Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reviews: Don't take them for granted

For an author, getting reviewed is not something to be taken for granted. Perhaps if you are published by a big-name publisher and have a great agent - but even then, review space is tight. If you write short stories, if you're published by a small press, unless you do the legwork you may not be reviewed at all, one of the reasons I set up The Short Review. So I am always thrilled when someone chooses to review my book, as Matt Bell and Sally Zigmond have done in the past two weeks. I know how much time it takes to read a book, think about it and then formulate your thoughts into something coherent, so the least I can do is give them a shout here.

What is also wonderful about reviews, as I am learning, is that everyone likes something different. For example, Matt Bell says:
"it's in the longer stories that Hershman's very fine gifts as a storyteller are most obvious. There are certainly exceptions to this observation--one of the strongest stories in the collection is the two-page "Exchange Rate," about a woman only a few pounds of flesh away from what she wants most--but too often the shorter pieces felt like they lacked the length to consistently rise about the admitted cleverness of their concepts."

Sally Zigmond, on the other hand, in a blog post entitled "A Series of Blinding Flashes," says:
"As I now read more novels than short stories, I had expected to prefer the longer stories in this collection to the flash fiction (as some reviewers have) but to me the longer ones were either too long or too short--not quite right for this Goldilocks. The flash fiction, on the other hand, I loved for its brevity, its inventiveness and its poetic quality."

Nothing could be greater for a short story writer, in my opinion, than reviewers who disagree. If everyone agreed that they liked some stories and others were, well... not enjoyable... then a writer might start trying to change what they write based on this, which is dangerous. If everyone finds something they respond to, and each responds to something different, this is exactly as it should be.

Of course, I musn't, as I have been cautioned, take reviews with more than a few pinches of salt. And the more there are, the easier that is to do. Also, the more I am immersed in current projects, the easier it is to simply appreciate the fact of being reviewed and be grateful. So thank you, Matt (whose own collection, How The Broken Lead the Blind, has just begun shipping) and Sally, both of whom regularly review books. We greatly appreciate what you do.


Niki M said...

I've had all the experiences. A book that was reviewed everywhere, then one that seemed to be ignored, until it came out in paperback when it got lots of reviews again. They usually disagree, even when they're positive about your book, and some reviewers pick up on stuff you never even put there. All good. Getting word out is so important. Well done on all of it, especially the Orange Prize mention. Woop!

amjoy said...

My first book, attracted several reviews.For the most part they were really kind and favourable, if quite different from each other. (This is something I've also noticed in editors rejection letters: one will say they didn't feel the characters were convincing, another will love the characters but find the novel lacking pace - and so it goes on...)
What is really difficult though is, if like me you have a truly awful review which absolutly trashes you work. This happened to me when The Financial Times reviewed my first book (a friend (!) arranged this for me.) It was a very very destructive review and it really hurt. I dealt with it by refusing to revisit it and ultimately rejecting it, and my publishers dealt with it by very cleverly lifting a single strap line which they still use. I just want to say to anyone who gets such a review do not believe it - accept all kind of commentary on your work and relish the differences but do not allow someone who finds nothing good to say about your novel to undermine you. They really don't deserve that much of your time and consideration.


Tania Hershman said...

Niki, it certainly is an interesting process, seeing what reviewers pick up on etc... As long as we can get a little distance, eh?

Avril, so sorry to hear about the FT review, that is appalling. As the editor of a journal that reviews books, I don't believe in ever trashing someone's book. Fair and balanced, honest reviews, no more and no less. You must have been very hurt. Good for your publishers for flipping it around.