Paula Morris works hard at presenting reviewers with the other cheek.
It’s 10 years since I wrote my first novel, Queen of Beauty, which makes it nine years since the book was published, and I started getting reviews. Only nine years of reviews? Sometimes it feels like 90.
I’ve worked, on and off, as a book reviewer myself for much longer. The first money I ever got for a piece of writing was for a review – in 1984, from the New Zealand Herald; my proud parents photocopied the cheque. Sometimes the reviewing seems to have eclipsed the books I’ve published. “I know you,” a man said to me at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival one year, after I’d chaired a session. “You write for the Listener!” Of the three times my name has been read out at the (then) Montana New Zealand Book Awards, twice was as a nominee for Reviewer of the Year. Numerous strangers have told me they love my reviews. I’d much rather they waxed lyrical about my books.
These days I write fewer reviews. In part this is because I have more book contracts and deadlines, as well as responsibilities at the university where I teach creative writing. In part it’s because I was once described, in an interview with the Herald, as a “shrewd but severe” reviewer. In real life I’m not a particularly severe person; my appetite for a public persona as a literary Terminator is small. Another thing that’s small: New Zealand. I grew tired of coming home and being glowered at across the room at some literary event; or of realising, with sinking heart, that an anthology editor or awards judge was the recent recipient of one of my unwelcome shrewd-but-severe assessments.
I’ve made a point, along the way, of trying not to pout, fume or in any way act like a Writer Scorned when I’ve run into unsympathetic reviewers of my own work. What’s the point? The review was published; the damage was done. Next time you publish a book, you can lobby your publicist, or an editor, to make sure a different reviewer is picked, but that’s likely anyway. Curiously, I’ve had two encounters with reviewers who wrote scathing reviews of a novel of mine (#1 and #3, if you’re interested), and had the strange experience of being the smiling, affable one while the reviewer in question seemed frosty, uncomfortable and – in one case – even aggrieved. Message to reviewers: you reviewed a particular book, not a person. You don’t have to dismiss or demonise that person to reassure yourself the criticism of that book was deserved.
Perhaps there are instances where an author accosts a reviewer in the street, slaps the offending critic with a pair of gloves, and shouts “How dare you, sir?” In 2004 American novelist Stanley Crouch punched critic Dale Peck, but that was in New York, not Wellington. Yet a reviewer of one of my novels opted out of attending the Wellington launch, wary – I was told – that I might take the public opportunity to bite back.
Of course, it’s tempting to bite back. Extremely tempting. Twice, after reading reviews here in New Zealand Books (both of writer-interview books in which I’ve featured), I composed a withering letter to the editor in my head, taking exception to some ill-judged pronouncement by the reviewer. But I didn’t write or send these letters. In Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour, a book of great wisdom, there’s a whole section on “Letters That Should Not Be Written.” I think many – possibly most – responses to reviews fall into that category. (Though have a drink with me sometime: I’m easily persuaded to list my objections.) When I’ve been bitten back against, in letters’ pages or online, it’s been almost laugh-out-loud unseemly.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m somehow above the sting of a barbed review. Those barbs hurt. Do I have a mental list of people I hope will never review one of my books ever again? Um – maybe. This list, however, emphatically would not include reviewers who were critical of some aspects of a book but wrote a considered review. I don’t think David Larsen, for example, absolutely loved Hibiscus Coast. Privately, of course, I regard this as an unfortunate lapse in his judgment, but he’s an intelligent and well-read reviewer, and I was not tempted to stomp off, in authorial outrage, the next time I saw him in public.
Much less welcome was a review for Trendy But Casual – a comedy set in New York City – by a reviewer whose only points of reference were British (and about-20-years-ago British at that).
Reviews are opinions, worth so much more to readers when they’re informed opinions. A note to biters-back: don’t begin your angry letter with “[X Reviewer] is entitled to his opinion, but …” Reviewers aren’t entitled to an opinion: they’re paid to have one.
But what about the unpaid reviewers who swarm the internet like so many voracious locusts? These are harder for writers to deal with. The illusory distance of the online world gives its denizens licence to be mean-spirited or malicious – or, to use a technical term – half-arsed. There’s no editor to ask them to articulate a point more clearly, or back up an assertion with evidence. Many of these reviewers say very stupid and/or rude things. A number of writer friends have told me how under-attack they’ve felt taking part in online chats with readers, how dispirited they’ve become reading Amazon reviews. At times it seems that the more uninformed the reviewer, the more eager that person is to share his or her opinions, and loftily dispense stars. (A dream of mine: the abolition of star ratings.)
An example: the Goodreads web site. Look up Michael Ondaatje’s new novel The Cat’s Table. One of the pre-release reviews gave it one star:
Any reader that has given this novel more than two stars is a close personal friend, or related by blood … .[This is] a piece of crap. The only way that this book might prove useful as anything other than litter box liner is if it receives a complete rewrite before the scheduled release date.
The first comment beneath this considered judgment? “Great review … I guess I’ll skip this one!” This kind of thing – an absurd and abusive review that dissuades other readers from picking up a book – drives most writers mad. However, if Ondaatje were to feel discouraged because this reviewer prefers Danielle Steel’s Zoya, for example, to his novel, he shouldn’t feel too bad: the reviewer’s most-read author is Dr Seuss, and she found much of Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller so “tedious”, she feels the author “owes” her for the time spent reading it.
I try to avoid reading online reader reviews. Since I started writing YA fiction, reviews of my work are splattered all over the place. Ruined, my first YA novel, has over 2000 reviews and ratings on Goodreads. They range from “this book was the best book I have ever read” (five stars!) to “I sincerely hope that any future books of Paula Morris’s will be more well-written than this one” (one star). A lot of the online reviews are written by adolescents, who complain because the book is not in the first person, or because it’s not part of a series. Some are written by weird adults, who complain that the book is really only suitable for teenagers, or that it displays insufficient Christian values. Reading reviews like these doesn’t help you as a writer, unless you feel the need to know that someone thinks you are “awesome” and someone else does not.
Right now I’m in the limbo between finishing Rangatira, the novel I’ve been working on for a long time, and waiting for it to be published – and reviewed. I want it to be reviewed, because worse than bad reviews is exclusion from the conversation. (None of my books, for example, has ever been reviewed in Landfall.) I like Rangatira very much, even though – as with sixth-form history – I feel I could have done better. I feel that way about everything I write: it’s different from and better than the last book, though not quite as good as the dream work-of-genius in my head. Maybe reviewers will like Rangatira, maybe they won’t. It’s the same book, either way: a novel of enormous personal significance for me. I’m proud that I wrote it, and relieved that I finally completed it. That won’t change, whatever the reviews say. I’ll keep writing, hoping that some readers, somewhere, will enjoy the books too.