Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reviewing my reviewers

by Josh

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.


Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for the insightful post, Josh. You're so right that authors often put too much emphasis and focus on reviews, and it's something we have no control over. It is someone else's opinion, after all. And now with the internet, anyone can voice their opinion in a very public way (and almost everyone does!). I occasionally must ignore the google pings in order to get down to the business of writing my next book.

Jeannie Holmes said...

Excellent post, Josh, and you're absolutely right. We must think of the frogs. They're the faceless victims in this insanity called publishing. We must proactively save these innocent creatures from destruction, and for only pennies a day, you too can-- *gasp* I just heard a tiny "boom." Oh, the horror! The horror!

(All joking aside, and this is the truth, the word verification for this comment was "splati." Irony...)

Lois Winston said...

I know some authors who refuse to sign up for Google Alerts because they never, ever read their reviews. I think maybe they have the right idea. The good ones send us soaring; the bad ones send us crashing.

What's worse is when some of your own family hates your books. I keep thinking, if they hated the last two, they're really going to hate the one coming out in January, given that one of the characters is based on a deceased family member. Unless they no longer even bother buying my books. I've had that happen with family and friends as well.

Sophie Littlefield said...

great job with the post. I read my reviews, and over time they've come to mean less and less to me. The one-star ones still give me pause - I mean really, ONE star? Uh, so 80% of printed material struck you as more redeeming? REALLY? - but then I remember that what we aim to do is provoke a response.

I don't review much any more, but i sure learned a lot from trying to write thoughtful, concise reviews of books a while ago, and being forced to put my thoughts into words was really helpful in my own work. Reviewing's hard. Perhaps that's why lots of people do a sucky job of it.

Gabi said...

I like both you and your work although I think you are right in that those feelings are not mutually inclusive.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Oh, those poor frogs! Actually we have a Frog Leg Festival in the next town over, every year. Yum!

Anyway, I'm with the first reviewer. The other one had no idea what he/she was talking about;)

That's how I'm going to handle my reviews, should I ever get any. Toss the bad ones, "what a dumbo!" Frame the good ones, "a person of obvious good taste!"

Fun post!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post, Josh!

I care less about reviews than I used to. After I had that whole New York Times thing, I think I got a giant dose of perspective. I think that's a Very Good Thing because I fully expect to be excoriated for IDRAKULA at least half the time. I mean, it's cool to think that I have the power to "cause the decline of Western civilization" but it's rather hard to believe.

Eric Beetner said he had a review as a musician where the writer wanted to run him over with his van, and then back over him again. So, as writers, we may have it easier than we think...

Also, I like you and your work. And they are two separate entities, as Gabi so thoughtfully pointed out.

Kelli Stanley said...

Amphibians are in trouble, and now we know why!!

Thank you for the wonderful post, Josh. :)

You and your work are both individually brilliant and wholly lovable. Except for that serial killer thing, of course. ;)


P.S. The secret is to never confuse a review with a vicious insane rant ...

Graham Brown said...

Hey Josh - I know this is lte response but here's my 2 cents - and it goes for a lot of bad reviews both for my own book and others. I dismiss any review where the reader just didn't seem to "get it" The second reviewer in your post is concerned with the amount of realism in your novel - about nuclear bombs, a rest stop madman and a croatian circus clown that only speaks spanish. Clearly that reviewer is missing the whole point - like a TV reviewer complaining that Seinfeld "wasn't really about anything."

Joshua Corin said...

In reviewing your reviews of my reviews of my reviews, I guess all I have to say is:

Aww, thanks, all.