Reviews: To Read or Not to Read, that is the Question

(With apologies to THE Bard).

To read, or not to read–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of overwhelming flattery
Or to take arms against a sea of critics
And by opposing, end them […] aye, there’s the rub.

I opened my email this morning to a note from a friend that was along the lines of, “It’s okay, don’t jump off the bridge.”  Now, a message like that is tantamount to picking up the phone and having the person on the other end say, “Before you say anything, let me begin by saying…everyone’s okay.”  This friend then continued the positive message by encouraging me and building me up, then at the end included a link and said, “I assume you have seen this review.”

I had not.

Oh, the dilemma: To click or not to click on that review.

I tend to lean toward the Georgia Beers school of book reviews in that I don’t like to read them.  I am, despite my stocky build and “I can take anything” look, surprisingly sensitive.  It’s a running joke in our house that of all of us, I am the one most likely to love flowery “gramma” fabrics, cry at Hallmark commercials, and generally react passionately to all things. (I am also, to most people’s surprise, a SERIOUS introvert, but that’s for another blog). So, knowing how emotionally impacted I can be by such things, I hesitated.  Especially as this review apparently was strong enough to bring my friend to drop me a note; this is not someone who just casually emails me on a daily basis.

After a few minutes of waffling I decided, “What the hell, I’ll click and read the review.”  The review, after all, was offered by Lambda Literary, an agency that carries a great deal of respect in our community.

I clicked.

I saw.

I read.

In all honesty, the reviewer did not say anything that I have not said to myself either during the process of writing or after the book’s publication. I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses, and the reviewer pretty much nailed them as well.

The review was similar to a design I once submitted to an art director once.  After meeting with the client, the art director, the client, the other designers, the client, more meetings with more people and yes, another meeting with the client, I came up with a design.  A solid, workable design that incorporated notes from all of the above and my own input.  The art director tipped his head this way and that, resembling a curious terrier, then paused.  He rested his chin on his hand and said, “Well…it doesn’t suck.”

The entire meeting cracked up.  I blew out a sigh of relief.

“It doesn’t suck” was pretty high praise from an art director in that shop (a multi-million dollar shop founded on an animated rodent).

My book got the equivalent of an “It doesn’t suck” from an agency who regularly reviews gay and lesbian writing.  That means that it fell onto their radar, always a good thing.  It was my first book—the first of many, I hope. Could it have “not sucked” less (i.e. been called “spectacular”)? Yes, indeed.  On the other hand, it could have been called a “spectacular disaster,” so all-in-all, I’m good with what I got.

So, to Lamda Literary, I say thank you.

Even had you gone with option B above and said “spectacular disaster” instead, I would still have said thank you and meant it. 

Can a review hurt? Yes.

Should it? No.

Reviews are not meant to be a feel-good “atta girl,”nor are they meant to shatter an artist’s dream or creativity, especially if the reviewer does not also create in that medium.  They exist to give a reader a sense of the book.  To tell us if we want to part with our hard-earned dollars to support an author and gain a few hours of mental freedom.

A good review is like a good report to a parent on student work, a “dirt sandwich,” if you will.  Begin with the good, put the dirt in the middle, end with more good.  You can always find good to say and there is always something good that can be said.  A little good goes a long way.  A savvy reader can pull what they need from a good review, especially one structured in that good/bad/good format.

That’s not to say that I am unaffected by what I read and/or hear about my work.  If you stab me, do I not bleed? Which brings us back to the original question (and subsequent mauling of Will’s fine words).

One last thing.  Even at the lowest points in my self-doubt, and like any creative person I am plagued with self-doubt, I go back to my manuscript.  The one that was hand-marked by my editor, the redoubtable Katherine V. Forrest.  In there are comments and pointers and, every so often, this little gem, “fine writing.”

And once in a while, this: “very find writing.”

That’s good enough for me.