I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be reviewed. Partly in response to recent conversations with some other writers, and partly in response to, well, being reviewed.
The result is a three-way blogapalooza in which myself, Anna Branford, and Sally Murphy, decided we would gather, and post, our thoughts on this topic with a view to starting a conversation between ourselves, and perhaps others. So after you’ve read this, it might be interesting for you to head over to their blogs, too. I know I’m about to. I haven’t read their takes on the issue, and I’m sure we’ve all taken a very different approach to things.
To begin with, I suspect I’m not alone in having a somewhat ambivalent relationship to reviews. Writers need them, of course. We need people to notice our work – to read it, engage with it, hold it up to the light for others.
Maybe I should re-frame that: to pass judgement. Isn’t that what a review does, after all? Isn’t that what a review is for?
I actually don’t think so. I don’t see reviews like that. To me, a review is not an endpoint. It’s part of a dialogue about a text, one of many voices. And I love dialogue. I like to talk. I particularly like to talk about books. I have, in fact, a PhD in talking about books. I spent years at various universities sitting in small, airless rooms, encouraging others to talk about books. If it weren’t for the interminable marking, there’s a good chance I would still be doing that in some form.
To the extent that reviews are part of that process, that broad conversation, I love them.
But what I love is a particular kind of review. And it has nothing to do with whether the review is ‘good’, ‘bad’, or somewhere in between in terms of its ‘judgement’ of the text. A review I value is one that has substance, one that has carefully and thoughtfully engaged with the book, which supports its own assessments rather than simply making sweeping assertions. If a reviewer does that, then I want to hear what they have to say, no matter how critical that might be.
I’m not suggesting that an unfavourable review doesn’t sting a little. Of course it does. We’re all vulnerable in the face of feedback. We want people to like us, and we invest a lot of ourselves in the work we do. There’s a TV production company that used to sign off with the tagline, “I made this!”, read in the exuberant voice of a little boy. That always appealed to me, and I’m reminded of it now. Because what we’re really doing in putting our work out there is saying, “Hey, I made this! What do you think?” And that’s at once a very simple thing and a very complex one. It exposes us in all sorts of ways, and negative reviews are just one possible outcome among many.
But even if they sting, I think it’s important that there’s room for negative reviews. I wouldn’t say that I like them, but I certainly value the role they have to play in the process, and if their criticisms are explained and supported, I want to hear them. I’ve heard some reviewers say that if they don’t like a book, they won’t review it, that they prefer to only review books they can be positive about. I’m sure there’s a charitable basis to this approach, but it’s not a position I have any time for. Call me crazy, but I think criticism should be critical. Without it, the review process becomes anemic at best, meaningless at worst, a kind of empty noise. To be honest, I’d rather have a less-than-complimentary review that really engages with my work, than a flattering one that lacks critical substance.
If a reviewer doesn’t like my book, let them review it anyway. Let them explain why they didn’t like it, where they perceived its flaws to lie. I want to know why they formed that judgement, and I think readers value that, too. It’s not about me, of course, but I think it’s reasonable to expect a reviewer to be critical about their own response and to find a way of articulating that for prospective readers. I expect the same process to take place in a positive review. Tell me what worked and what didn’t, and most importantly, why you came to that conclusion. Then we’ll talk.
Metaphorically, of course. We won’t actually talk. Conventional wisdom is that you should never respond to a review. I never have. But I’ve been tempted, from time to time. Because as I said, I love talking books – whether they’re mine or someone else’s. And by the time a book is published, I’ve probably taken it apart and rewritten it six different ways from Sunday. Most likely, over a year has elapsed since I submitted the final draft. So I have a decent amount of distance from the work, and although I’m still invested in it, I trust myself to have enough objectivity about my own books that I could be a reasonable participant in such a conversation.
And the truth is, being reviewed is nothing new, really. I’ve been reviewed for my teaching, my parenting, my appearance, my speech, my choice of cheese. In some sense, we’re reviewed all day, every day, by the people around us, by the codes of the society we’re part of. We live in a constant feedback loop, making endless, tiny adjustments in response to what we get back from others. Or perhaps choosing not to adjust, to remain exactly and absolutely the way we are. Learning who to listen to. Learning how to be reviewed.
Because here’s the thing – so simple, so important. In the end, we can’t control someone’s else’s response – to us or our work. In any reader’s reaction to a book, there are many factors in play, and the work itself is just one. In the end, all we can do is be ourselves, write the books we want to write, and then hand them over, into the conversation that goes on largely without us. Then we can decide what we’re going to do with the criticism we get. For me, that decision hinges on the nature and source of the criticism itself. Not about whether it’s good or bad, but whether it has substance. That’s what determines whether it’s worth my time, my emotional energy.
So I guess I approach the process of being reviewed with some trepidation, but I also approach it critically. Not all reviews are created equal and for a writer, there’s a kind of internal reviewing of the review that needs to take place if we’re to survive the various slings and arrows.
There endeth my thoughts on being reviewed, at least for now. And it seems that, good intentions notwithstanding, I’ve rambled, and will be duly savaged by the critics. Oh, well.