Today I am THRILLED, EXCITED AND HONORED (can you tell I’m excited) to welcome the world renowned author, Lisa See, as a guest poster. Lisa is the acclaimed author of one of my favorite books, Shanghai Girls and the newly released sequel, Dreams of Joy. My review of Shanghai Girls is here and my review of Dreams of Joy is here.
This guest post was fascinating to me- how can an author of this caliber worry about reviews? Lisa, please write another book SOON.
Here is Lisa See:
My new novel, Dreams of Joy, just received the most incredible, stunning, and awesome review in the Los Angeles Times. I believe it’s the absolute best review I’ve ever received. I’m ecstatic, of course. But I’m also a bit mad at myself, because just last year I promised myself I’d never again read another review of one of my books. So, reviews… Are they good or bad to read? Can they help us or hurt us as writers? Should we read them or not?
My husband, mother, and sister screen reviews for me. “Don’t read that New York Times review. It will upset you,” my husband might say. Or my sister will blurt, “That reviewer doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Did she even read the book?” My mom, because she’s my mom and loves me very much, will get so irate that I can’t even write the things she says. Even so, plenty of people call or write to say what a shame it is I got such a terrible review. (It’s a weird thing, but you never hear from friends when you get a good review, but they sure love to tell you about the bad reviews.) So I always hear little drips and drabs of the bad reviews, and they make me wonder. For example, how could a novel about bound-footed women in ancient China be an example of genre fiction? What “genre” is that exactly? Or what about being classified as “summer chick lit”? Things like this have been known to set me to brooding.
Sometimes criticisms are very specific. Janet Maslin, in her review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, apparently made a negative comment about the uncle having a long hair in his eyebrow, pointing this out as a tired cliché. Actually, it’s a sign of wisdom in Chinese culture and those long eyebrow hairs are carefully cultivated. Maybe a long eyebrow hair is a cliché in Ms. Maslin’s world, but it certainly wasn’t in the time and place I was writing about. Still, for years I’ve spoken—out loud in the room where I’m working—to Janet Maslin as I’ve written something that I’ve imagined she might not like and tried to explain it to her so she’ll understand the context. And I have to admit that sometimes I’ve even written something and said, again, out loud and to myself, “Take that, Janet Maslin!” Because I’m not a terribly mature person. What writer is?
On the other hand, how seriously can a writer take a good review, even a rave like the one Susan Salter Reynolds just wrote about Dreams of Joy? Does that review suddenly make me a good writer? Should I go along with all the glowing words or would I be better off paying attention to the criticisms? Here’s what I’ve decided: either way I have to try to ignore anything that’s written or said about my work. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a true believer in criticism from people I trust and who are knowledgeable about the topics I write about. I absolutely listen to those folks. But if I obeyed the criticism of some random reviewer who may or may not understand what I’m trying to do with my work, may not like my style in the same way that I personally might not like someone else’s writing style, and has no connection or knowledge about the history I’m writing about, then I’m really doing a disservice to myself and my readers to pay attention to that critic. But I also can’t let a good review go to my head, encourage me to “rest on my laurels,” or even tempt me to ignore those people who I trust to tell me what doesn’t work in a text.
The story, the characters, the emotions, and the voice of a novel must always come first. I have to be true to those things before anything else. This means, I suppose, being true to myself, my voice, my vision. I’m not a perfect writer. I feel as though I’m learning all the time. And I’m a far harsher critic of my own work than anyone else ever could be. You should hear the things I say to myself when I’m writing. You should read the bad reviews I write in my head. All that said, it would be a mistake to let a reviewer—good, bad, or indifferent—influence my writing.
So… I promised myself I wouldn’t read any more reviews. I’ve already broken that promise, but I’m happy I did, because what fun it was to read a review by someone who really gets what I’m trying to do with my work and was far clearer about the plot that I could ever be. But tomorrow, I swear, no more reviews! Until the next one, which I guess I’ll have to peek at because I just can’t help myself.
What are you reading and where are you going?