Diane Meier

Diane Meier

Welcome to Diane’s Blog!

I’ll use this spot to chart what I enjoy and endorse, as we attempt to live a life of style in a culture of business and writing and art. And I hope you join me; share your own stories, insights and ideas about living a creatively expressive life.

Judgment. Good, bad, and yours. The terrible problem of reviews.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

There have been a lot of questions this past year about the difference between my day job in marketing, and the writing of my first novel.

“Not so different,” I’ve answered to the surprise, apparently, of many.

Serious marketing requires serious communication. And great advertising copy comes from a deep understanding of your markets, your target customers, the lives they lead, and the way they express themselves. So, putting my characters into a story, wrapped up in a book cover, was not dissimilar to imagining the lives I believed might be graced by my clients’ products.

There is one major difference, however, and there is no getting around it. In marketing, I am not paid to produce things my clients like. I am paid to produce results. Whether the corporate president or his wife likes the color blue in the their logo, or appreciates the headline of their ad, is only of passing interest to me; I can’t let myself be distracted. I am not talking to them, I’m talking to their customers. Criticism of my work in marketing is not subjective. The campaign worked, or it didn’t. While its always a pleasure to be recognized for one’s creative work, my fulfillment comes from the undeniable ways in which that work functioned.

But sending a novel out into the world, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

The July before we launched, the folks at my publisher, Henry Holt, told me that they would be submitting The Season of Second Chances for Amazon Vine reviews. They didn’t say this with bright smiling faces, I noted. They said it with furrowed brows. Publishers aren’t in control of those early reviews, they explained, and many feel that the Vine reviewers take their role of gatekeepers so seriously, that they may keep some good content from reaching a target audience.

“Okay,” I said, “So, don’t do it!” I mean, I’m so nervous about the idea of reviews at all; if you have real worries, why tempt fate? But I was not in control. I stewed from July until February, if “stewing” can possibly be an accurate description of my state of mind. In fact, as the publication date neared, I was almost apoplectic about the whole idea of being reviewed by anyone and everyone with a pen or a keyboard. I became unreasonably nostalgic for the old days when a handful of professional reviewers, in a gaggle of newsrooms, could sink you in a week. Today, you can be pecked to death over months or years — by hundreds of disgruntled readers, citizen-reviewers with axes to grind, little training, a sense of personal power, and no editorial body to whom they answer.

My fears were, for the most part, unfounded. My reviews have been overwhelmingly lovely; thoughtful, careful, respectful, and positive.

Big exhale.

The harbinger of the biggest repetitive thorn showed up that first week in the aforementioned Amazon Vine Reviews. In a sea of five-star raves, there was one two-star note with the headline: “My Chick-Lit-Loving Wife Hated This Book. Too wordy,” he said. “Too many references she didn’t get. Too much not like Chick-Lit. Very bad. Very disappointing.”

Except, of course, I wrote a book that makes reference to Sontag and Beckett, Shakespeare, and Mary McCarthy, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, for god’s sake, and W.B. Yeats. I even talk about the books my protagonist holds dear her–Edward Sapir, Bullfinch and Brewer, Van Doren, and Campbell. And all through The Season of Second Chances, there are references, inside jokes, and bits of play with our heroine’s major subject of study: the Gilded Age Literature of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Even her dog is named Henry James. I’m not surprised the Chick-Lit Loving Wife didn’t like the book. But while he may have been blaming the hot dog for not being ice cream, the review sits there on the Internet, and probably will do so long after I’m gone.

And, from there the thorn catches–as it turned out, nearly every serious review The Season of Second Chances landed found some way to mention Chick Lit. It is far smarter than Chick Lit, they claimed. Hurray! It isn’t Chick Lit at all! Hurrah! And for those who felt that it was just a shame that anyone would mistake it for Chick Lit, a bone was thrown with the label, “Women’s Literature.” As though we’d all think that was so much better. What happened to calling it…Literature? Or just good old-fashioned, Fiction?

There were a very few reviews that just got the whole thing wrong. And if you’re anything like me, you might want to write to each of them. Or track them down and stand outside their house, and wait until they come out, so that you can angrily correct them. One person suggested that I’d not done my homework and then listed the things about which she knew better. Except that I had done my homework, and she was just plain wrong. Another found one character in the book, quite unbelievable. And it was the only character I’d taken from life.

You will want to run through the town with the magazine or web page in your hand, showing it to everyone who will listen, grabbing them by the lapels, shaking them, and telling them how very wrong-headed this review is. Your husband and your publicist will keep you from doing that, because they know better. And you will think that they are part of a vast conspiracy to keep the truth from getting out.

In my day job, I was comfortable in the cold arms of irrefutable truth. I could banish the subjective criticism and keep it from hurting me. As a novelist, the subjective of how someone connects to your work is the object of the exercise. I’d like to tell you that it’s going to be better for you. But it won’t be. Somewhere, even in the wonderful review–the one that sounds as though your mother paid someone to write it–there will be a line or a reference to something they liked, and your head will pop up like an infield fly. “That’s not what I meant,” you’ll say. Or, “Mary isn’t the one who wore the hat!” Or they’ll quibble with some small thing, in contrast to all the other marvelous things they claim you did in your masterpiece. And you will only remember that quibble. “Who are they” you’ll ask yourself, “to pass such judgment?”

They are your readers. But they aren’t all of your readers. Try, try, try to remember that. And if you’re ever going to write again, I’m told, you have to learn to let it go. Let me know how you do.

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