Monday, March 24, 2008

Reviews and judgment day

To have a published book is to invite comment. The glossy cover, the publishers imprint, the curiously tarted up self in the author's photo all serve to convince the world that I did indeed write this paper object and my musings have organized the 26 letters of the alphabet into patterns I can call my own. My father and step mother, my sisters and brothers, all said just the right thing, mostly. My friends said it exactly. And lately, at good readings, good because I am finally relaxing, the audience lets me know they enjoyed it by the laughter and sighs of sympathetic recognition.

But to be published is to invite a response from far more than the people I send my family newsletters to. I am speaking of reviews. Each one that comes out I begin reading with all the enthusiasm I used to have for report cards. Sometimes it is a pat on the head. Other times a rap on the knuckles. Or amusingly, it appears to be a review of a book by the same name but the work of another.

What is the reviewer's task? I read reviews to know if I should invest or save my money and time. The author of the review may be using a book to nudge the great lumbering tail of current poetry. They may be looking for their own readership and by their humor, intelligence, or wit make themselves indispensable. They may try to advise the writer in how they can better their craft and vision for the next book. Or they get their kicks from knocking down the blocks. A review is in itself an essay, equally to be judged.

My book goes out into the world, is hopefully read, and I'd take any review over the great silence. If there is a final day of judgment for books, I don't think the reviewers decide who goes to Satan's writers lounge. The worst that happens, my efforts are forgotten in the out-of-print purgatory...

My husband's plays sometimes had simultaneous pan and praise reviews that took polar opposites on the same points. Which to believe? I'd look around the theatre, see how engaged everyone was, the standing ovation, my own delight in his language skills, and ask myself how any one could find it wanting. Were they crazy? But I'm his wife, a little crazy for him, and my judgment will be suspect. I can only say, believe the good reviews.

Some people tell me they never read their reviews. Never? Really? Some of my friends don't own a television or read the news either, sterner stuff than me. I read, feel it for a day and move on.

Because none of that is about the writing, my writing. Images and feelings become words and sentences. Dreams pull up their socks and find their grammar. Poems form in my inner ear, long before the world hears them.

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