I am one of those people who, when handed lemons, makes lemonade.
|Hot novelist Lisa Lenard-Cook was naturally nervous about the first reviews for her first novel, Dissonance|
No, wait, not lemonade, lemon cake. Or, better still, those lemon bars — you know, the ones with the confectioner’s sugar sprinkled on top that melt in your mouth? Or… well, never mind.
Despite this inherent optimism, I was naturally nervous about the first reviews for my first novel, Dissonance. Sure, it had won a prize in manuscript, and yes, it had gotten some fine pre-publication blurbs. But, my agent assured me, “It’s those first reviews that really matter.”
Which meant, if those were less than stellar, my book would soon be found amongst the other orphans on the remainder tables I myself love to frequent because (let’s face it) most writers can’t afford to pay full price for all the books they read.
After an interminable wait of two weeks, my first review appeared in Library Journal. Here’s an excerpt: “Despite a formulaic ending, this gem of a debut novel… Hold on, hold on! Formulaic ending? That ending was an unexpected gift. It wasn’t at all what I expected, but when it arrived, it was as delightful as finding a satisfying conclusion at the end of someone else’s novel. Formulaic? You just try writing a novel, Madame Librarian.
Then Lemon Bar Voice stepped in. (One of the lovely things about being a novelist is how many voices coexist in your head. If you weren’t writing novels, you’d be giving Sybil a run for her money). “A gem of a debut novel,” said Lemon Bar Voice. “What a great blurb!” Lemon Bar Voice was right, of course, and the marketing department made sure that quote got right onto those promo postcards that were about to be printed.
The next review (other than those my friends and relatives, bless them, had written online at amazon.com and Barnes & Noble) appeared in the Sunday edition of the Albuquerque Journal (my first bookstore event would be in Albuquerque the next evening). Here’s an excerpt:
“Despite occasional lapses in grammar, such as ‘shrunk’ for ‘shrank’ this spare, well-written novel deserves an audience.” Shrunk for shrank? Wait — hadn’t my production editor and I discussed that very issue? Man, was she gonna be pissed!
Then I checked the byline. When I saw that the reviewer was a copy editor, the reference made perfect sense. After all, aren’t we admonished to “write what we know?” Of course a copy editor would focus on grammar, no matter how much the writer may have tried to change the world with prose.
Sufficiently reassured, I decided to read the review again. This time, I saw what came after the finger-wagging: “This spare, well-written novel deserves an audience.”
Now that’s a nice blurb, isn’t it? Too late for the postcards, but not for the always-in-revision press packet. And later the same day, a friend who works for the paper explained that copy editors don’t even get paid for their reviews; they toil for the byline. What writer wouldn’t empathize with that?
The same morning I read the copy editor’s review (now there’s a great title…), an op-ed by Clive James appeared in the New York Times, entitled, appropriately enough, The Good of A Bad Review.
Now, James was referring to really bad reviews, such as Dale Peck’s impaling of Rick Bragg in The New Republic. What was my (supposed) grammatical lapse compared to being called “the worst writer of his generation,” as Peck had christened Bragg?
But James’ main point was also well-taken, that “snarky” reviews (credit for this term goes to Heidi Julavits) often result in an effect contrary to the reviewer’s intent. Rather than discourage readers from buying the book, they instead make the reviewer look like the moustache-twirling villain and the author the humble working class hero that he (we!) is.
Plus, snarky reviews often sell more books. Hey, thanks, Madame Librarian! And thank you, Ms. Copyeditor!
Not only was it gratifying to read James’s essay a few minutes after reading my own snarky review, it gave me a certain perspective. By the time we’d finished breakfast, I couldn’t remember if I’d supposedly used shrunk for shrank or shrank for shrunk. The Shrank/Shrunk Review, I’d begun to call it.
Now there’s a great title…
Read an excerpt from Lisa Lenard-Cook's Dissonance.
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, 2003), which won the Jim Sagel Prize for the Novel in manuscript, has gone on (despite the copy editor’s review) to be short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award. In addition, it is a selection of NPR Performance Today’s Summer Reading Series and was the 2004 countywide reading choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. Her second novel, Coyote Morning (UNM Press, 2004), was, like, Dissonance, a Southwest Book of the Year. Her website is www.lisalenardcook.com