The best review I ever received is a smile from my loved ones.
Oh, if only that were true...
The best print review I ever received for something I wrote was on my 33rd birthday. My first novel, Nuclear Winter Wonderland, was about to splat onto bookshelves all across the country. And then, on one hot July morning, while checking my email and sailing along a river of Happy Birthdays, a Google alert alerted me that Google had detected a new entry on the internet that contained my name. As I was then and am still today a college instructor, I expected this new entry to be a fresh lashing on ratemyprofessor.com, but lo, I was much mistaken. It was Booklist's review of Nuclear Winter Wonderland and it went like this:
Adam Weiss’ twin sister, Anna, is kidnapped by Ebbetts, an unpleasant and possibly cancer-ridden man who might have plans that involve a nuclear device. Desperately searching for Anna, Adam acquires a couple of sidekicks: Filbert, a man of small stature who used to do something brutal for the Mob, and Cherry Sundae, a Croatian female clown who only speaks Spanish. If that isn’t enough to make you dive right into the novel, consider this: it is remarkably polished and stylishly written (remarkably, because the author hasn’t been doing this for years: this is his first novel). It is richly comic, surreal without being silly—except where it intends to be silly—and playful in its use of language. Christopher Moore writes this way, and so does Robert Rankin, although it would be a serious mistake to assume that Corin is imitating them or anyone else in any way. If you can judge a writer’s future output based on his first novel, Corin is one of those writers who, years from now, other newcomers will be imitating.
I mean, holy crap, right? Can you imagine a better birthday gift for a nervous-nelly fiction writer? I must've read that review over so many times and shared it with so many people that for a good week or so, my mind was more preoccupied with my review than with my novel. Then came Publishers Weekly's review of the very same novel:
Striking the right tone in a comedy-thriller can be tough, as Corin's disappointing debut shows. Adam Weiss, a University of Michigan fraternity boy, is driving home to New Jersey with his twin sister, Anna, when a stop at a rest area turns the trip into a disaster as an elderly man who calls himself Ebbets kidnaps Anna. Adam later encounters a state cop who ignores the tale of Anna's abduction, a female Spanish clown and an old drunk. Soon the cop is dead and Adam, the old drunk and the clown are on the run. Adam contacts Ebbets, who tells Adam he's hidden 12 atomic bombs and intends to blow them up on Christmas eve. Adam spends the rest of the novel chasing Ebbets in an attempt to save the world and free his sister. While readers don't expect absolute realism in their thrillers, they do demand that the plot makes sense and follows at least elementary rules of logic. In his relentless search for humor, Corin misses both of these targets.
I mean, holy crap, right? In my wildest dreams, I couldn't imagine a more diametrically-opposed pair of opinions. So which one was right? Did I write a corker or a stinker? It couldn't be both. I mean, the quality of a finished novel doesn't vary from reader to reader. The finished novel is the constant. The reader is the variable. So what did this prove?
What it proves (which I learned) is that reviews both good and bad (and there will be both) should be accepted, graciously, always, as the opinions of informed readers are vital to us as writers, but they should never become more important than the text itself. Every time the criticism of art is given the power of art, somewhere in the world a frog explodes. It's true. Look it up.
I wonder what people think of my work. I'm driven to ask if they like it (and by false extension, me). That's just how I'm built. But hopefully, hopefully I won't let the reviews of strangers and friends sway me too much in one direction or another, if only for the sake of the frogs.