Monday, 28 May 2018

Do you read the reviews? - Clementine Beauvais

The other day I was talking to a major French children's author, the kind of veteran not just I, but my parents, read as a child - and I listened in bewilderment as he told me in the most natural tone that he googles himself everyday. And reads all the goodreads and amazon comments.

This baffled me in part because I tend to assume that this kind of ritualistic, religious self-googling is the preserve of my generation as far as authors are concerned, and also because you'd think a figure like him wouldn't need to secure his self-worth to a bunch of stars on a page somewhere of the biggest online supermarket in the world and also the place where civilisation goes to die, but also because frankly, I can't fathom why on earth you'd do something like this.

I stand on the other extreme of that spectrum. Not only do I not Google myself every morning, I never Google myself at all. I never read any review, unless my editors send them to me to read, or occasionally my parents - although they know about my phobia of the thing, so they preface their emails with things like 'my darling, I know, I know, but this one I think you should really read, I promise it's fun', etc. And I do read reviews when bloggers send them to me directly, because it wouldn't be very polite not to, but I don't love the practice.

I still find it extremely strange and uncomfortable to think that my name brings up a bunch of pages where people have said things about me - people I don't know, things I can't foretell. It's not even about negative reviews - even positive ones I find hard to read, just like you feel vaguely uneasy if you overhear people saying good things about you. As to negative reviews, well, as we all know, positive reviews will only ever give you, at best, a few minutes' warm glow, whereas the merest one star review will make your day immediately worthless. I have no idea why you'd take that risk over breakfast.

And what mental energy lost, what amount of time wasted! I read somewhere once (you can tell just how many pinches of salt you need to take this information with) that Salman Rushdie himself googles his name every day to check what people have been saying about him while he slept. I remain baffled by this. Salman Rushdie! To think of all the not-written novels this daily routine has cost him. Salman, humanity wants those twenty minutes of your day back. If you're reading this. Which, if the info is true, you are.

Above all, I continue to think, very firmly, that reviews are for readers, not for authors. There's cognitive dissonance when you read reviews, whether positive or negative, because there's a category error: your brain reads your name, your brain thinks it's talking to you, yet it seems to speak in this remote, detached way, as if bizarrely unaware of your presence. Well, yes - because it's not addressed to you. Reviews are for readers; you are perhaps the only person in the world who is not the addressee of their message.

Of course, some people will retort that it's important to read reviews to improve as a writer, or to take the temperature of readers' opinions of your books. That's true, but frankly that's work that I want, eminently, to delegate. Editors and parents, friends and spouses can do it. You, meanwhile, can have a chance at a healthy breakfast. I mean physical and mental health...

Where on the spectrum from 'avoid all reviews' to 'set Google alerts' do you fall? 

Clementine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her latest YA novel is Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and her next is In Paris with You (Faber, 2018).


Sue Bursztynski said...

I admit I do read them. Not every day(it has been months) and certainly not Google alerts, but I do. And you’re absolutely right about it, but still, even a poor review means someone has read what I wrote. The most frustrating thing is when there are NO reviews of something you’re proud of. In your case, by the way, the average review is four stars or more. Good reviews=sales=publishers buying more of your books and invitations to festivals, etc. I know, reading them won’t change anything. But still. You want to know. Well, I do.

Mystica said...

I am a reader and yes I do read reviews. From a writer's point of view I'd think its a sensible thing to do! (sorry)

Anne Booth said...

I think everyone is different. As a writer I find that when I am not feeling confident, reading a negative review can completely distort things for me - I can have ten great ones but the one bad one will stick in my mind and I will believe it, and discount the good ones, and lose confidence in my future writing. I value editorial feedback from my agent and publisher and want to know when my book is not working - but once it is published and I have done my very best, it is very crushing to read negative comments then, as I can't do anything about them. I have talked about it to my agent and she totally understands - we have agreed that she will pass on good comments to me when she is submitting manuscripts to publishers, but edit what she tells me about the rejections, and I just try to avoid reading negative reviews once the book is out (though sometimes I do give in to temptation!). When publicising books about to be published then I find it very affirming and a great relief to read positive comments about my book - they cancel out all the self-generated imagined negative reviews which I have in my mind and which I think many writers carry around! As a reader I do read reviews, but I take them with a pinch of salt - if the reviewer seems thoughtful and kind I will pay attention - but if they are just mean I discount them. Somehow I can't do that as easily with my own books however, and if it impacts my self confidence and ability to earn my living by writing more, then it is best to keep away!

Anne Booth said...

Thank you for this post - it was very interesting!

Sue Purkiss said...

I certainly agree that it's a very bad idea to read reviews etc obsessively. On the other hand... it is lovely when you come across a good one!