerning the nature of the beast, but specifics would be thin on the ground, and the whole thing could even be discounted as the ravings of a fevered mind. Even when reviews assumed solid form, the wise publisher would probably do some minor pruning of the files before passing them on in order to ensure that the worst offenders were quietly lost, thereby allowing the finely-honed equilibrium of the writer remained undisturbed.

Now, of course, a quick Internet search will bring up everything anyone has ever said about you, good or bad, which, for the writer, is a dismal state of affairs. By and large, writers shouldn’t concern themselves unduly with reviews, just as they shouldn’t go seeking weekly blow-by-blow accounts of their sales figures, which Amazon and some publishers offer as a matter of course. It’s like worrying about meteor strikes, or when the sun might die: there’s not a lot you can do about it either way, so you’re better off just getting along with what you’re supposed to be doing.

Mind you, this was hard-learned behavior on my part. Like most writers, I can recall the specifics of bad reviews from early in my career. My first novel, Every Dead Thing, received a couple of real stinkers, most in the UK, I think. One was from a British Labour party politician, now deceased, who used a quote from the book itself to help drive in the dagger. At one point, someone says to Parker, the private detective at the heart of the book, that he hopes never to see him again. “My sentiments exactly,” wrote our political friend, and that was the end of that.

Two of the worst reviews came from fellow writers, because writers-turned-reviewers have an instinctive understanding of just how to hurt another writer with high-impact criticism. It’s a bit like being mugged by surgeons: their boots naturally find the soft spots. One of those reviews, I now realize, was a hatchet-job designed solely to scupper the career of a young writer who was perceived to be getting too much attention, and remains an example of gracelessness that should be handed to anyone who is considering sharpening a reviewer’s pencil before plunging it mercilessly into the soft, fleshy pulp of a first novel. The other wasn’t as bad, and went for a tone of limp-wristed disdain over outright hostility.

I met the writer of the latter review at a festival in the northwest of England some years later. We were on a panel together, and he circled me in the wary manner of a locust that’s just been dropped into a terrarium with a spider. After the event, once he’d calmed himself with a drink or two, he confessed that he’d been very nervous of meeting me, as he’d written the review based upon the belief that our paths would never cross. (That was an unwise assumption to make since, had he examined the book a little more closely, he’d have noticed that we shared a publisher.) In fact, he went on, the prospect of our meeting had rather spoiled the month preceding the festival, and he’d been unable to enjoy much of anything. I nodded sympathetically, and then pointed out that we’d actually already met once before since the publication of the review in question, although he’d clearly been too drunk to remember.

Something similar happened last year, when I met a writer who immediately confessed to having given The Book of Lost Things – a book that managed to survive the reviewing process almost entirely unscathed by very adverse criticism - a bad notice. He looked a bit sheepish, admitted that he’d been wrong about the book, and hoped that it was all water under the bridge. I had to tell him that I didn’t even know that he had written a bad review and, had he kept his mouth shut, he’d probably have managed to get away with it.

The younger me, I suspect, might well have Googled the review in question at the first available opportunity, just to have something to be annoyed about. Now I know that it doesn’t really matter. I’ll always be curious about the general critical response when I publish a new book, but I’ve become very careful about what I read, and I avoid bad reviews entirely, unless I stumble across one by accident and find myself scanning it before I’m even entirely sure of what I’m doing. Nevertheless, even then my instinct is to turn away before damage can be done.

Look, here’s the thing: writers are plagued by self-doubt, and the ones that are not probably aren’t very good writers. Our tendency is to believe the bad reviews because they are our own self-doubt made manifest, and to ignore or immediately forget the good reviews because we secretly believe that they’re wrong. James Lee Burke once told me that you have to learn to ignore the catcalls and the applause, and he’s right. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that you won’t occasionally lapse, but as a general rule for writers, or anyone who presents creative work for public consumption, it’s a good rule by which to abide.

Time to go. Someone on the bus might be talking about me, and I’ll want to listen in. I’ll bet they’re saying something horrible…


Mich said...

Serves him right having his month spoiled, insulting Charlie. ;)

But sure I suppose you can't please everyone. Although I do hope that one day enough people are reading my books that I actually get a bad review...


Ev said...

Aw John! Thanks so much for this - don't feel so lonely now. One must have a tough hide in this game. An agent said to me 'you're taking it personally, this is business.' Writing is the feckin' nearest thing to exposing your heart and soul to the world and she gives out to me for being sensitive. We parted company as agent and client but manged to remain friends!

Josh Schrank said...

John, we would never give you a bad review. We prefer to call it, "helpful coaching." We do it for you; we're very selfless that way.

TomH said...

Plagued by self doubt…

Were it not for the word plagued the phrase would prove innocent. But it is there and it implies sadness that dictates not a single thing is ever sufficient. There is always the plateau.

Then the next….

The entire time bearing under a shadow only the similarly afflicted can see.

I do understand the word plagued.

Mich said...

....also, I don't think I've ever thanked you for introducing me to Wovenhand.

Sereia Sete said...

hello john,

(since i'm not into twittering or booking my face, i figured i'd just leave a comment on the blog, as instructed on your website, so please do excuse the off-topic nature of this post. if i was going to title this comment, i'd call it "a dachschund staring into the void".)

first, many thanks for hours of wonder and good company with your writing. every time i read your books, they are an antidote to mediocrity, and often a much needed mental vacation to an area of maine that i know and long for. thank you very much for that.

when will you be coming to arizona? tucson needs you, and i would highly recommend a reading at antigone books on fourth avenue. besides, calexico and richard buckner sound so much better out here. you've got to listen to them driving through the desert in the dark. and the hotel congress has its dillenger history--you've got to stay there.

i also wanted to write because i adore boswell, and i hope to see him in future novels. as a vet tech and dog mom, i appreciate his characterization. i work in the er/icu department of a veterinary specialty hospital where we see a disproportionate amount of dachschunds due to spinal injuries, snake bites, battle wounds, and other mishaps. which brings me to say that we have also hospitalized them because they have eaten chocolate. there's nothing quite like chocolate dog spew. so, when i read that samuel had charitably given boswell his chocolate bar and a catatonic state followed, i had to wonder, was it really the void, or was it our old friend chocolate?

all veterinary speculation aside, your description of the relationship between a boy and his dog in that same chapter will always resonate with me. thank you for expressing that so perfectly.

with boundless thanks and love and licks from all the wayward dachschunds in southern arizona,


gotabbass said...

Love your work. Can't wait for the next Parker novel to come out.
Is there anywhere on-line to get a synopsis of previous plots, characters and events? A Charlie Parker wiki of sorts?
After 10 novels, there is so much back story that has built up and it feels like is important to understand this history to fully comprehend where the characters and story are headed. While I'd love to re-read them all (and plan to at some point), it won't be happening before the next novel. Someone needs to get on this!

Mich said...

You stopped blogging again. :( That always makes me sad.

Preordered the newest Charlie Parker book today--I CAN'T WAIT til it comes out!!

Sion Smith said...

Hi again. I have a quick question for you - not particularly relevant to this post though. I'm on a mission to collect a whole set of your first editions - and doing pretty well aside from Dead Thing and Dark Hollow. Would you think about maybe getting a collection of your book covers on each books page - I think that would be very cool. (I say that but what I really mean is - what does a first edition of Dead Thing look like, there are some harbacks around on ebay but they appear to have the original paperback artwork - that's not a usual chain of events. Is that what it was?)

Thanks - sorry for bombing in to your post! Looking forward to this new one big time.

mark said...

HI John, just reading the latest book - the wrath of angels- No need for self doubt; you get better with every book.

mark said...

Hi John, currently reading The Wrath of Angels. No need for self doubt; you get better with every novel.

Deborah said...

Well I am trying to figure out if I can wait until January for Wrath Of Angels as I live in the USA.There are only 2 authors I would ever go out and buy books ASAP ..that would be you and James Lee Burke.What amazes me is your capacity to see into the darkness of our souls, and still find some redemption. Nothing is black or white.....As hopeless as things look in this life, both you and Mr Burke still seem to find a possibility of salvation.Sometimes I think you must be writing through your own anguish.
I hope you write for a VERY long time...
and yes, dogs are always immortal...pure love and trust...hoping we will become better for it.

Thank you !
Deborah Culhane
Eugene, Oregon