Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bad Reviews are a Good Thing

I follow writer Anne Lamott on Twitter, though I'm beginning to want to stop following her, because I find her Tweets mostly self-referential and annoying.  Yesterday she was whining about Kirkus Reviews's take on her new book, Stitches, and then about a minute later was saying that most writers found a bad review from Kirkus to be a good thing, a secret sign that their book was actually brilliant.

Sorry.  I review for Kirkus.  If I give you a bad review, it's because you've written a bad book.

Bad reviews are hard for writers.  We pour ourselves into our books.   Some bad reviews are, of course, meaningless:  I read a one-star review on Amazon for Neil Gaiman's Fortunately, The Milk that complained it was a children's book.  Duh.  Read the book description before you buy it, blockhead.  I also don't feel slighted by the sort of reviews written under duress by children who were forced to read one of my books for school.  But the reviews, even on blogs, that complain that you're boring, or not very skilled, or unimaginative, or lying--boy, that last one really burns me, I always have to stifle the urge to send the reviewer a pile of my primary resources--those can hurt.

Bummer.  I'm happy I review for Kirkus, widely reputed to live up to their slogan, "The toughest book critics on earth."  Here's why:  I live in a small town.  With an excellent but small library that must use its money wisely.  My children went to an excellent but underfunded parochial school whose book-buying budget for the year was the profit made off their book fair.  Those places can't afford to buy bad books.  They simply can't.  If you're an otherwise brilliant author whose latest work was well below standard, I want that publically known, so that my librarians can make informed choices about whether or not to buy it.  Similarly, if you're completely unknown but just wrote something amazing, I want that book in my library, in my schools.

I'm sure Bristol's public library will still carry Stitches.  After all, it's written by Anne Lamott.  And stop your whining, Annie, the review wasn't that bad.  Trust me.  I've written worse.


  1. I can't give you a pass just because you have written tough reviews.

    Ritual disclaimer, Kirkus has hated the majority of my books but also occasionally starred a few. They slanged my original fairy tales, calling them slight and "bijoux". But then Sendak hated Hans Christian Andersen' stories.

    Reviews tell us as much about the reviewers as the piece reviewed. Go back in time and check on how "Moby Dick" was first reviewed, and more recently "Go the F*** to Sleep."

    In other words, reviews and reviewers are slanted, just as are the books (and the authors) they review. It's simply a part of the business. And if as a writer I believe the good reviews of my books uncritically, I had better be honest and believe the bad ones as well. (Though another two bits of honesty compel me to add that I have been a reviewer for many papers and journals,including the NY Times, Parent's Choice, Parabola, and the Washington Times among others. And I can do fifteen minutes on how much I feel "Love You Forever," "The Giving Tree", and "The Rainbow Fish" are truly terrible books.)

    Jane Yolen

    1. Oh, absolutely, reviewers are slanted--even the best ones. With luck, they (we) have a base of knowledge that lets us be a little more objective than most people, but for sure, what I consider compelling and what you consider compelling will be vastly different. I was "meh" on Gone Girl and The Help, loved the recent Longbourn. I think Criss-Cross absolutely deserved the Newbery while Kira-Kira did not; my friend Scot, an excellent librarian, thinks the opposite.

      But we are united on "Love you Forever," "The Giving Tree," and "Rainbow Fish."

      Bijoux? How arcane.


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