Sunday, November 29, 2009

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

Okay, here it is, the new website! Please comment/email if you like it. Took tons of work to do all this reorganization, and my designer could use the love.

Speaking of love, I want to thank bloggers Jenn and Kim for their recent interviews. They were both exceedingly patient with the perpetually-disorganized me, and asked some great questions.

Also, thanks to Jennifer Hubert of Reading Rants who posted this about Bad Apple: “Cleverly told in a full-on snarky tone that hides a smile behind its snarl, BAD APPLE is a thoroughly modern and highly entertaining anti-fairy tale that is as sweet and sour as the Granny Smith on the cover.”

About reviews. There are some, like the above, that make you so grateful to be understood that you feel like you owe the reviewers a cut of your profits. There are the mixed kind that can rankle, but don’t wound, at least not deeply, and not for long.

And then there are those other ones.

Last week, I found a new review, or rather, an old review that I’d blissfully missed. I don’t even know why I was scratching around the Internet, why I opened the document. (Satan??? Is that you???) But I did open it. Yikes. I’ve had my share of critics, but apart from online commentators who call themselves things like monkeybutt432, no one has ever been so spitefully, sneeringly dismissive about one of my books before. At least, that’s how it seemed in the moment. After I read this review, I felt like someone had broken into my house, slapped me in the face and then peed on my living room rug. I responded to these feelings with much howling and wailing, rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth.

Now that some time has passed, I just feel stupid. Not because of the review, but because of my own overheated reaction to it. No, I didn’t pull an Alice Hoffman and twitter the reviewer’s phone number and encourage fans to crank her. I didn’t spit on the reviewer a la Richard Ford, nor scrounge up a copy of the reviewer’s book and put a bullet through it. I didn’t scour the Internet looking for the reviewer’s blog and post I WILL HATE YOU TILL THE DAY I DIE the way the Alain de Botton did. And I didn’t slap her like Stanley Crouch slapped one of his critics (though I must admit I understand these impulses all too well).

No, I did nothing so Gawker-worthy. But I did flap around my house like a dyspeptic duck. I did let it ruin my dinner, and my evening. The worst part is that I violated my own rules. I did this to myself.

Back in 2006-2007, I had three books published in three different genres, one book right after the other. I spent months and months paralyzed by the onslaught of critical feedback. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think. I ate my way through a mountain of Pirate’s Booty, and got a booty the size of a mountain.

Here’s the kicker – though I received dozens and dozens of professional reviews that year, only one was an outright pan. Just one. The rest of the reviews were pretty good, and some were so packed with praise they read as if my mom had written them. I got lots of nice letters from readers. So why was I so terrified, so tortured, so paralyzed? What was WRONG with me?

I think it’s because reviews are meant for readers, not writers. In a perfect world, writers wouldn’t have to see their own reviews at all.

I know. It feels weird to even type that out. Don’t writers want to know how their work is received? Yes. We do. We crave it, absolutely. But I don’t think we’ll get the things we need to write the next book from those whose job it is to rip apart the previous one.

I’ve heard people advise writers to try and learn from their reviews, and I’ve heard writers claim to do this. And I don’t get it. Firstly, by the time a review is published, the book is done. Even if a reviewer is correct in his or her assessment that the book is, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, a stupid, self-indulgent sack of spider puke, what can I do about it after the fact? (Note to self: do not be stupid and self-indulgent! Stay away from spiders!)

Then there’s the fact that I believe writing a book teaches one only how to write that particular book. I’ve published seven books and written several other manuscripts. The process of writing of every single one of them was completely, utterly different. No review — no matter how intelligent or insightful — can ever help me with the creation of a new book. That’s what writing groups, editors, insomnia, outlines, research, revisions, coffee, etc. are for.

And then there’s the fact that it’s a crapshoot as to who actually reviews your book. What if your vampire title is assigned to a person who is suddenly, violently sick of vampires? Or your funny book is handed to a person who doesn’t key into your sense of humor? Sometimes the difference between a good review and a not-so-good one is simply the desk on which the book lands.

I think the only thing a writer can learn from reading reviews is how to deal with reading reviews. For the last year, my way of dealing has been to read as few of them as possible. I do look at pieces sent by my editor or friends, and I love getting emails and letters directly from readers. But no Amazon. No Goodreads. No Shelfari. No Technorati. No Google Alerts.

It was difficult to do this at first, difficult to change my own mindset, difficult to convince myself that no, I really didn’t have to know what every single person on the Internet thought — or didn’t think — of my book(s). But I did manage to shut out a lot of the noise. And it worked. I slowly emerged from my slump. I took cooking classes. I made lots of homemade soup. Soup is warm and delicious.

But, last week, I was feeling happy and safe, and I violated my own rules. I let my fingers do the Googling. And I got burned. One of the interview questions I get asked most often is what advice I’d give to teenagers who find themselves the victim of online bullying because I write so much about the subject. One of the things I say is that enough nastiness is going to find you, so you never go out looking for more.

Yeah. I know. I’m an idiot. Shut up.

After the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the embarrassment that followed, I soothed myself by reading Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, a title that seemed appropriate to my melodramatic mood. This novel is a funny but achingly moving book that almost begs to be read out loud. Because it features a disaffected 18-year-old narrator with a powerful and engaging voice, and because it’s set in NYC, it’s hard not to compare to Catcher In The Rye, but I found it richer and more absorbing than Catcher (and I say this as a Catcher fan.) The story made me glad that there were writers like Peter Cameron in the world, hopefully ignoring what few critics he has.

On her blog, the lovely Shannon Hale suggests — through gritted teeth — that no publicity is bad publicity. That writers should try to be grateful even for the attentions of Angry People Who Type. That review space is so limited these days, it’s good that our work provokes enough passion that certain reviewers are compelled to use that precious space to protect the public from hacks like us. Because that means that, at the very least, our work is getting attention.

I don’t think I’m as evolved as Shannon is. I’m not sure I can bring myself to thank the Angry People Who Type. But I’ll be happy enough to enjoy my reading and my dinner, and then get back to work.

-- L.


  1. Hi Laura,
    I love the new website. It's beautiful and so you. Congrats!
    It's a freeing thought to distance yourself from reviews. But I don't think I'm there yet. I want everyone to love everything I write, which is of course impossible. So I guess I'll just aim for me loving what I write. That's hard enough, isn't it?
    But speaking of loving... I also loved Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. I read it as we drove to Florida one year, and I laughed so hard that I ended up reading huge passages aloud to my husband because he wanted to know what was so funny. Thanks for the reminder about this book. My daughter is about to read Catcher in the Rye for school, so I'll have to give her this one, too.

  2. "So I guess I'll just aim for me loving what I write. That's hard enough, isn't it?"

    Heh. Yup. A few years ago, I went to hear David Sedaris read (he was hilarious). After his reading, an audience member asked him which of his own books was his favorite. DS looked utterly horrified and said, "As soon as a book is published, I turn on it. If I ever thought about what was written on those pages, I'd never stop throwing up."