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bad reviews

October 13th, 2010

I was inspired by Ally Condie’s bravery in posting her bad reviews of previous books on her blog. In contrast to her deservedly glowing reviews for her upcoming book, Matched.

Reviews are such a weird thing; you want to discount them when they’re bad and rejoice in them when they’re good but it’s not so easy to avoid the pit in your stomach from a bad one or an elated smile on your face from a good one, be it on Goodreads, which I avoid or blogs, which I like to read or official industry publications, which my people forward to me.

The fact of the matter is that we writers work in such isolation so much of the time. Maybe we have a small group who sees our work in progress but generally, you can count on one hand the number of people who sees my books before they go out into the big bad world. And then not only does everyone sees the fruit of my labor, but, I hope, everyone opines. If they don’t opine, it’s worse; it means no one cares enough.

So reviews come with the territory. And honestly, a fair bad review is a fine thing. A reviewer who asks: Did this writer set out what she meant to do? and answers no, I got no truck with that. It actually helps me identify weak spots in my work.

Here are some of the less-than-stellar notices I’ve received in the past. This is from my first book, You Can’t Get There From Here, from Kirkus.

Forman writes breezily and pleasantly, though some of her set pieces go on too long and run out of steam. Her book, too, could have benefited from a more closely followed overarching theme of the kind that Franklin Foer worked so effectively in his globalism-dissecting How Soccer Explains the World (2004), which makes many of the same points. A mixed bag, then, of some interest to armchair travelers, if not to Weird Girls everywhere.

Onward then to my first YA novel, Sisters in Sanity. Some decent reviews, nothing glowing, nothing totally harsh. Mixed bags like this one from Booklist:

Although Forman does a good job of capturing teen friendship and angst, the book is not strong on character development. For example, though Brit believes that her stepmother wants her out of the way, readers never gain a true understanding of the father’s motivation for committing his daughter, an omission that may be frightening for teens.

I don’t know if I agree with that, but, fair enough. The Publishers Weekly review was mostly plot recap, ending with this:

This story line, however, takes a back seat to the exposé-like preoccupation with debunking places like Red Rock, which, however engrossing, might be a case of preaching to the choir.

I have been known to preach to the choir. And the Kirkus review, which was mostly  positive, was so weird that even the ending sounded bad when it was good.

Through the bonds of their friendship, the girls eventually come to face their own demons, leading to an ending not entirely surprising, though not particularly unsatisfying, either.

“Not particularly unsatisfying?” As in…satisfying?

Strange semantics aside, none of those reviews particularly bothered me. Sure, I would’ve enjoyed a rave. Heartrending! Addictive! Tour de Force! But whatever, they were fine and they were fair. There are plenty of good things in You Can’t Get There From Here but at its core is a lack of authenticity, a journalist trying to connect disparate places with a thesis that doesn’t always quite work. And, who, because her agent/editor/readers told her to, put a bunch of stuff about her marriage on the road into what had been a travelogue. It’s a strange hybrid, an ill-fit like a cute shoe that felt fine in the store but gives you blisters once you walk around in it.  And Sisters in Sanity, it was my first novel. I was still working things out. And I don’t love the ending. I had a different ending before but my editor suggested a change and in retrospect, I think we lost some important resolution and also wrapped things up too neatly. LIVE AND LEARN. Listen to your gut. Not your editor’s (well, unless her initials are JSG). Or your agent’s. Or your readers’.

But there was one case I was not so rise-abovey. One review that made me almost-cry. That put a pit in my stomach. That kept me up at night. It wasn’t a review. It was a slam. And worst of all, it was in The New Yorker, at the time, my shrine of all things writerly, the place I desperately wanted to write for. Here tis, in all it’s gore. (And you know you’re in trouble when the first words are your name and the word “mistake.”)

Forman’s mistake, in this account of a year’s globe-trotting with her husband, is to seek out self-consciously fringe topics—Tongan transvestites, Kazakh Tolkien nuts—in the hope that exoticism will prove enlightening. But her conclusions are so vapid (“Life, it turns out, is as big as you’re willing to make it”) as to call to mind Chesterton’s quip that “travel narrows the mind.” Like a voluble neighbor on a long flight, Forman tells us more about herself than we really want to know; a spat with her husband in the Far East makes one almost wish they’d break up for good. Elsewhere, though, she demonstrates a knack for getting interesting people to talk about themselves. The best chapter, set in the relatively unexotic world of Amsterdam’s red-light district, examines the difficulties that legalization has brought. One madam complains of being forced to close because her ceilings were not of regulation height.

Oh.My.God. My kind of travel narrows the mind? You want me and Nick to break up? I’m the annoying person on the plane? And the one quote you took—the one quote—was from the frigging epilogue, the last pages of the book when you’re wrapping everything up, and in my case when I was describing coming home  home from my first year spent abroad at age 16 and worrying then that my life would never feel as big as it had during that year. Really, that’s the quote you used to describe a book about cultural globalization?  Okaay.

I was furious. I couldn’t read The New Yorker for a few weeks and did not read their travel issue for a few years.

But, like all things, I got over it. And on the plus side, it has made some of the unfair reviews (which are different animals from bad reviews)  I’ve gotten since easier to bear (If I Stay as “fluff?” You don’t say!) Still, if I ever meet the jerk who wrote that review, I’m going to punch him or her. Or, well, maybe just strap them into a seat and pretend it’s an airplane and talk for hours and hours about my deep love of  pedicure technology.

  1. Thank you sooooo much for this Gayle. Our mutual friend Daphne just passed this on to me. My first novel is coming out in a couple of months, and I’ve been freaking out about the whole “review” thing. I applaud you for sharing your experience, I LOVED If I Stay (“fluff” – for reals?) and I really hope that we can to meet someday! (By the way, JSG is a neighbor!)

  2. I would happily sit next to you on a plane Gayle :)

  3. I think one’s opinion of writing, like that of any art form is subjective.
    When I read Sisters in Sanity it felt like I was there, in that place, with those girls. Not many novels can do that.
    And that New Yorker review sounds like their usual pretentious tripe. I’ll take an Adele ( twitter: @SnarkyWench )review any day.

  4. All I have to say is your books are masterpieces. So there!

  5. Oh Gayle, I love you even more now. And thank you for calling me brave. Which I wasn’t. Because you know I didn’t post that bad review until I had something better to post with it. ;)

  6. Re-reading that NYer review in this post, YEARS after it actually ran, I STILL feel sick! SO FREAKING MEAN! that’s performance art, not cricitism. And I too would totally want to sit next to you on a plane, bubbeleh.

  7. Ally, you ARE brave, because you could’ve just trumpeted your good reviews and instead you put both up. So brave and humble.
    Léna, just remember, the more reviews, the more people are reading you. And the more you get, the more likely you’ll get a rotten tomato.
    Daisy, that’s very lovely of you to say.
    William, thank you and though I generally love the New Yorker, or like it a lot, I have to agree here.
    Georgia, I would totally sit with you on an airplane.
    Marjorie, I already sat with you on a plane. Remember? Ft. Lauderdale. On our way to sailing school. Let’s go away again!

  8. This is completely unrelated to this thread, but I just felt that I needed to share my excitement with you, Gayle…I am attending Book Fest @ BankStreet on October 30, and because I signed up late I was assigned to the Graphic Novel break-out group. This is so not my genre, but I went along with it anyway, hoping I’d be able to move to another group. Yesterday I received an email saying that my first choice preference – YA: Dead Teens – has an opening, so now I get to discuss your beautiful work If I Stay, as well as Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere, Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, and Nina LaCour’s Hold Still with a whole group of YA fanatics like myself. Super pumped; especially because I have had the chance to read Where She Went already, and won’t mind boasting about such an honor! ;)

    Happy Tuesday!

  9. I think you’re both (you and Ally) brave and fantastic writers.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  10. I wandered over here, because I just finished If I Stay for a YA Lit class (I’m a soon-to-be ELA teacher), and I just wanted to say that I found the book thoroughly satisfying (even as a 31 year-old), will definitely feel confident recommending it to students (especially girls!). By the way, one of my mentor teacher’s students is reading it now, and flying through it!

    The reason for the comment is to commend you for your courage and humility to share and even explore difficult reviews. (It really is so much easier to form an opinion about something not yours than to create something personal and share it with the world.) I am really curious now to read you travel memoir. I spent most of my 20s traveling and teaching, and now that I’m a bit more rooted, I could use a vicarious traveling fix!

    Thanks for writing and for forging on despite a few haters! I look forward to following your blog!

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