Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Unkindest Review Anne Cassidy

Twenty years ago, before I was published I spent two years writing an adult book. I was a great fan of ‘Hill Street Blues’ at the time and structured my book in a similar way. It was a complete day in a secondary school and involved the lives and loves of a group of teachers. (No need to guess what my job was at the time). It had a host of main characters and a number of intersecting story lines. It was big, baggy and never to be published but I learned a lot from doing it.

After several rejections I began to realise that the returned ms looked as though it had hardly been touched and therein, I thought, lay the problem. Editors clearly found the first few pages dull. If only they could persevere, I thought, they would see what a terrific novel they had on their hands.

Someone suggested that I send the novel to a professional ‘reader’. This would be someone who had experience in the business and who could give me objective advice on what was good/bad about the novel. This seemed like a good idea to me and I duly paid my fee and send off my ms along with return postage.

Then I waited.

If I’m honest those days of waiting were some of the most exciting days I spent. Like in the early days of the lottery when I bought a one pound ticket and spent hours working out what I would do with the winning millions.

I waited.

I pictured this ‘reader’ discovering my novel. She would read it through with a growing realisation that here was something really good. She would recognise the few odd things that needed to be improved (the beginning, certainly – I accepted that). She would talk to friends in the business about this first novel by an unknown but promising author. She might even know an agent and give them the heads up on this new talent. Finally someone would actually read my novel through to page 296 and gasp with admiration and it wouldn’t be long before I had an agent and a publisher.

Then one day the postman handed me the returned ms. My hands shook as I opened the package. On the top of my book was a seven page letter. It started with the words,

This is no better or worst than any other first novel I have read.

I read the sentence over several times. What did it mean? Then I read the next paragraph which informed me that if I wanted to read the positive comments about my novel I should turn to page seven of the letter. I did and read the positive paragraph. Then I went back and read eight torturous pages which tore my novel to shreds comparing it (unfavourably) to Dickens. Perhaps the embarrassing criticism was that my sex scenes were like a cross between Mills and Boon and Masters and Johnson.

I tore the seven page letter into shreds. I cried.

Later my husband picked up all the pieces and put them in an envelope and stuck it down and put it away in the bottom drawer of my desk. He told me to keep it until the day I published my first book and then read it again.

Years later my first book was published (1990). I held a copy in my hand and decided to get the envelope out of my bottom drawer and reread the letter. It took me an hour and lot of sellotape to stick it back together. Then, with the confidence of a newly published author, I sat back and read the whole seven pages again. I cried again. I tore it up again (harder this time because of the sellotape). I threw it away. Again.

This time my husband did not retrieve it.


Nicola Morgan said...

Lovely story, Anne! Since I'm about to start a literary consultancy of my own (pen2publication) to give constructive feedback and advice to aspiring authors and since I had my fair share of grim rejection letters in the past, I will never forget the desperation for someone to tell me I was brilliant and the horrible gut-tearing feeling of being told I wasn't NEARLY brilliant enough.

Anna Wilson said...

Thank heavens for supportive husbands! If it weren't for mine, my first bad review would have put me off writing for life as well. The most memorable sentence in it was "Anna Wilson is to blame for the appalling text" - sadly the poor illustrator did not get off lightly either. A charming colleague, thinking the whole thing hilarious, enlarged the offending sentence on the photocopier and posted it up in the office for all to see. Luckily my husband believed in me, as yours did in you, Anne, and comments have not been so unkind since.

Katherine Langrish said...

I feel for you, Anne - and Anna. I've cried similar tears myself. It's a delicate art, criticism - and not to be undertaken lightly. I think some people get a kick out of destructive criticism - it makes them feel clever. Though we may need to know these things, how we are told makes all the difference.

Katherine Roberts said...

Ah, but you showed 'em all, Anne!

I have a file of the most inventive rejections from my pre-publication days, which I keep for when I'm feeling really blue about my writing. Reading these almost always make me feel better, because I know that despite all those harsh words, negative opinions and/or total indifference to my ideas, I got there in the end. After many years of such torture, I wrote a book that was not only published but won an award. I showed 'em, too - as did all the writers on this blog.

The tears aren't just a pre-publication thing, though. It seems you have to keep going through this process at each stage of your writing career in order to make progress... it's like some kind of trial by fire, to see how strong you are and if you can really survive being a published writer/best-selling writer/award-winning writer, or whatever else you're aiming to be. Because the tears don't go away. In my experience, they only get wilder and fiercer as time goes on. They are the tears of ambition.

Nick Green said...

I love the twist at the end there.

steeleweed said...

Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.
- Franklin P. Jones

Nick Green said...

Actually, re-reading your blog post I feel you had cause for complaint there. You paid for this reading, after all. You didn't pay for abuse (there are places in Soho for that... so I gather). No matter what a book's faults, a paid critic shouldn't resort to cheap shots like unfavourable comparisons to Dickens (!!) or the Mills & Boon line. That's not constructive.

Sounds like this reader was on an ego trip of their own, and getting paid for the privilege. You should demand a refund - with interest for the time elapsed.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post Anne and I'm going to remember your words too Kath when next time the 'wild' tears come along... as there'll always be a next time!

Anonymous said...

i felt for you when i read this. what is the point of critique if it doesn't help you get to the next level?

Linda Strachan said...

You really hit the mark there - Anne - that whole rollercoaster of emotion. It underlines how important it is that criticism is leavened with compassion. Anyone who has ever had a rejection letter knows how much the smallest remark can cut deeply. I agree with Nick that this reader was obviously enjoying being destructive.
Just think, it might have made you so miserable that you gave up writing altogether! Your husband sounds like a gem, we all need that kind of support, someone who really believes in us.
I find that whenever I am asked to comment on someone's writing it is that difficult process between being realistic (no one is helped by false praise) and not being cruel. I have often gone back to look at what I've said in an email, to make sure that I've not been unnecessarily harsh - at times it is a difficult balance.

Lee said...

Well, it's only ever one person's opinion - or even several persons'. We all know the number of rejections some really wonderful novels have received.