A few years ago, I stopped Googling myself. I also stopped reading all reader reviews and tried to be steely about professional ones. The distinction is not one of quality, but of context. Professional critics tend to have a clear set of standards, whatever they are, whereas readers are trickier to read, if you will. Especially since readers started giving negative reviews based on the cost of digital books. (And by the way, I count a lot of unpaid bloggers in the “professional” camp because their work is so well-known to me.)
Bad reviews hurt. There, I’ve said it. They hurt much in the same way that a banged elbow or shin hurts – quickly, searingly, out of proportion to the actual injury. It’s amazing how intense the pain is at the moment, more amazing how quickly it fades. When was the last time you hit your elbow? If it wasn’t within the last 24 hours, I doubt you can remember it, much less work up a rage about it.
Recently, I read this, a remarkably even-handed piece about reading one’s negative reviews, which I found out because I stalk this clever boy on Twitter. (I guess the official nomenclature is “follow.” But when one is on Twitter only to follow, never tweet, it seems more like stalking, no?) Still, I was not persuaded. The problem with reviews, good and bad, is that they seldom offer constructive insight into one’s work. You loved it, you hated it, you think my author photo is wildly flattering – what am I to do with this information beyond bask/sulk/examine pores in harsh fluorescent glare of an Arizona hotel bathroom?
Then a Facebook thread about books prompted someone to tell me they had read one of my books because of this review. Because of the source – I have a lot of respect for the AV Club – I clicked through. I’m sure I read it five years ago, but I had no memory of it.
The review features two mild criticisms. The first is easier to address: Yes, Kevin Infante’s “journey,” if you will, is pretty inconsequential compared to what happens to the parents of this missing sisters. He goes from waking up with a college student he can’t quite remember bedding to letting a potential conquest flit away while he talks to an older, somewhat plain woman with whom he has a shared experience, one that is much more powerful and memorable to her than it will ever be to him. And that’s it. When I wrote What the Dead Know, I didn’t want this character to fall in love with the mysterious woman at the center of the story. I think people in books fall in love too much, and too easily. Except, perhaps, romance novels. (I’m deadly serious about that.) Raymond Chandler told writers bogged down in the plot to send a man through the door with a gun, but I feel that a lot of narratives, especially in television, just throw random couples together. I don’t care how beautiful or mysterious a woman is, or even vulnerable. If she’s keeping a detective from closing a case, he’s not going to like her very much.
The second criticism, that the ending was less resonant than the rest of the book, was tougher to contemplate. Who would ever want to write an ending that was less than resonant? All I can say on this score is that I have been trying, over the years, to write very gentle endings on a human scale. It occurs to me now that three of my last four books Life Sentences, I’d Know You Anywhere and this summer’s book, And When She Was Good, all end with a woman in her own home, facing down the idea of what it means to be home and whether it’s a sanctuary. We are supposed to be safe in our homes — I’m obsessed with the phrase “safe as houses” — but are we? Are women safe anywhere? Is anyone safe anywhere?
What the Dead Know ends with a woman finding power in her own name, something that has been denied to her for much of her life. Could it be more vivid, more resonant? Possibly. But I wouldn’t change it, in part because this is the book I wrote in 2006 and it’s a record of who I was that year, as a writer and a person.
Endings are tough for those of us who come from a newspaper background. We labored over our ledes, aware that the endings could be sliced from the story in the composing room. Literally sliced, in those days, cut with a razor if the column inches had been miscalculated. It was risky to love your own kicker in such an environment. But I do labor over them now and I do my best. One of the puzzlements of the reviews for The Most Dangerous Thing (2011) was the observation, made by at least two critics, that they didn’t know what “the most dangerous thing.” This would seem to suggest they a) did not read the last line of the novel or b) were not persuaded by it.
I like the last line of my new novel, which pretty much sums up the book for me. Just give me five years to come back to the inevitable criticisms and learn from them, OK?
P.S. I wrote this earlier this week, then put it aside, in part because WordPress, while remarkably easy to use, is also remarkably slow. Last night I found out that And When She Was Goodhad received a starred review in Booklist. To quote Donna Seaman, in part: “Lippman, so smart, clearsighted, and polished and yet so intense, surveys the intersection of perpetual misogyny and the criminality of sex work in this psychologically astute, diabolically witty, and stylishly righteous tale of atrocities and revenge.”
How to read a good review — that’s a topic for another day, one in which I explain why I currently give only five stars on Goodreads.