Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Favorite Two-Star Review.

[Note: Hi. A lot of you come to this post via Goodreads, and this might be your first introduction to me. I've thought about editing the post below -- because it's ruffled some feathers -- and I feel bad about that, frankly. But editing it would interfere with the discourse around the post so, after much thought, I've decided to leave it, as is. Actually, I've just started a new feature interviewing bloggers, who have revolutionized the way we hear about books, discuss them, and build communities around literature. I'm deeply dedicated to literacy, as well, and have a small nonprofit that gets free books to kids in Florida.
If you want to know more about me, some of the posts here are deeply personal ones. Like 16 Years Ago Today, I Gave Birth to a Badass or one on the link between writers and suicide or this one that I posted recently: Open Letter to the Writing Student who Asked my Husband if He was Jealous of my Success. I've published 18 books, under my own name as well as two pen names and have written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Real Simple, NPR's Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered and Here and Now. I'm also a poet with three collections of poetry. Hi. This is who I am, more or less. It's nice to meet you here.]

Listen, I know it's my job to post all the positive reviews and glowing accolades and blurbs-of-admiration, but why not the flip side? Seriously, PURE has gotten more pre-publication buzz than maybe all 17 of my other books combined. You can check all of that out here. But no novel is beloved by all. A good book has to be distinctive enough that it doesn't appeal to everyone.

Lately, I've been thinking about the distinctions between the traditional review -- written by a fellow novelist, critic, scholar -- and the online review written by a reader. The first has to answer, perhaps: Is this book worthy? They have to take the book on its own terms and try to gauge its effectiveness. The reader-reviewer is answering a more personal question: Did I like it?

To answer the first question -- is this book worthy? -- the critic has to put some of their own personal feelings aside and judge the book's merit. Sometimes they also love the book, but that's not the point.

To answer the second question -- did I like it? -- the reader-reviewer isn't asked to judge its merit but talk about their own reaction to the book.

Or so it seems to me.

Some reader-reviewers are truly adept at writing critical reviews about the merits and failings of a book with great insight. I appreciate those takes.

What frustrates me sometimes is when a reader-reviewer slams a book because it's simply not the book they wanted. For example, a reader-reviewer ofter veers into the Is this book worthy territory when they say: This book sucked! Don't waste your time! But when they add: It didn't have ANY vampires in it! Well, that's frustrating, especially if the book jacket makes no mention of vampires whatsoever...

Or the reviewer who writes, I hated the jacket. I hated the first chapter. I hated the whole book. Why didn't you stop at the jacket or first chapter? To fuel your discontent? For the love of all things holy, stop reading books you immediately detest.

Or like the reviewer who slammed my book for 9-12 year olds saying something like -- I guess I should start out by saying that my 8 year old daughter loved this book, but I really didn't like it at all... She just found it too juvenile. Um, she's probably around thirty. The book was actually written for her 8 year old daughter... for juveniles.

I've seen a review that said something like, This book was okay, but not half as good as the publishers think it is. Well, actually, it's kind of the publisher's job to believe in the book that they're trying to sell. I mean, as an author, I'd be pretty upset if a publishing house took on a book of mine and then wrote ad copy like: This book is okay. I mean, it's not going to be a serious contender for the National Book Award, but we decided it could get some good advance praise and might hit its target market.

Basically, there's this disconnect. There are so many examples of these disconnected reviews -- ones that blur Is it worthy? and Did I like it? If you want some fun, go look up the literary classics you've loved and read some of the Amazon reviews...

I should add that I've worked as a reviewer a bit, and I'm not good at it. I don't like being critical in the ways that the seriously well-written review demands. I get nervous trying to place a book into a larger literary landscape. I've read too many reviews of my own books claiming that I was seriously influenced by writers I've never read.

And there was one review that I'll never forget, that really stopped me from writing literary fiction for some time -- years, in fact. I became, perhaps, the most prolific novelist to have writer's block. My writer's block was very specific and I wrote around it -- in other genres.

I've been waiting -- without knowing I was waiting -- for the negative review that said the words I wanted to hear: This book just wasn't for me. This is what I say of books that I don't like. I admire books I don't like -- ones that I can find to be full of literary merit. I teach certain novels because they're so important, iconic, essential to the discussion of fiction -- whether I like them or not. And I help young writers achieve works of great promise -- deepening their own unique voices -- even if I don't like the characters myself or if I'm not drawn to the plot on a very personal level. Those things are moot. My own personal feelings about the book don't matter. I'm trying to draw out the best possible work from my student.

So, I was DELIGHTED when someone brought my attention to THIS two-star review. The last paragraph includes those words I've longed to hear:

"Even though I couldn't connect . . . doesn't mean you won't. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot to like about this book but like I stated above, it just wasn't the right book for me. PURE is a dark, gritty and sometimes a disturbing novel, and I'm sure a lot of readers with a profound love of the Hunger Games, Matched and the likes of Divergent will eat this baby up, and become a classic young adult hit. "

Let me repeat: It just wasn't the right book for me. She wasn't being a critic and answering: Is it worthy? She was answering: Did I like it? And, too, she positioned the book in the larger literary landscape for other readers. She gave it two-stars -- for personal reasons and she makes those reasons clear. This seems like the difference between those two kinds of reviews, that divide, and I'm fine with it because she's upfront about her take. I felt like hugging the reviewer -- virtually, of course.

I have a lot to say about the evolution (revolution) of reviewing that's happened over the course of my career. But, for now, this is a little moment of odd two-star gratitude.