Sunday, March 13, 2011

Should Writers Read Reviews of their Work?

At a reading in early March, Timothy Taylor (The Blue Light Project) was telling me about Mavis Gallant’s practice of never reading reviews of her own work. Her argument, it seems, was that if you are going to put stock in reviews and allow yourself to be elated by the positive ones, you have to also take to heart the negative ones. The thing to do is not read any.
Easier said than done, especially in the Google Age.  
But negative and positive aren't the same as good and bad. Bad: the Foamy Piece (works itself into a lather of praise without really considering the text). Also bad: the Review Formerly Known as Plot Summary. Good: the judicious, thoughtful, well-written critique, whether or not you agree with it.
Still, it’s not easy to read a negative review of your work. What if it clobbers you over the head? Knocks the pen out of your hand and pokes you in the eye with it? It's hard to write with a pen in your eye.

An editor suggested reading only reviews selected by my publicist, but added, glumly, that some helpful friend or family member would be sure to draw my attention to any negative review I missed.  Another friend suggested reading every review and posting them all to Facebook.
I came home thinking about praise and criticism and the Buddhist practice of equanimity. What good does Buddhist practice do if you don’t actually...practice it? So I decided to ride the waves: read all reviews and attempt equanimity.
 Last week, a mixed review of Every Time We Say Goodbye appeared in the National Post: .

Following my "Ride the Waves" policy, I immediately posted it on Facebook. Within three minutes, a colleague began to read the negative lines out loud to me.  When I said the review was very well-written and balanced (i.e. the reviewer had also praised the book), my helpful colleague informed me of a study showing how, when bad news is sugar-coated with good news, people miss the bad news. 
It was a good moment to practice equanimity.  And I'm sure there are plenty more opportunities ahead. 

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