Dealing with reviews
After the Booker judge lambasted reviewers, and my own recent reading of Simon Gray’s excellent memoir The Year of the Jouncer, my advice is – don’t. Just don’t deal with them. Unless you have the hide of The Terminator, the self-belief of a TV evangelist and the waterproof feathers of a duck, you’re bettering off not knowing. I know this is provocative but I mean it.
Look at it this way:
1 – the reviewer isn’t writing the review to help you, but to help the buying public. A review on that basis will almost certainly sting at some point (often a point where you had no input anyway, but that won’t stop it stinging believe me) and won’t improve your writing because that’s not its purpose (I know, I review for several places, sometimes even under my own name!)
2 – If you read any food writer’s commentary you’ll find that they loathe certain foods with a passion (eg white chocolate, pineapple fritters from the chinese takeaway etc – okay, Nigel Slater is an exception to this rule) which – oddly enough – are the very foods that an extraordinarily high percentage of the population consider to be their favourite and illicit treats. What does this tell us? Simply that there is one rule for writers about food and another for consumers of food and the same people who love to watch chefs on TV eat the very foods they castigate. In the same way there’s one rule for book reviewers and another for book readers and if you confuse the two you may end up writing for reviewers rather than readers.
3 – Your publisher thought the book/story/poem/play was good enough to run with. Why damage your relationship with them by letting a reviewer stand between you? Because – be honest here – if the reviewer says it wasn’t good enough, who are you going to blame for letting you go ahead? Yup, the very people who’ve helped you get this far; agents, editors and publishers. Doubt and blame can corrode any relationshop, but especially a commercial one based on risk. You have people you trust who advise you on your writing, why put your self esteem in the hands of a stranger who may not have your best interests at heart and certainly isn’t thinking about your relationship with your publisher when he or she writes about your work. Your publisher will read the reviews, but that’s another story – their job is to suck it up and move on. Make sure you tell them you don’t want to know, not the bad ones, nor even the good ones, you just don’t want to know.
4 – What you don’t know can’t hurt you nearly as much as what you do know. If your mum rings and says you had an okay review in the Guardian (or the Go-Kart Quarterly, come to that) thank her nicely and say you’d rather not know right now as it might distract you from what you’re working on. Your reviews soon become old news for everybody except you and if you can learn to live in ignorance of them, you can spare yourself a lot of pain for some uncertain pleasure.
And what brought all that on? Thanking my lucky stars that I don’t write plays – because the way Simon Gray describes attending First Nights as a writer almost brought me out in a rash. The mixture of shame and embarrassment he describes, the horror of hearing his words spoken from the stage, the second-guessing of the critics in the audience … the depiction is enough to give most average-skinned writers nightmares.
Like Simon Gray I’ve had the odd experience of having a friend ring me to urge me to read a review saying ‘You’ll love it’ only to obtain the damned thing and find out that it was less than flattering. So reviews can damage friendships as well as psyches. As a writer, I suggest you do without them if you can.