Tuesday, March 18, 2008


By Amy MacKinnon

I love newspapers, always have. So it probably comes as no surprise that Sunday mornings are my favorites, the day when papers are at their thickest. I pour myself a bowl of Starbucks, settle in first with the hardcopies and then I wander over to my computer to read the others online. The headlines, local news, features, advice columns, oh and the essays. My favorite pages are the book reviews.

I've been reading book reviews almost as long as I've been reading books. In an earlier freelance incarnation, I was hired to write reviews. The first book I was assigned was a memoir by a local writer. I didn't love it. In fact, I found myself judging some of the choices the author made in the course of the story (adultery) and not necessarily the story arc, the evolution of her personal growth, the writing--not that I was dazzled by those aspects either. However, as a writer myself, it was inconceivable that I could crush in black and white someone who had spent years laying bare her soul. I apologized to my editor, explained I lacked the appropriate perspective, and vowed never to review a book.

Last night at Writers' Group, they reminded me that soon my own book would be sent off to be reviewed. It caused me some distress to consider that. I won't read them, I said. But you might learn something from them, said one. They might make you feel fantastic, said another. You're going to get some good ones and some bad, said yet another. (Actually, by this point I was feeling too ill to know who was speaking so the same person may have said all of this and more, but you get the gist.)

There are many reasons for my not wanting to read reviews of my novel. Some are practical. Many years ago, I did a story for the Boston Globe about an art exhibition and the curator said something I've never forgotten: not everyone is qualified to judge art. This provoked a series of questions from me, essentially about the subjectivity of art and the entitlement of individual perspective. He said that most people are not entitled to an opinion since they hadn't the breadth of knowledge about art in general or specifically. I've tussled with this over the years and only lately have I come to understand that he didn't intend it as a slight to the masses, but that he may have been absolutely right.

Weeks ago, I read a review of Castle Freeman's Go With Me. In it, Ron Charles references no fewer than three other works for comparison sake; he understands the inspiration behind this twenty-first century fable. Having that breadth of knowledge allowed him to better understand the layering effect Mr. Freeman used in crafting his novel. Another person might have read it and thought the styling was overly simplistic or some such. This is what the NBCC means when it states reviewing is and of itself an art form that should not to be taken lightly. Based on that review, I bought the book and felt I had an overall better sense of the story, which I highly recommend by the way-- for what it's worth.

So perhaps I should listen to my friends, read the reviews as they come in. Learn from the respectable ones and somehow try to let go of the anonymous negative critiques.

I don't know. What will you do when it's your turn?


Lisa said...

I absolutely agree that not all opinions and reviews are equally valuable. For example, I know that professional reviewers don't write PW and Amazon reviews, so I don't give them much credence. I use Amazon reviews as more of a trend analysis (if there are 25 reviews, where are most of them clustered?), but I also know that they're weighted often by reviews from people who know the author and with reviews from people who have no business writing reviews. Thoughtful reviews by people who do it for a living are an entirely different story, although there will still always be an element of bias and taste that plays into those too. I can't predict how I'd feel about my own reviews, but I suppose I'd expect that there were going to be both good and bad reviews (there are for EVERY book) and I'd try to learn from the more thoughtful ones. The trend that I've noticed and that I don't understand is that I see more and more reviews lately that seem to be less objective and more personal. I tend to discount those when I read them. I'm sure if I were the object of one, all the logic and common sense in the world couldn't prevent emotion from creeping in and making me feel hurt. I don't know how I'd feel about the reviews -- but I hope I one day get to find out :)

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

"...I'd expect that there were going to be both good and bad reviews (there are for EVERY book) and I'd try to learn from the more thoughtful ones."

Okay, Lisa, clearly I need to behave more maturely and take my licks. It would be easier to take a punch to gut, though. And you will soon face this conundrum for yourself.


Larramie said...

Amy, think about how much strength and courage it's taken you to get this far...so what's a review?

Lisa said...

You know, I wouldn't even consider it taking your licks. As an objective reader, I think it's just a foregone conclusion that no matter what the book and no matter who the writer -- there are some mean spirited people out there who write terribly biased, inaccurate and unfair reviews. I'd expect that and try to remember that those reviews have no bearing on the work's merit or on the author. A painter friend of mine once shared that she's terrified to hear feedback on her work because anything that she perceives as negative, as irrational as she knows it is, makes her react in a way that would indicate that her work and therefore she sucks. Don't do that! I figure a healthy approach is to expect some wacky negativity and then all the positive praise feels that much better :)

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Gosh, I feel like a coward. you're right. You're absolutely right. But I still won't read them.


Shauna Roberts said...

I think I will read them, just in case there's something useful to improve my future writing. For example, if every review says my characters are two-dimensional, I would be inclined to believe I have a problem in that area.

However, I may instead use my husband as a filter. He can read reviews and pass on only the good bits and useful things.

Anonymous said...

I just had to tell you that I loved that link to your Father of the Year article. What an incredible story. I can't wait to read your novel!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Shauna, you're a wiser person than I am. And you have a good husband. Was that you I saw on Carleen Brice's blog? How nice of you to support a fellow writer. It will come back to you.

Thank you so much, Tara. That was such a specal time in our lives. In fact, my Dad and I were jsut talking about it the other day. He is an extraordinary man. If I could nominate him Father of the Year again, I would. And once you read TETHERED, you'll instantly see that my book is not autobiographical. People are already asking!


Shauna Roberts said...

Amy, yes, that was me on Carleen's blog. I had not told her I was planning to come because I wanted it to be a surprise. The look on her face when I introduced myself was priceless. I smile every time I think about it.