The only reviews that matter.

I got two of the best reviews ever yesterday. I’ll tell you about them in a minute.

I’ve been having this long-ranging discussion over the past few weeks with a number of writers over the utility and feasibility of avoiding the reviews for new book headed on its inexorable journey into the wide world. I love this idea, and I would love to say that I am capable of such a thing. Alas, I know I am not. I am a glutton for punishment.

I read everything. Goodreads, Amazon, random blogs. I read it all. And it destroys me. And I’m trying to change that.

Here’s the thing about reviews, and this may seem counterintuitive: even the good ones hurt. In fact, the good ones hurt more. No one warned me about this. When The Mostly True Story of Jack came out, the reviews were, well, good. Really good. Way better than I expected. I had starred reviews coming out of my ears and a glowing write-up in the L.A. Times. And what I felt was nothing. No. It was worse than that. What I felt was paralyzed. I was in the middle of doing the re-write of Iron Hearted Violet, and I was utterly, utterly paralyzed. The work that I had been doing in silence, the work that I had been doing in secret, the work that I had carved out on my desk from 4am to 6am each morning before waking up my kids and sending them to school – well, it was public. And it was loud. And I felt exposed in a way that I did not expect.

And I felt suddenly thrust into a space where I couldn’t make mistakes.

And I felt suddenly that the only thing I could do at that point, the only thing, was fail.

And I felt that I no longer had the freedom to totally suck.

I take great pride in my ability and willingness to write sucky, sucky fiction. Indeed, I feel that by embracing The Suck, we are able to wrap our arms around the gooey ooze of human experience, and slowly, slowly mold it into something true, something real, something with vision, muscle and heat. 

It isn’t that the reviews took this away from me – clearly they didn’t. I did it all on my own self. I am infinitely adept at making things difficult in my life, let me tell you. And it was a dark time.

When Violet came out, the reviews were much more mixed. And while it didn’t help to ease the crushing fear of failure (that wolf at the door for most artists that never really goes away), at least it didn’t get in the way of the creation of new work. The new work continues apace. This is a good thing.

I had a conversation with a graphic designer friend of mine (Jeff Johnson of Spunk Design Machine) who told me to lighten up already. “Critics make nothing,” he told me. “The only thing that matters is art you make and the work you do. Quit worrying and make something. Then you’ll feel better.”

He was for sure right about the second bit. It’s much easier to turn off the din of reviews when you’re in the throes of a new novel. And making something new? Well, it’s satisfying. And it eases my wretched soul. So I focused on making new work, and that was good.

But he was wrong about the first bit. Critics do make something. I appreciate criticism, and as a consumer and lover of art and books and movies and whatever, I love reviews. The purpose of the critic is to pin down the experience of art – to clarify and unpack the relationship and the meaning that transpires between artist and audience. And I do think that it matters. And I do think it is something.

However.

It does nothing for the artist. It does not form new work, nor does it inform new work. It is utterly separate from the creative process – and worse! – when artists allow themselves to get caught up in any of it, they are actively subverting the creative process. And they are hurting themselves.

When people ask me for advice for their first book coming out I tell them this: “Be aware that you’ll be a crazy person for at least a year,” and “When you’re reading reviews, pretend it is for someone else’s book. And if you can, avoid it all together.”

And particularly for those of us who write children’s fiction, our reviews are written by folks who aren’t even our primary audience. I love teachers and librarians and parents with my whole heart and soul, but, in the end, it is not their opinion that matters the most to me. The only thing that matters is what the kids think.

Lately, I’ve started getting fan mail. I would get little bits from time to time – little cards given to me when I would visit a classroom, or a little note handed to me at a reading. I loved these desperately. Lately more have come by email or by mail.

Yesterday, at the elementary school where I am teaching right now, a fourth grader came up to me and said, “Um… I just wanted to say. I mean. I wanted you to know. Um. You see. I wanted to say that….” she trailed off and sighed. Finally, she just threw her arms around my waist and whispered, “I’m just so glad you’re here.”

That was a friggin’ awesome review.

The second review came by email:

Dear Kelly,

My name is Violet and I am five years old. My daddy is reading me your new book, ‘Iron Hearted Violet’. I really like the book. It’s adventurous and scary and there are so many stories in it. Violet is my favorite character.

I hope to meet you someday.

Thank you for your book,

Violet

She included a picture of herself and her dad, and they both wore pirate costumes. Which is awesome. This is how I replied:

Beloved Violet,

Thank you so much for your letter. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me. You are lucky to have a daddy who reads books to you. My daddy used to read to me, too.  I hope all those books are feeding your brain and building brand-new stories that the world has never heard before. I hope those stories are wiggling their way into your heart and hands and eyes and mouth, and that you are drawing lots of pictures and playing lots of imagination games. And I hope that one day you write those stories down and share them with the whole world.
Have a wonderful day, dear Violet. And I hope that yours is as wonderful as you have made mine.
Best wishes,
Kelly Barnhill
P.S. Your pirate costume rules! 

This is the only thing that matters. Kids reading stories. Artists making work. Hard work is good for the soul. So go out and make something already.

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12 thoughts on “The only reviews that matter.

  1. This sings. Thanks for sharing your heart and soul. It reminded me of a quote from Lady Gaga (wait for it), in an interview where she said ‘Honor your vomit’. I have that on a sticky note on my monitor (well, most of the sticky is worn off, so it’s just laying there now, kind of sad, really). Thanks for getting through the suck and not letting the reviews get you down. It’s terrifying, isn’t it? But that’s life.

  2. I also don’t worry about reviews very much either negative or positive. I do however think criticism in the form of directed constructive critiques which actually address issues with a work are very useful. The difference is that constructive criticism looks at a work dispassionately and looks for what works and what can use improvement. Reviews are often in the from of non-constructive negative complaint or positive acclaim.

    The problem with Reviews is they are usually expressed as feelings, while critiques are expressed as insights or observations disconected from emotional connection to a work. Since many (if not most) authors are emotionally connected to their writing, it is hard for them to self critique. In this case the dispassionate outside observer can help improve a work by seeing functional problems of which the author is not aware.

    The reviewer on the other hand “feels” either positively or negatively about a work, and expresses that feeling. They are usually not looking at what could be improved, or how it can be improved, but expressing their satisfaction or disatisfaction of the work as a finished product.

    My advice as an occasional author, occasional reviewer, and occasional critiquer: Learn to separate constructive comments from non-constructive comments. It is ok to beat yourself up or puff yourself up with the non-constructive material as a hobby, but only the constructive material will actually help you improve your unreleased work.

    • I think it’s important to separate critiques from reviews. Critiques are directed toward the author. Reviews, on the other hand, are directed toward the audience. They have different intentions and different purposes. When a piece is in process, it still belongs to the author. The author still shapes it, still imprints on it, and the critiques along the way inform that process. However, once a piece is in the world, it does not belong to the author anymore. Like, not at all. A published book belongs to its reader. At which point reviews are no longer useful to the author – how could it? The book isn’t theirs anymore.

      The problem with using reviews to inform current work in-process is the sheer number of it. With the professional reviews and the goodreads reviews and the blog reviews and the 140 character bits on Twitter and the notes on Facebook, each of my books has well over a thousand voices mulling over it on the internets. That is way too much to take in, and to even do so would be counterintuitive. In fact, when I sit down to create new work, I actively work to forget every review I’ve ever read (and I’m pretty successful at that, actually). The only voices that matter at this stage of the game are my crit partners, my agent, and my editor. That’s it. (and they are marvelous).

      • Where I may differ is even after a work is completed an author can learn from the audience response and still improve upon future works. First an author has to determine for whom they are writing. If they are writing for themselves, then they are in essence an audience of one, and they only have to satisfy themselves.

        However, if they are writing for the market, then learning what the market likes or doesn’t like with their work can inform the overall direction taken with subsequent works. That is why I still look for constructive commentary even in reviews which can help improve overall audience appeal. I’ve seen plenty of authors with fairly broad appeal travel down a line of more personal interest and loose a sizable segment of their audience in subsequent works. I’ve seen other authors take fairly rudementary early works with gems of story and subsequently parley their learning of audience response and experience into more polished later works.

        So the point would be how the author views their audience can determine whether reviews are of any use to an author. The problem is to not become emotionally invested in defending your work, but instead take the time to sift through the frequently loud voices seeking attention (positive or negative) for any insights which can be used for future improvement on other projects. It can be unfortunately tempting to just react to the most ardent responses, but sometimes the more thoughtful quiet responses are more useful.

  3. The reward of reaching someone’s soul with your work, seeing and hearing their response of surprise and joy, is like nothing else in the world. It can make all the pain worth it; I used to try to be humble and deprecating. I’ve learned to reflect their joy and tell them how happy I am for sharing their feelings.

    • One thing I always try to tell my students is this: “A book is not just a book – a book is a conversation.” And I stand by that. The author sets up the conversation – puts up the pillars and the beams, but the conversation is between the book *itself* and the reader – not between the author and the reader. Because, while the author provides the tools and materials for constructing the story, the actual *work* of story construction happens in the mind of the *reader*, not the writer. And the writer is – and should remain – absent. When I have a kid who really enjoyed my book, I do my best to reflect that joy back at them, because they built it, you know?

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