A fellow Dreamspinner author, Helen Pattskyn (“Heart’s Home“), recently took up a fascinating project: to review several books as a means to becoming a better writer. I totally agree with the premise, although I freely admit that it scares me to death that my recent release, “Blue Notes,” is one of the books on her list! Which got me to thinking about reviews, in general, and the uneasy relationship writers have with them. Do writers read reviews? You bet. Do they take them to heart? Probably more than you’d guess. But then what?
I once made the mistake of responding to a review. Well, sort of. I knew better than to challenge a reviewer’s opinion. In fact, I took a good deal of what this reviewer said to heart. So I decided to let her know that, in the reissued release of that book, I had made changes as a result of her criticism. I figured she’d be pleased to hear that authors do really listen to their readers. Bad idea. I got a relatively terse response to the effect that she “had read the revised version of the book and found it still lacking.” After kicking myself (several times, mind you!) for having attempted the contact, I filed the experience away under “lessons learned” and promptly tried to forget about it.
So when my latest book, “Blue Notes,” was released a few weeks ago, I vowed to take what I could learn from reviewers and “move on” to the next project without sweating the what-could-have-beens. Not such an easy thing to do. Don’t let anyone fool you: writers do care what reviewers have to say about their works. Some are better than others at letting go of criticism (and praise), but none of us are completely immune to the sting of a “bad” review or the warm fuzzy we get with a “good” review. How am I doing at the letting go part? It depends on the day.
I recently mentioned to my husband that I was filing away some of the reviewers’ comments for “Blue Notes” and using them to craft my current WIP. I also mentioned my interaction with the reviewer on that previous book, and my disappointment with her response. He said something that blew me away: that readers see any work of art as a static, unchanging thing, and that art is held to a higher standard. An ideal. A snapshot in time that shouldn’t be tampered with, regardless of its flaws.
My first response was to say that my books aren’t “art.” But I realize that’s not true. All books are artistic, human creations, regardless of whether they are a “fun read” or deserving of a Pulitzer Prize. By implying that art can change, my husband argued, you take away some of the mystery of artistic creation. That’s not to say that writers don’t issue later editions of works that differ from the original. Stephen King’s, “The Stand,” comes to mind as an example. But how many readers who didn’t like “The Stand” went back to read the “author’s cut” version? I’m guessing very few. I’d bet that most readers of the new version were like me—diehard fans of the original who wanted to read the book again.
King received a lot of criticism for reworking the novel, by the way, and many of the reviews of the new version were downright scathing. Why? I’d argue, at least in part, that it’s because King dared to tamper with the original creation, and not necessarily because the revised version was less praiseworthy than the original.
So where does this leave the writer? Back to square one: moving on to the next creation with an eye to becoming a better writer. So will I smile when I read a review full of praise? Definitely. Will I cringe the next time I get a critical review? Yep. No doubt about it. Then I’ll take a deep breath and look at the review and what I can learn from it. And I’ll move on.