“To care, and not to care”: On being reviewed

Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes

My first book of poetry, The Violinist in Spring, was published 10 years ago. I remember very clearly the evening before the NZ Listener review came out. The night was one of blind panic and endless recursive loops of weird dreams. When the morning finally came I hunched over my email as a friend with a subscription transcribed chunks of the review and sent them down the wire to my nervous gaze. (Bookstores didn’t have copies until Monday.) I remember feeling that the reviewer was speaking directly to me: a very profound, specific, and personal, judgment. More embarrassingly, I still remember some of the lines of the review by heart.

The process of being reviewed as a novelist has been utterly different. While it’s still exposing (not dissimilar to having a stranger come into your house and calmly judge you on its décor) it’s also very much less personal, less predictable, more immediate, more scattergun. It has been a steep curve in learning, as T S Eliot has it, “to care, and not to care”.

One of the causes of this difference, perhaps, is the vastly different way in which poetry and fiction are put out into the world. Fiction, in my experience, takes a lot longer, and – because of the greater print runs involved – relies on a larger number of people. There is a paradoxical metric here of vulnerability and detachment. When you’ve just finished writing a novel, you’re untouchable. Partly because of necessary self-preservation. Partly because you’re still inside that world and in love with its characters. You’re steel-plated and impervious, but also (because you care so much) you’re very fragile. During the long editorial and production process, slowly, ever so slowly, you begin to step back from the book, to see it from an external perspective. Then at last, when it’s ready for publication – you have a cover, you’ve proofread it so many times you can’t bear to look at it – you have to let go. At this point you have achieved a new level of detachment, but you’ve also given up some of the earlier protective intimacy.

In this state, when you first encounter reviews – for me, Amazon Vine and Goodreads reviews – it’s a curious feeling. They are talking about a work that feels distant, like a favourite cousin who has moved to a different country. Or, a better metaphor, it’s a bit like eavesdropping on acquaintances who don’t know you very well, but yet somehow hold the keys to your future.

This metaphor of eavesdropping seems to hold up quite well, as you garner more reviews (if you’re lucky) from newspapers, magazines, people on twitter. Surely, as a writer you’re always a bit of an eavesdropper, an interloper, on this discussion. After all, reviewers are talking primarily to readers, not to the writer.  Many writers, in recognition of this fact, absent themselves from the conversation altogether. I’m ashamed to say, however, that I’m not one of them. Curiosity gets the better of you, and suddenly, there you are, opening the newspaper or, more realistically, googling your book title, and waiting, interminably, for the page to load.

What follows, or what did for me, is not usually what you expect. You might think a review would make you feel something, perhaps tell you something about your book, or even about yourself. But, in fact, the eavesdropping metaphor continues to hold up. The insight you hoped to gain, the picture of yourself you hoped to see, is not what appears. “They don’t know me at all,” you think. “I’m pleased they enjoyed that part, but it wasn’t really what I meant”, or “They didn’t understand that character in the slightest.” And that second-hand feeling translates into a second-hand emotional reaction. Praise – though gratifying and flattering or rewarding, as the case may be – in the end feels slightly shadowy. It gives the sort of pleasure you might get from seeing something nice happen to someone you know. Criticism stings, but it’s dull, incidental, impersonal. Because, apart from a shadowy “good” feeling from a good review, and a shadowy “bad” feeling from a bad review, there is nothing of substance, in the end, to hearing what people think about you. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace: to be talked about is not a feeling.

Which leads me to two different things. Once you’ve realised that you can’t control anything about how your book is received, or who reads it, or whether they’ll understand what you meant by it – once you discard the notion of that perfect imagined reader you had in your head, there’s a strange sort of freedom. You realise that all the readers out there are making their own version of the book. That it’s no longer your book, and that all these different versions carry equal importance and weight. This really came home to me when I encountered an Australian blog review of The Chimes. The reviewer had huge expertise in sci-fi and dystopian fiction. She also happened to be visually impaired, and an albino. I read her review, and she enjoyed the book, which was gratifying in a shadowy sort of way. Then, because she had linked to it, I listened to a podcast where she discussed the book with a couple of other sci-fi readers. In the podcast, she mentioned how refreshing it was to read a dystopian novel with a central character who was disabled, and an albino. For a second, on hearing this, I was confused. I didn’t recognise my book. As an author I had never thought of my character Lucien in that way. To me, he was simply a young man with very pale blonde hair, and eyes that suggested a sort of genetic mutation. I had never characterised his blindness as a disability, because in the world of my novel his hearing was so acute it more than compensated for any visual impairment. I imagined myself having this conversation with the reader, clarifying her interpretation … and then I realised my mistake. My version of Lucien was no more “correct” than hers. That interpretation was simply there in the novel and, by her own act of reading, she’d taken possession of that character and made him her own. This, more than anything, was the opposite of that shadowy second-hand experience. Instead, I felt like a reader again, privy to and connected with another person’s creative experience.

Finally, in somewhat ornery fashion, I thought I’d finish this piece by talking about bad reviews. Not just entry-level bad, but the sort that pull you right into the room by sheer force of negativity. These are the reviews that seem to deliberately misread your work. Rather than extending that primary generosity – the willing suspension of disbelief, the willingness to be charmed or intoxicated by a world – the reviewer seems to go into your book with the intention of disliking it. Occasionally it feels as though they dislike something far more intimate about it also: the very grounds of its creation perhaps, or something fundamental about you as a person. This is the foundation of the hatchet job – a sort of chemical clash, a deep-veined inimical antipathy between reader and text. I had one of these reviews for my first book, and one for my second book. You read them with a strange fascination; they sting like antiseptic in a cut. But, somewhat ironically, they have a weird value. Such reviewers seem to have an acute eye for a book’s flaws; an impatience that seeks out the cracks. Somehow, they seem to know the parts that still haunt you – the piece of dialogue you never felt entirely comfortable with, the coincidence that always felt forced. You can never go back and alter a published book, but because such reviews are irredeemably personal, they achieve something very rare in the strange, oddly disconnected publication process – they break the fourth wall of detachment, they offer you a reflection of yourself in an inclement element. And, this is valuable. As a writer you have to relish a challenge to your self-awareness, even when it’s uncomfortable. There will be people out there who don’t like me, don’t like how I write, almost on principle, you realise. And you toughen, and assess, and think about what you can learn from that. And – as with all reviews, good or bad – you move on.

Anna Smaill’s all-time favourite NZ book would have to be Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame.


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