Reviews, Aagh, the Anguish and the Joy

The YA world has been abuzz with authors responding to reviewers and reviewers responding back and people have been talking about whether that’s appropriate or not. I’ve found it fascinating. Getting critiqued is a tough part of any artist’s life and it runs counter to the flow that’s required for a rich, creative life. However, reviews help readers sort out which books they might like to read and they help budget-conscious libraries decided which books to buy.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been receiving the first reviews of my writing life. My debut novel, TRAFFICKED, comes out on February 16, 2012. I have other writer friends who have gone through this before me. I’ve been warned: don’t take the reviews seriously, don’t get obsessed and check Goodreads every day, don’t even read the reviews, they’ll just bum you out.

I have actually taken these warnings to heart. I believe in protecting and nurturing your creative spirit. It’s hard to create something original and startling and real from a place of insecurity and fear. Before any reviews came, I had, in fact, decided that all reviews would probably be negative and that was just fine with me. If I knew for sure a review was terrible, I wouldn’t read it. But if it was mixed, I’d read it, because I can’t resist this sort of thing, and I’d try to learn from it. I’ve been in a lot of writing groups and often people have given me constructive feedback, which I always receive pretty well, so I figured I’d read the reviews from that mindset, as if I were hearing feedback in a writing group. I’d be interested, but distanced, not sucking every negative word into the core of my being.

But when my editor, Kendra Levin, wrote “Congratulations!” along with my first review from Kirkus, one of the toughest reviewers in the business, I read it with a feverish intensity, sitting parked in the car, with my seven-year-old daughter waiting patiently in the backseat. To her, I was just messing around on my phone. To me, it was the pinnacle of my entire writing career. Here it is:

“Before her parents died in a terrorist bombing, Hannah was an ordinary Moldovan teen, dreaming of becoming a doctor. Now she sells carrot salad in the market and watches her future recede while her peers plan for college.
Offered a way out—false documents and a high-paying job as a nanny in California—Hannah accepts. Her terrifying journey nets her unpaid slavery as nanny and housekeeper in a house she’s forbidden to leave. Her room is a windowless garage without privacy; her letters home are stolen. Smart yet naive, crushed yet resilient, nearly but not entirely powerless, Hannah grows attached to the children. But their mother abuses Hannah, and their father and his predatory associate stalk her. She finds some consolation watching the boy next door; he’s her age, but they live in utterly different worlds. Hannah’s world, in which men have the power and freedom to treat her body as their property, where any small kindness is expected to be returned in sexual currency, is chillingly credible and unflinchingly revealed. Halfway through this debut, a distracting, melodramatic subplot featuring complicated political intrigue is introduced, but Hannah herself, compelling and believable, keeps readers focused on her plight and that of other de facto slaves worldwide.
After this, readers won’t find them so easy to ignore: One could be the nanny next door. (Fiction. 12 & up)”

Chillingly credible! Unflinchingly revealed! Compelling and believable! I burst into tears as I finished reading it. I didn’t expect to burst into tears. It just happened and quite honestly, it shocked me. I thought I didn’t care. Really. My daughter asked, “Mommy, what’s wrong?” I said, “Honey, nothing’s wrong. Mommy’s just happy. I got a good review. I actually got a good review.”

I had expected the novel to do well commercially because everyone who’s read it has told me they couldn’t put it down, but I thought that it would be compared to SOLD, which I consider a literary masterpiece, and I thought it would be slammed critically. And it wasn’t. I was joyous. It was only the first review, I told myself; others would be more critical. But I got one good review. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t starred. But it was pretty darn good. That was all I needed, I guess, a kind of validation that my years of hard work had been recognized. My struggles to master my craft and to tell a real story based on real people I knew had not gone unrewarded. Hannah, my girl, had been heard.

Since this big moment, the School Library Journal review has showed up on Goodreads. It’s also a good review. I have let out a slow and steady breath of relief, though I know more reviews will surely come, some bad, some good. I know some people will love the book and some won’t. That’s just how we are. We don’t all love the same thing. I have many friends whom I adore who just do not like everything I like. Sometimes they hate the things I love. Like chocolate chip with raisin cookies. I think they’re awesome, but some people just do not approve of the combo of these two flavors. That’s the beautiful thing about a library or a bookstore. It’s like a huge plate of different types of cookies and we all get to choose what we like. I do hope most people like TRAFFICKED. I hope that my readers are both carried away from the difficulties of their own lives as they read Hannah’s story and that they become aware of a hidden and yet surprisingly common tragedy in the western world and America. I hope they like my combo of chocolate and raisins. But it’s out my hands. And so I’ll take the bad with the good, try to smile throughout, and most of all, keep writing.

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