Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rhinoceros Hide

“I like criticism, but it must be my way.”
Mark Twain

Yesterday was the first day of moose hunting season in Maine. As our family drove home from the western mountains where we had hiked amid idyllic foliage, we passed pickups from which giant moose racks poked from the back. In one parking lot, a moose hung from a hook, over a giant scale, surrounded by a posse of men and boys splashed in the blaze orange of vests and hats.

In addition to wondering about my own stupidity for hiking during hunting season, I felt a kinship with those moose. In my world, with a new novel set to launch in March, it’s the start of the reviewing season. Only instead of hunters toting guns, I’m in the crosshairs of critics. My publisher has just shipped the ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies, a.k.a. galleys, a.k.a. bound paperbacks still containing typos) of the novel to reviewers, and before long the all-powerful-opinionated horde will take aim at my baby.

Why would a sane person subject herself to this? Better to pin a sign on my back that reads “Kick Me” and walk down a middle school hallway. Or walk into an Irish pub in Boston wearing a Yankees hat. Either would be quicker, and less painful.

The simple answer to this question is: I don’t have a choice. Publishers do this because they believe they publish good books, which will get good reviews, which will result in $$$ for all concerned. This is, after all, a business.

Of course, reviewers don’t see themselves as members of some publishing house’s publicity staff. They see themselves as arbiters of taste and culture. Rendering a “service” to readers. Separating the wheat from the chaff.

Picking winners and losers, more like. Anointing and condemning. Caesar in the coliseum, deciding: “Thumbs up? Or thumbs down?”


Like most writers, I love reading good reviews of my work. I bask in the sunshine of critics' compliments. I take them seriously, and allow myself to believe them.

And like one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, I have nothing but the utmost contempt for critics who don’t “get” my writing, and publicly display their ignorance by publishing a negative review. Twain said it best when he wrote:

“The critic's symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else's dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.”

Exactly. Keep your hands off my dung! I want to scream, when someone dares to suggest that my book is less than perfect. I mean, I know it’s less than perfect. I just want them to write that it’s a little less than perfect; not a lot less.

Of course, as a critic himself, Twain was not above eviscerating a fellow author. Granted, James Fenimore Cooper was long dead when Twain wrote "Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses," so one could argue it wasn’t a “review” but rather, “literary criticism.” Whatever. It pretty much ruins the guy. You simply can’t read The Deerslayer or Last of the Mohicans again. Not without laughing until tears roll.

I suppose, as an author, it doesn’t reflect well upon me that I find this essay, which mocks another’s work, hysterically funny, but of course, at the time Twain was redefining the canon. While wearing a humorist’s disguise. “I’m glad the old masters are all dead, and I only wish they had died sooner,” he wrote.

Here’s the thing: I don’t mind being reviewed by smart people who read carefully. Even if they don’t love my book (sob!) they might have criticism which will help me write a better book next time. The problem is when a reviewer gets major things wrong … like characters’ names and basic plot facts. That’s when you tremble, because they wield power, and power in the hands of the poorly informed is … bad.

It’s also out of my control, so: time to dress for the season. For hiking in the woods, it’s blaze orange during the next few months. Otherwise, it’s the Rhinoceros Hide coat. Because if anyone other than my mom, my best friend, or my dog reviews my book, I’m gonna need to be wearing some thick skin.

1 comment:

  1. Well, as a professional literary critic, I 100% agree with your post. When reviewers don't read carefully and get the basics wrong, it shows a lack of responsibility for their OWN work and disrespect to the the author of the text that they are reviewing as well. And the power. Yes the power can work for good or bad. I sometimes wonder why movie reviews are taken with a grain of salt but book reviews are heralded as the God-honest truth. I guess the power of print still reigns supreme.

    However, I vow to do my best to review/suggest and use good books in my class. You're on that list - as was seen by my students appreciation for one Brett McCarthy. Author's reputations still are weighed by the works they produce. I know that doesn't help in library sales however. But never forget that Harry Potter became as popular as it did not because of reviews, but because kids read it and loved it and told other kids who read it and loved it and so on.

    You keep writing and I'll keep reading. :) (Got any extra ARCs?)