Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes, tells what it’s like to be reviewed.
“To care, and not to care”: On being reviewed.
My first book of poetry, The Violinist in Spring, was published 10 years ago. I remember very clearly the evening before the NZ Listener review came out. The night was one of blind panic and endless recursive loops of weird dreams. When the morning finally came I hunched over my email as a friend with a subscription transcribed chunks of the review and sent them down the wire to my nervous gaze. (Bookstores didn’t have copies until Monday.) I remember feeling that the reviewer was speaking directly to me: a very profound, specific, and personal, judgment. More embarrassingly, I still remember some of the lines of the review by heart.
The process of being reviewed as a novelist has been utterly different. While it’s still exposing (not dissimilar to having a stranger come into your house and calmly judge you on its décor) it’s also very much less personal, less predictable, more immediate, more scattergun. It has been a steep curve in learning, as T S Eliot has it, “to care, and not to care”.
One of the causes of this difference, perhaps, is the vastly different way in which poetry and fiction are put out into the world. Fiction, in my experience, takes a lot longer, and – because of the greater print runs involved – relies on a larger number of people. There is a paradoxical metric here of vulnerability and detachment. When you’ve just finished writing a novel, you’re untouchable. Partly because of necessary self-preservation. Partly because you’re still inside that world and in love with its characters. You’re steel-plated and impervious, but also (because you care so much) you’re very fragile. During the long editorial and production process, slowly, ever so slowly, you begin to step back from the book, to see it from an external perspective. Then at last, when it’s ready for publication – you have a cover, you’ve proofread it so many times you can’t bear to look at it – you have to let go. At this point you have achieved a new level of detachment, but you’ve also given up some of the earlier protective intimacy.
In this state, when you first encounter reviews – for me, Amazon Vine and Goodreads reviews – it’s a curious feeling. They are talking about a work that feels distant, like a
This metaphor of eavesdropping seems to hold up quite well, as you garner more reviews (if you’re lucky) from newspapers, magazines, people on twitter. Surely, as a writer you’re always a bit of an eavesdropper, an interloper, on this discussion. After all, reviewers are talking primarily to readers, not to the writer. Many writers, in recognition of this fact, absent themselves from the conversation altogether. I’m ashamed to say, however, that I’m not one of them. Curiosity gets the better of you, and suddenly, there you are, opening the newspaper or, more realistically, googling your book title, and waiting, interminably, for the page to load.
Three stories were highly commended. ‘Full Grey Sky’ by Maxim Ericson from Wellington College was described by Rodger as having “an incredibly strong rhythm and a muscular use of language that builds to a dark, unsettling climax.” Rodger found ‘Leave Me Alone’ by Carly Hyde from Newlands College to be “utterly compelling from start to finish and full of surprises - some of them very gruesome.” Rodger described ‘Borame’ by Elise Jung-Leask from Wairarapa College as “technically in a league of its own and highly unusual in that the main character is not a person, but, instead, a park in Korea.”