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January 25, 2007

American Idol Comes to the Book Review Page

American Idol Comes to the Book Review Page

by Nancy

My baby is not ugly.  PW has declared it so.

Yes, I have a new book coming out in March, so the advance reviews are starting to trickle in.  Be careful what you say to me, though, because any writer will tell you I'm in a delicate psychological state.  The slightest ill-considered word could trigger mood swings that---well, you know the hideous monster that explodes out of the guy's chest in Alien?  That could be me.

Unlike some, more disciplined Book Tarts, I'm a slug who writes only one book a year. Which means I'm usually trying to finish a manuscript at the same time reviewers start taking pot shots at the new release--the book I wrote last year (and therefore can't do anything about fixing.) So I try not to read reviews. I need to finish the new book, dammit, not spend a week whimpering under a blanket watching One Life To Live with my self-hating-funk-facilitating friend, Orville Redenbacher.        

I remember my first Publisher's Weekly review like it happened yesterday. In those days (ye gods, 17 years ago!) I subscribed to the magazine.  One bleak January day I pulled it out of the mailbox, then went inside to brew myself a cup of tea and settle down in the living room to read.  I opened the pages and there it was--without warning:  A middling review of the (I thought) semi-literary/coming-of-age/satirical novel I'd struggled for 18 months to write. Blood had poured from my forehead during the creation of that book. My marriage nearly foundered. My children avoided me unless I carried a warm pizza box. After all that agony, the reviewer's parting shot was, "This book is commercial and should appeal to genre readers."

Which, at the time, felt like a dagger to my heart.

No kidding, at the very moment those words penetrated my brain, my heart began to flop and jerk and skip and thump like a hooked haddock. I passed out on my way to dial 911. I ended up in the emergency room where my shaken doctor told me my condition was, "incompatible with life."  (The king of euphemisms!) She clapped me into the cardiac ward for three weeks until they found a cocktail of drugs that I take even today to stay alive.

I blame it all on that word, "commercial," and Publisher's Weekly.

So don't tell me reviews don't matter.  That one nearly killed me.

I cancelled my subscription.

Nowadays, things are a little different. Yes, books are professionally reviewed by trained people who---with a few exceptions--seem to enjoy books--even genres books!--and take pleasure in spreading the word about the best ones.

But we're also in the age of proliferating amateur reviewers whose opinions appear in print and online more often than the pros. Harriet Klausner, Amazon's premier reviewer, was named one of Time magazine's most influential people of the year.  Now, I appreciate Harriet because she likes my books, but honestly, sometimes she's in such a rush to get to the next review that she doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does she?  Case in point.  (Scroll down.  You'll see her review.) I mean, how about some puncutation, Harriet?  (If you want to see what happens to the author who criticizes the critic, stay tuned, right?)

Perhaps it's the American Idol influence, but a lot of amateur reviewers have discovered it's more fun to be snarky than positive.  Or factual. Even if the reviewer likes your book, you're often slapped with a witticism generated for their own gratification. These days it seems amateurs often take the words, "literary criticism" literally.  (Uh . . . no, class, it's not what you think it means.) Some have never heard of John Updike, let alone his 6 simple rules for book reviews.

Coming up with a clever putdown gives us all a shiver of pleasure, doesn't it? And posting your rapier remarks on Amazon enhances the fun. But critical thinking doesn't always enter the picture.

Even--or perhaps especially--Kirkus seems to revel in the snotty putdown. (Yes, I'm still stinging over last year's maiden-aunt "slut gris" remark, so I'm biased.) I know a lot of librarians, and none of them are particularly Simon Cowell-like. Somebody tell me, please. Does Kirkus echo the current sentiments of librarians all over the world? My books seem to go over big among library patrons. But Kirkus seems hellbent on convincing librarians my work might give their regulars the vapors. What, exactly, is the raison d'etre of that publication? Is it time for us all to rise up in revolution?

Nevermind. I'm told that's the way it is, and there's no use fighting the status quo.

My point is this: If you're a writer with a thin skin, the time has long since come for you to toughen up.  Once you step onto the public stage, you'd better have your big girl panties on. Because anyone who's ever read Winnie The Pooh thinks they have something clever to say about your life's work and they're eager to send that opinion out onto the World Wide Web like musty confetti shot from a cannon.

Reviewers make most writers crazy. And I don't need to get any more crazy than I am right now, thank you, because I'm trying to write a new book.

So don't show me my reviews.

Okay, show me the good ones. Hey, I'm human.  But no snark, please. I'm already taking a handful of beta-blockers every day.




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I have always liked Liberaces way of think about fame,critics and the like. He always said something about "LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK!"
Critics are paid to spout words, and I would like to think that is a pay that will put a roof over their heads, but the public,Now those are the ones that matter. The average person are the ones that buy your books.We are the ones that need the babies that struggle from the brains of authors. If you sell books, then you have done something good! So critics are paid, public pay,simple as that.What is wrong with commercial? It says Commercial: having popular appeal or financial gain as an object:as in commercial novel. Websters dictionary. Dont let the word worry you, the public love you.

Amen, SusanCo.

All country music fans can appreciate the sentiments in Toby Keith's "The Critic". Nancy - if you haven't heard it, let me know.

I don't watch American Idol - yes, I know I'm only one of three people alive today who doesn't, apparently - I just don't like to see regular people in embarassing situations. I know they asked for it, but it's just too uncomfortable for me to watch.

I did enjoy the clips of Paula's interviews a week or so ago. If she wasn't actively on something, that was one hell of a night before, because she was still hammered.

Nancy, you know the saying, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." In this case, maybe someone should say "Those who can't write, critique."

I was a librarian. My sister was a librarian. My Aunt Claudette was a librarian. So was my Aunt Jenny and my cousin Jennifer. Both of my sons were library aides. It's genetic. We have the library gene. And I can tell you that none of us get the vapors when a character like Nora gets a little action.

Maybe the reviewers at Kirkus need more action? Just a thought. *sticks out tongue*

Nancy wrote: Perhaps it's the American Idol influence, but a lot of amateur reviewers have discovered it's more fun to be snarky than positive. Or factual. Even if the reviewer likes your book, you're often slapped with a witticism generated for their own gratification.
Nancy, I blame this solely on AOL's marketing blitz back in the 90's. When I first got on the Internet, it could take an entire day to get the configuration right, tweak connection speed, etc. Point being, a user had to be above average in intelligence and thought processes to even log on. The Net was a much nicer place then, filled with smart, respectful, intelligent, witty people who were fascinated by this new technology. Then came AOL...and any slapjack fool with a modem could connect and do or say as they pleased. There's a lot of bravery in anonymity, and many many many users reveled in that, saying things online they would not dare dream of saying in real life. Rudeness became the order of the day, and you nailed it perfectly when you said it was for their own amusement.

Just remember one thing, dear: Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach. Those who cannot teach, criticize.

As Wiley Mitchell once said, "I don't think we should sit placidly by and let the gnomes of the world run over us without expressing indignation." But a thick skin will be to your advantage regardless ;)


My wife and I would be those other two people. I believe that I have watched That Show (cf: "that woman") less than 30 seconds over the entire however-many-year run.

I think that giving bad reviews on the Internet is analogous to being mean while driving your car. You are insulated from personal interaction, and it is much easier to be primally mean when there is no personal consequence.

Off to an all-day off-site meeting. Only 84 minutes to go the nine miles from exit 339 to exit 330, according to the local radio station's website.

Oh, for heaven's sake, Nancy. Who read Kirkus?

Anyway, your books are a treat. I remember Romantic Times (oh, boy, do I) when fan after fan came up, clutching your books totally in love with you. You're a hit and you know it, girl, and I wouldn't be surprised to read your name on the MAJOR bestseller lists this time - seeing as how you're a bestseller already.

I do sympathize with your view about critics. My first Kirkus review (they've since been nicer to me) was so bad, I threw it in the fire without reading it. Haven't read it yet! (Was forewarned by editor.) Entertainment Weekly trashed the Cinderella Pact and, from what I could tell, hadn't gotten farther than the flap copy. (They appeared to suffer from the Rapier Wit disease, too.) And don't even get me started on Amazon. Though, as Elvis Costello said, I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.

On the other hand, there have been great reviews and I've wanted to hunt down the reviewers and give them a great big hug. Reading tastes are subjective and we readers know that.

I know this one's going to be a huge success!

Harriet Klausner? Pops up on bn.com every time I check out a new author or title! As a reader who just recently wrote a review or two for Crimespree (have no idea whether they'll appear), I was told to 'keep it short, keep it clear.' Maybe Ms.Klausner needs someone to send her that on a plaque.
Nothing bothers me more than a reviewer giving away the story, and she seems to think that is the way to go. I'd rather be surprised. :o) I always figured Kirkus was geared to buyers (as in regional not the general public) anyway. As a bookseller, I get reviews from the customers...and they're the ones who buy the books.I'm sure they trust word of mouth more than they do Harriet!
Let me know when it comes out...I'll make sure we do a face out on the shelf! After I buy it of course :o)

Really interesting topic, Nancy.

I think the most interesting question from the professional writer's standpoint is whether or not reviews affect sales. Nobody seems to know the answer to that one. Publicists will tell you that even bad reviews sell books because they increase name recognition for an author. Readers are more likely to remember the name of the author than the content of the review.

Given that so many reviewers seem to favor more literary works that sell tiny numbers of copies, and that the mega-giants of the book biz seem virtually review-proof, you have to wonder whether anybody (other than authors) is even reading reviews these days.

On the other hand, an amateur review posted right under a book on Amazon seems pretty likely to affect a reader's decision, just because it's right there at the moment of purchase. I do think it's a positive development that Amazon now requires you to purchase books on Amazon and provide a real identity before they allow you to post a review. At least you know you're dealing with real people as opposed to that neighbor you pissed off who's just looking to burn you.

Surely somebody among us watches American Idol? Me, neither, but I'm just wondering. I hate squirming in sympathy for people whose hopes are so high. But then, I cry at spelling bees. Being a writer, I know about putting yourself on public display, but little kids struggling to use their wits while an audience watches and waits for their failure? Gut-wrenching. Gets me every time.

No American Idol here. And can I just say that I love my sweatshirt that says "Those who can, do. Those who can do more . . . TEACH!"

I'm just saying . . .

I don't watch it either. And where can I get one of those sweatshirts?

When we finally put together the catalog of TLC-inspired goods (the Bitch-Slap Cancer bumperstickers, the tiaras with Bitch woven in, Margie's special chocolate lollipops) I want to add a T-shirt with my new favorite slam:

Critic: Any Slapjack Fool With a Modem

By the way, according to informed high school freshmen, the current term is 'Bruced.' Used after you slam someone, as in "Oh! You have been Bruced."

Anyone else remember any of the other TLC-inspired items? I know there were more.

Well, Kathy, there's always this gem:
"You almost got it, honey, but you need to show more tit." But I think that's being reserved for a book title.

My golden TLC moments all seem to center on Mimosas and Blond Bond. Those don't work for t-shirts or bumper stickers, either, I suppose. More like my personal Fantasy Island.

I am guessing that a negative comment about a book has to be pretty close to finding out that someone doesn't like your kid. Ouch.

I would take heart in the fact that when the NY Times Top 25 list was discussed on the blog, a very small number seemed to have read any of the books. (I think it was this blog, if not, oops). There also seems to often be a gap between best seller and critical acclaim. While we all want to get the gold star, there must be some comfort in knowing that you create characters that people want to know. I am also happy that Nora and her sibs are getting some action, Kirkus be damned.

Kerry, Where did you get that t-shirt?
Nancy, As usual, today's blog is fantastic.

If it helps I love all your books and without having read your new book I already know that I love it.

Mary-Frances, I don't know you--yet--but you're my new best friend. Thanks, babycakes.

Hi Nancy,
I do not read reviews. I am not interested in what these people have to say. I have read all of your books, as well as, all of Sarah's. I am a huge fan and will buy your books and hers on the day they hit the store shelves.

I also disagree with the idiot, I'm sorry, person who claimed that any of the sisters are sluts. Since when is it a crime to have a sex life? They are all unmarried adults. I guess if your books were about brothers with healthy sex lives then it would be perfectly fine.

I am looking forward to the next book. I read the excerpt and know I am going to be laughing out loud.

Thanks for writing fun, fabulous books.

I don't watch American Idol, either. I also don't read Harriet Klausner's reviews, because they either give away too much of the plot, or they are just plain wrong. I hate Kirkus blurbs on books - they seem like they're saying something, but don't really mean anything when you think about it - too general, too vague, too many platitudes. I generally avoid all reviews except short ones that merely announce new books. I hate hearing anything about the plot of a book ahead of time, even hints from the author her or himself, although I will read excerpts from the beginning of the book, because, of course, that is the actual story, and getting a sneak preview without anyone else's judgements attached is cool! I can't wait for the next Blackbird Sisters book to come out - I love them.

The sweatshirt came from an old NPR catalog -- I don't know if it's still around. And Nancy, your books rock. I wasn't sure I needed to mention that, but on second thought, I'm sure I do :)

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