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Sifting For Gold In Them Thar Reviews

By Erin deWard

I don’t care what kind of artist you are, you probably struggle with the age old question about reading your reviews. Should you? Shouldn’t you? Isaac Asimov said, “From my close observation of writers…they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.” This is true for narrators too. It is as devastating to hear how dreadful you are as it is thrilling to hear how brilliant you are.

Reviews are written for many reasons; sometimes to assist fellow consumers, sometimes to air grievances, sometimes to celebrate a success, sometimes to offer perspective. An angry reviewer may hope to damage the subject of the review. No matter the reason for the review, be it well intended or not, the creative person has no real ability to respond in any meaningful way. So one question about reading reviews could be: is it in your best interest to read critical responses to your work, to subject yourself to words that are not necessarily meant for you?

I like to think of reviews as prospecting for gold - not that I’ve ever been prospecting, but you know, in the sense of the old western movies. I go to the stream and I stick in my pan (or open up my Audible pages and read). There are several things I am sifting for and several things I’m trying to clean away.

You already know the things I want to wash downstream – the hurtful words, the unnecessary meanness, the statements about how I should find another job. But you may not see what I see in some of those not so great reviews. To me, the real gold in the reviews is not the words that praise my work (although I keep those chunks of Pyrite because they are pretty and they make me feel happy). The real gold comes from thoughtful reviewers who take the time to discuss what worked well for them and what didn’t. I learn a lot from those people.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Making bold choices in your work means you run the risk of giving people reason to have strong reactions to it. It challenges them in a way that safer work doesn’t. But that’s why we do what we do. We want people to feel something when they hear our books. Sometimes what they feel isn’t what we’d hoped they would. When reviews address the choices I’ve made and their reactions to them, it can be enlightening.

One example: I had a reviewer who really disliked the way I acted a character who, at the very top of the book, was beaten and who subsequently woke up blind and with amnesia. This reviewer said that I sounded like the protagonist of the film “Nell”, a girl who had been raised without the benefit of human contact, grunting and breathing wildly. That assertion made me go back to work I had recorded over a year earlier for a re-listen. It was such a specific criticism and I hadn’t remembered making THOSE choices so I wanted to hear for myself. When I listened I didn’t hear what the reviewer heard. I heard a woman who was in pain, scared, lost, and confused. I liked what I heard.

I can’t speak for all people who work creatively, but I don’t ever really go back to books after they’ve been completed and sent out into the world. What’s done is done. Re-visiting older work can lead to self-critique that is not particularly useful, knowing now what you wished you’d known then, wishing you’d performed differently. So this particular experience of going back to older work was really a gift, a little piece of gold, an opportunity for me to listen and critique my own work in a positive way.  

Differentiating between a plain bad review (or a nasty, mean review – which can hurt like heck) and a review that contains nuggets of useful stuff can be tough. Sometimes I just have to be in a place where I can see that there is a pattern emerging.

An example: I went through a period where a bunch of reviewers complained that I had a “whispery voice”. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am the polar opposite of “whispery” – loud and brash are usually the words applied – and these reviews were not particularly kind in the words they used.  I was upset but I was also curious about why these were occurring in different books but around the same time. I went back and looked at the titles to see if I could figure out what they had in common, if anything. I was like a Nancy Drew combing through the evidence. What I discovered was that they were all from a period right after I had taken an audiobook class in which the teacher coached me to take my voice down to just above a whisper. It seemed I had gone too far in the opposite direction from where I usually speak and it was affecting the listeners’ experiences. Good to know.

It’s hard when you put yourself out there and people don’t love what you have given them. We’ve all been in that place where you begin to question whether your creative offerings are worthy. It’s a dark place, and some people’s responses are to not go there at all, to not read the reviews. But without reading them one misses the Pyrite and the gold, as well as the silt and the sticks and the gunk. In the words of Leo Tolstoy, “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”

I offer this: if reviews make your heart sing when they are great, look for the nuggets in those reviews that help you grow. If reviews make your heart sink, look for the nuggets in those reviews that help you grow. Some silt and gunk can just be washed from your pan, downstream never to be looked on again. But some gold is hard to see until you examine it. It might be tiny, just a little bitty piece, but that piece is worth so very much.


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i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart). e e cummings