Monday, January 9, 2012

My First Time: Erika Dreifus

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Erika Dreifus, author of Quiet Americans--which, as you probably already know, was one of my favorite books of 2011.  Erika, publisher of the free monthly newsletter The Practicing Writer, is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and for Fiction Writers Review.  She also serves on the editorial board for J Journal: New Writing On Justice.  Visit her website here.

My First Punch-in-the-Gut Review

Ten months elapsed between the release of my first book of fiction—a story collection titled Quiet Americans—and my first encounter with what any reasonable person would call a truly "bad" review thereof.  In this age of Google alerts, that might seem impressive indeed.  But I should admit that my book and I are also late bloomers of sorts.  Part of the extended honeymoon with reviewers is quite possibly due to the fact that none of the major prepub magazines—Publishers WeeklyLibrary Journal, Kirkus, or Booklist—bothered to write about the book, although review copies and ancillary information went out to them according to their respective guidelines and timetables.  Maybe the combination of an unknown author and a tiny new press (not to mention a short-story collection) was simply too disenchanting.

When the coverage came—frequently on blogs, and not infrequently from people with whom I was at least slightly, if only virtually, acquainted—the tone seemed overwhelmingly positive.  But even on Goodreads, where plenty of readers unfamiliar to me weighed in from the start, 87 percent (to date) rated the book "4" or "5."  Many of these readers went beyond the numerical ratings and offered thoughtful, considered praise, specifying what they saw as the book's strengths (apparently, Quiet Americans contains at least a few).  More than once, I was astonished (and humbled) by the clarity and enthusiasm with which some of these reviewers discerned themes and other elements in my work that even I, the author, had not perceived.

On the other hand, not one of the readers who characterized the book as meriting a "3" offered any comments.  And the explanation for the single "2" rating ("Got amazing reviews on Goodreads, but I'm just lukewarm.  Short read.") lacked sufficient power to inflict anything more than a superficial wound.  In other words, I wasn't prepared for a punch-in-the-gut review.

But that's exactly how it felt to read the latest review, which I discovered thanks to my own hyper-conscientiousness.

Here's what happened: When an editor for a certain (unnamed) publication contacted my publisher for a review copy in November 2010, I was delighted.  I told my publisher that this was great news: The publication, which appears bimonthly, would reach a significant target audience.

Since the press that published Quiet Americans is so small, and since, as a reader, I appreciated the reviewing publication, I assumed the responsibility for checking each new issue to see if a review of Quiet Americans had appeared.

Many months—and several issues—went by.  No review surfaced.

Then, about a year after the request for the review copy, I clicked on over to find the November/December edition posted.  And within it, I found a review that was, in fact, equivalent to a punch in the gut.

I'm going to try to be discreet about this, so I won't quote from the review itself.  But I can tell you that almost none of its 250 words were complimentary.  Factual inaccuracies—yes, you read the plural correctly—exacerbated my dismay.  (I really have a thing about accuracy.  Always have.)  And I struggled mightily to reconcile what other reviewers' had praised as "classic storytell[ing]" and an "effectively unemotional" or "clear, direct style" with this one's strong suggestion that the prose was too straightforward and predominantly linear to be of any literary merit.

Some of the review seemed eccentric as well as harsh.  Perhaps the strangest comment was a forceful sentence deploring what the reviewer perceived as my extensive reliance on a particular verb tense.  (If you have read my collection, and you are thinking that perhaps the reviewer was targeting the use of the present tense in one of these stories, you'd be wrong.)  Finally, there was this icing on the bitter cake—unlike several of her fellow reviewers elsewhere in the issue, who refrained from counseling for or against a purchase, this reviewer displayed no such restraint.

If you should ever find yourself in a situation similar to mine, here's how I suggest you cope:

1.  Email the review to your mother.  Wait for her to email you back, assuring you—just as she did all those years ago in high school—that the person who is being so unkind to you(r book) is "just jealous!"

2.  Email the review to your publisher.  Wait for him to email you back with comforting words (albeit words you won't republish here, just in case this is a family blog).  Appreciate his overall characterization of the review: "grumpy."

3.  Share a copy of the review with an author friend over a meal.  Remember that after she read your book, this friend wrote you one of the nicest unsolicited responses you've received so far.  Laugh—despite yourself and despite your still-aching gut—as you watch her facial expressions while she reads the review.  Agree wholeheartedly with her bewilderment.

4.  Reread all of the other (positive) reviews your book has received.

5.  Reread all of the generous, non-review emails and letters your book has prompted from people you admire.

6.  Google the offending reviewer.  Wonder about the significance of the fact that her uncommon name yields so few returns.  Reconsider your mother's words.  Wonder if maybe this reviewer really is jealous.

Above all (and you knew this was coming, right?)—keep writing.  If you have to, make some lemonade with this particular lemon.  Write about it. Ideally, publish what you write.  But if you're looking for a venue to share your thoughts on "My First Punch-in-the-Gut Review," I'm sorry to say that you'll be the second to address that on The Quivering Pen because I've already beaten you to the punch!

Photo by Lisa Hancock


  1. David - thank you for providing the venue for Erika to share.

    Erika - thank you for what I have come to expect from you - a mixture of grace, humor and candor I don't often find elsewhere. I will take your advice to heart should I ever reach the point in my writing where I am actually receiving reviews!

  2. Bad reviews are tough. My first-ever prepub review was a pan! But even bad reviews are better than being ignored, I think.

    It's never worth publicly contesting bad reviews, of course, as complaining only brings more attention to a review that is likely to be soon forgotten. However, I do think it's worthwhile to write a polite note (with no hostile subtext) to the reviewer thanking them for their time considering the book. I'm sorry you didn't like this book, you can add, but perhaps you'll like the next one better.

    It reminds the reviewer that there's a human being on the other end and, who knows, if they review your next book they might remember your classy response and soften their approach.

  3. Amy, thank you for your very kind comment, and Keir, you're right--I did try to be sufficiently tactful here to keep the reviewer's identity private and focus more on the experience of receiving the review than "publicly contesting" the review itself. Your idea of contacting reviewers as you suggest is interesting--have you (or anyone you know) done that?

  4. This is very elegant and gracious advice; beautifully said. Just recently saw an author on twitter address a negative situation in a public way and cringed... it does tend to backfire.

  5. Erika, a wonderful post (as always) and this is something that is so hard to write about but that every writer can understand. I do think Keir's suggestion is interesting in that all reviewers really do need to keep in mind that there is a living, breathing (and often sensitive) writer on the other end of every review -- it's always a shame to see someone forget that. I'll be curious to see if anyone's done that and how it went...
    And, for the record: Erika, your book is beautiful. Truly.

  6. A great and honest post. I'm sorry about the gut punch . . . :(

  7. Very well put, as always, Erika. My own book recently received a negative review in a publication that I myself have written three reviews for. Basically, the book had been assigned to a reviewer who was clearly not a member of my target demographic and who wished I'd written a different book, focusing on younger characters. I decided not to do anything about it (what could I do?), but the founder of the publication, who is a friend, was so upset when he saw the review that he actually took it down from the website. That was pretty satisfying, although not as satisfying as getting a positive review!

  8. Erika, I am both a book reviewer and a novelist, and I have a lot of experience on both sides of the equation. Out of over 500 book reviews, I've probably panned a couple dozen books--it happens. I do pride myself on being fair and I try to keep both the author's intentions in mind as well as his or her intended audience. Still, like anyone, I sometimes have a bad day at the office. Occasionally a book bugs me and I'm not as evenhanded as I could be.

    Following one moderately negative review (not a pan), I received an incredibly nice note from the author, thanking me for my time and effort in considering their work. The author said they were sorry I didn't like this book but, hopefully, I would like the next one better. Very classy and certainly more productive than hate mail.

    The next time I received a book by that author, I liked it better than the first. I'd like to think I was considering the book only on its literary merits but...who knows? I definitely had a favorable opinion of the author going in.

    Every time I see people react negatively and publicly to bad reviews, I think, "What if the same person reviews your next book?"

    Play the long game...

  9. Thank you all for the additional comments. Thanks especially for the detailed response from Keir. I have to hope that given this reviewer's reaction to the first book, the editor wouldn't assign my next one to her--and I can't help suspecting that she wouldn't want to spend her time reading, let alone writing about it. Still, your points are most valid.

  10. Different publications have different rules, of course, and ideally reviewers would be taken off the "beat" of covering a particular author. Doesn't always work that way, though!

    I should have added that, since receiving that author's response, I've employed the same tactic myself...

  11. I love this, Erika Dreifus! When I read my first review that made me wonder just what my book had done to the reviewer, or his mother, or what?!, I did all of your steps above but still felt stunned and mopey.

    So I added 2 steps:

    7. I googled all the great authors who'd gotten bad reviews. Guess what? There are a whole lot!

    8. I was lucky enough to have someone I love come upstairs with a gift he'd made-- a poster with pictures of our pets:

    "Animal Praise for [the book]. Here's what the pets are saying about [the book]: 'When I open this book, I feel like a door to the outside has been opened....' signed, our cat. And: 'This book is just like my favorite bone...I can't put it down," signed, our dog."

    Needless to say, I framed the list of animal blurbs for the book alongside frames of other nice things about the book in my person shrine on my office wall. That helped, too.

  12. Hello from England Erika! I now want to read Quiet Americans (love the title for a start). My sympathies: as a poor young writer my first novel was panned a week before publication in a long, humourless, inaccurate review in our biggest serious newspaper, The Sunday Times way back in 1990. I felt ...well, you can imagine. But after struggling on with the second (more enthusiastically received and now about to be reissued as an ebook), I then wrote a novel called A Vicious Circle which became a best-seller, largely because it was about the bitchiness and corruption of the British reviewing circuit, and a notorious critic tried, unsuccessfully, to sue me for libel. It effectively re-launched my career, enabled us to move house and I've never looked back. So you could always try this option if you have nerves of steel, though I suspect you are too civilised.
    PS The reviewer subsequently admitted to someone whom she didn't know was a friend that she WAS jealous. So your mother may be right.

  13. Erika, I have only one time received a thank-you note from an author. As a matter of fact, I loved his book but no one else has ever contacted me one way or the other.

    I still have that note--a gorgeous photo notecard with his original work--inside the book, and I treasure it. It's surprising to me actually how many people will take time to post nasty responses and how few will express thanks. A sad world.

    P.S. Oh wow, am I below the great Janet Reid?!!

  14. I'm sure you've read Jean Kerr's essay about how to handle bad reviews, which I won't quote (because I can't find my copy), but essentially you read it and re-read it until it is dead, dead, dead.

  15. If I may add: Email the review to your close writer friends who believe in your work. They will likely remind you of the finer points of your book, and also point out that even a not-so-great review is better than none at all.

    And, as a fellow debut author with a short story collection out from a small press, I can say it's good to remember that we're in a good place to 1) have books out and 2) get reviews at all. It doesn't necessarily take the sting out, but a little perspective can be good. (Ha. I talk like I have perspective myself!)

  16. Many thanks for the additional responses. This really is a topic that resonates, isn't it?

    @stephenmatlock: I haven't read that essay, actually. I will have to go find it.

  17. I especially like the first point. Moms are always reliable ;)

  18. Erika, I am a writer and also old, and I've been through every kind of review possible. I'm even too old to have read your work. But your post above is beautifully written and wonderfully clear so I know you are a fine writer.