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Cilantro and Werewolves: Advice to Authors on Bad Reviews

October 7, 2013

Whenever I launch a book I feel transformed, like a crab that's just shed its shell. My two-fold feeling is: "I'm growing! I feel softer, and the world feels so close! People will read what I wrote and finally know the world I've been living in for years!" combined with "Oh, man, this is the point where the seagulls swarm and eat me."

 

*Sorrow's Knot* doesn't have any bad reviews yet. I'm sure it will get some, because all books do. When it does, I will try to keep two things in mind.

 

First: Cilantro

 

Cilantro, if you don't know, is a fresh herb. I love it. I put it in salsa and pico de gallo and ceviche. (No, autocorrect, not chemise. I do have my limits.) I put it in chimicurri sauce and then I put chimichurri sauce on EVERYTHING. My friend L, on the other hand, insists that it would be simpler to just add soap shavings to my food. "They're cheaper," she says, "and taste about the same."

 

Our different perceptions of cilantro might be biological, or might simply be one of those differences in taste for which there is, famously, no accounting. And, keep in mind, it's just an herb. It's not that complicated. Books, now, books are complicated. No book reaches everyone. In fact, it may be that if a book reaches some people particularly and deeply, it will also put some people -- a lot of people -- off. That's a sign of it being cilantro and not, say, corn syrup. It's okay. Nod and move on.

 

(This is not an original metaphor, but I can't track down where I heard it. Does anyone know?)

 

Second, Werewolves. 

 

This illuminating metaphor was introduced to me by <a href="http://emilykatejohnston.wordpress.com/">E.K Johnson,</a> author of the forthcoming Story of Owen. She's a bookseller, and blogger, and avid reader of reviews, and recounts the many, many reviews that go something like this:

 

This biography of Woodrow Wilson is impeccably researched and beautifully written, and provides a vital new window into the origin of the United Nations. Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough werewolves.

 

Readers inevitably bring their own agenda to books. If the book fails to meet their agenda, they will sometimes dislike it on those grounds. This is fine for readers but kind of a no-no for professional reviewers -- yet it still happens. May books are slammed for not being the book the reader wishes they were.

 

This is for me the more baffling and hurtful kind of review -- to which my reaction is "wait, werewolves"? Little soft-shell me feels misunderstood and unread, and in a real sense that's true. But -- here is what I remind myself -- it is not a reflection on the book. Right? I remember werewolves and try to laugh.

 

Or, you could not read your reviews.

Who are you kidding, really?

 

I know lots of writers who don't read reviews, or claim not to. They might be healthier in the long run. I always do, because, how could you not? We do want to know we're being read (because of the closer to the world thing, above) and this is basically the only evidence of it. I love to hear from readers, and sometimes a heartfelt blog review is all it takes to make my week. It suddenly all feels worth it.

 

Not to mention, I have learned things from reviews -- I have had habits pointed out to me, and found things I will do differently in the future, and things I will do again if I get the chance. Specifically, I've learned all books should have talking cats in them, but that's kind of another story.

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