Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Bewildering Experience of Getting Reviewed

Elizabeth Zelvin

About two months before publication, the debut author undergoes an experience that is fraught with anticipation and terror: the moment when the advance reviews come out. Booksellers and especially librarians base their buying decisions on the opinions of the Big Four: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus. To make it worse, these arbiters of literary taste read, not the finished book with every comma in its most perfect place, but uncorrected proofs with all the errors that the writer and a bevy of editors didn’t catch till galleys.

I went through a rollercoaster ride through ecstasy and despair during this process. Only when all the early opinions were in could I see that every negative was balanced or, even better, overruled by one or more positives. One reviewer said I had “outstanding storytelling ability,” another commented snarkily that I “know more about dependence and codependence than about storytelling.” One praised my “good surprise ending,” another, who obviously guessed whodunit, found the solution disappointing.

On the good side, my prose was “deft” and “smooth,” my characters “well-developed.” Library Journal called it “a remarkable and strongly recommended first novel,” and another early reviewer, Crimespree, said I was “an author to keep your eye on.” That helped relieve my doubts about myself as a writer. And then I got two terrific accolades: a private compliment, a very enthusiastic one, from a revered hardboiled writer, and, at the other end of the crime fiction spectrum, an Agatha nomination for my short story, "Death Will Clean Your Closet." After that, I felt a lot better.

I recently heard an eminent editor say, “Enjoy the good reviews, ignore the bad ones.” I like that. It also helps to realize that authors have been having the same experience for more than a hundred years. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the heroine, Jo, is a writer, and I assume Jo’s experiences are based on Alcott’s own. The following passage, first published in 1870, shows how little has changed from her time to ours.

Having copied her novel for the fourth time, read it to all her confidential friends, and submitted it with fear and trembling to three publishers, she at last disposed of it, on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired….Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it; likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment, from which it took her some time to recover.

“You said, mother, that criticism would help me; but how can it, when it’s so contradictory that I don’t know whether I’ve written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?” cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dire dismay the next. “This man says, ‘An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness,’” …continued the perplexed authoress. “The next, ‘…full of morbid fancies…and unnatural characters.’….Another says, ‘It’s one of the best American novels which has appeared for years’ (I know better than that); and the next asserts that ‘though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.”…Some make fun of it, some over-praise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money.”

…it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well, and had apparently done so ill….

“Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t kill me,” she said stoutly; “and I’ve got the joke on my side…for all the parts that were taken straight out of real life are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes I made up out of my own silly head are pronounced ‘charmingly natural, tender, and true.’ So I’ll comfort myself with that; and when I’m ready, I’ll up again and take another.”


Sheila Connolly said...

Do you want to know what LMA did with that fabulous (well, for the time) payment? She bought her mother a sink for the kitchen. A very grounded woman, she was. (The sink is still in place, in the house in Concord.)

Your reviews have been great--and many. Enjoy!

Kim Smith said...

How does one get Elizabeth Zelvin to review their book? *wicked grin*