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Go, little book

Margaret Atwood was recently announced as the first author to participate in the Future Library, an unusual publishing project initiated by Scottish artist Katie Paterson. The project will collect a book every year from a different author, but will not publish them until the year 2114. Apparently it doesn’t bother Atwood that she is writing a novel that no-one in her lifetime will be able to read. In an interview with the Guardian, she singled out the fact that she won’t be exposed to reviews as part of what appealed to her about the project. ‘What a pleasure,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to be around for the part when if it’s a good review the publisher takes credit for it and if it’s a bad review it’s all your fault. And why would I believe them anyway?’

It’s some comfort to know that a writer as accomplished as Atwood finds the review process unpleasant.

Since Chaucer wrote ‘Go, little book’ at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, authors have imagined their published work as offspring being sent into the world, a vulnerable representative of its parent. Edmund Spenser’s dedication of his Shepheardes Calender to poet and critic Sir Philip Sidney deliberately echoes Chaucer and imagines the fortunes his work will meet. ‘Envy [will] bark at thee,’ he warns his little book, predicting also that the poor creature will have to apologise for its own brashness in being published at all. It is a classic Spenserian performance of extravagant poetic confidence twinned with modesty and disavowal of skill. ‘Come tell me what was said of me,’ Spenser writes, always obsessed with the reaction to his work, devastated and yet undeterred by criticism, ‘And I will send more after thee.’

I studied these authors and their vexed relationship to the reception of their work, and it feels uncanny to re-read those words from a different perspective, post-PhD, now that I have sent out my own little books into the world. I understand that protective instinct: the wonderful thing, the best thing about being published, is also the absolute worst thing – people will read what you write, and if you’re lucky they will have things to say about it.

I’d like to write an essay about the experience of being reviewed that showcases my own imagined virtues: humility, modesty, attentiveness to the thoughts and opinions of others. ‘The time I learnt a valuable lesson from a review’ would be the title. But while I don’t think it’s true that I’ve never learnt anything from a review, this has only occurred on a rare occasion (probably due, at least in part, to a mix of arrogance and cowardice). I’m fascinated, in fact, by this very question: does one learn anything about craft through being reviewed?

The presumption that a review is an evaluation of an author’s work that might be educative for the author herself is a foreign idea to me, both as an author and as a reviewer. But it is one that seems to appeal to others.

I’ve written two novels, and I also review fiction for the Australian press. I have a PhD in English and have published academic articles based on my dissertation research on seventeenth-century literature, which means that I’ve also been exposed to the merciless process of ‘peer review’. As I write this I’ve just been asked to act as a reviewer for an academic journal for the very first time, so soon I will have sat on both sides of both fences.

I wrote my first novel, The Legacy, with a grant from the Australia Council, immediately after finishing my dissertation at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Legacy was a contemporary adaptation and revision of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, set in Sydney and New York around September 11. Writing it, after months spent chasing references and polishing footnotes on my PhD, was pure joy, even during the darkest and most emotionally wrenching parts of the process. It reached a point where I was happy enough to send it out, but the manuscript felt so personal and idiosyncratic that I wasn’t sure it would make sense to anyone else. I was incredibly lucky. The book seemed to strike a chord with people: publishers wanted to publish it, and it was widely reviewed in the Australian press, a thing that is becoming rarer as the book pages shrink. Many of the reviews were favourable. I know authors who have published literary novels with major presses who have failed to get a single review in the big papers, and others who believe that their work sold or sunk on the basis of one great or terrible review in the first week of its release.

As an author, I never imagine that a review is written with me in mind as a reader. As a reviewer, I never imagine that the author will read the review. It has happened – several times, in fact – that authors have read reviews I’ve written of their work and contacted me afterwards. That has led to some valuable conversations and friendships, even when I have had not entirely positive things to say. But to begin with the idea would be paralysing. This is partly why I usually avoid reviewing books by people I know, or by Australian authors in general, because it seems more likely that they will come across the review and it’s difficult to put the idea of that aside. I’ve been reluctant to review the work of my peers, and especially the work of more esteemed and experienced authors, before I feel I’ve established my own credentials as a writer.

Apart from that, it’s a small world, the world of writers and reviewers, and it is common to run into people who have reviewed your work at writers’ festivals and other events. I probably seek to avoid those moments of awkwardness more than most people.

But whether or not one expects an author to read it, a review is not written with the author in mind; it is written with some imaginary reader in mind. Reviewing is not an opportunity to tell the author something useful, but rather a chance to suggest to the reader what she might find interesting, significant or surprising about that book. The things I have managed to learn from reviews have had little to do with craft, though this is probably due to me: the process of reading reviews is too fraught with anxiety. Just about any criticism of craft raised by a reviewer has been raised already by my own inner critic and so is unlikely to be surprising or new, no matter how convincingly it might be presented.

I finished my book in late 2008 after writing and rewriting and revising it for months. I sent it to a couple of trusted readers and revised it again with their feedback in mind. The manuscript was accepted by an Australian and an American publisher in early 2009. My US agent made suggestions that I incorporated, and both my Australian and American editors made more extensive suggestions. I changed the ending, moved scenes around, rewrote bits and pieces, and translated Australianisms for the American market. The manuscript was copyedited, and by then I had a UK publisher that was also requesting translations and revisions. After that, the book was proofread. A point came where working on the manuscript any further felt frankly nauseating.

By the time the novel was published in early 2010 and reviews began to appear, the craft involved in writing the book felt very distant, and I had taken on just about all the advice I could handle. I suppose you could say that I was not receptive to being educated about my own writing (at least with respect to this novel) by the time the reviews appeared. They brought back some of the nausea I felt when faced with another round of rewrites.

While it has been hard to take on lessons about craft, I have learnt other things from reviewers’ insights about characters and plots. One reviewer, for instance, pointed out a reason for my protagonist’s kleptomania that hadn’t occurred to me. I knew it was important to her character that she steal insignificant things from people close to her, but I hadn’t delved too deeply into why. But it was nice to read that reviewer’s concise explanation and think ‘Yes, that’s right. The reader got it.’

I first started reviewing around the time The Legacy was published and itself being reviewed. The editor at the Sydney Morning Herald sent me Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann. Like my book, it was a debut novel and a bildungsroman of sorts. I remember thinking and writing about it in a way that felt deeply informed by my own experience of having just written a novel. Before then, I don’t think I would have approached the task with as much respect for just how much work it takes to actually complete a novel. This was a book with a strong sense of purpose and a visceral desire to use language not only to produce beautiful writing but also to wrest from it a truthful sense of experience. I admired what the author had tried to do and the extent to which she had succeeded, in a way that made me less focused on the moments when she failed.

Before the release of my own book, I’m sure these weaker moments would have stood out to me more sharply, and I would have been more likely to dissect them in a review. After all, I was trained as a literary critic and attuned to moments of inconsistency or dissonance. Indeed, that was what fascinated me, to the point where, in my scholarship, I became preoccupied with literary works that were marred, broken or literally unfinished because of some internal contradiction or aesthetic struggle.

I was only able to send out my manuscript after accepting that it wasn’t perfect and that it didn’t match my idealised image of the book in my head, even though it was as complete and polished as I could make it. In a statement that has been turned into a relentless meme, Samuel Beckett says, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Any sane writer understands exactly what he means. Failing better is as good as it gets.

That was something I had already learnt in academia but had to learn all over again, since my creative work felt so much more personal. I had to learn it as a reviewer, too. Publishing any kind of writing involves this difficult acceptance. (There are rare, partial exceptions: the sentence or image that arrives somehow whole, or is hammered out through editing, and shines with a quality of rightness, a fulfilment of what needed to be expressed.)

This aspect of my experience as a writer had a surprising impact on my approach to reviewing. I found myself reluctant to criticise the work of others simply for the sake of it, or to prove my acumen by pointing out flaws. This is not to endorse the ‘say only nice things’ approach of the Buzzfeed book section or to suggest that I think it’s right to say ‘A+ for effort!’ every time, about every effort. But every book has flaws, and it is not the hardest or cleverest thing to point them out. To me it often feels like a waste of the space I’ve been given, unless the problems are unquestionably grievous, either in a literary or political sense.

It is what I saw first-year graduate students do in my PhD program: display their smartness by zeroing in, as an initial response, on the weakness in another’s argument. As a reviewer, there are more difficult and worthy things to do: to argue for a book’s significance; to appreciate the book’s own project and try to evaluate it by how it achieves its own goals; to see how it relates to or attempts to respond to aspects of contemporary culture; to contextualise its apparent failings; and to be conscious of one’s own biases in various directions, both positive and negative, as a reviewer.

As it turns out, Hilary Thayer Hamann read my review and wrote to me (we share a literary agent, something I didn’t know when I agreed to review the book). ‘You really got it right!’ she wrote. ‘I’m always amazed by just how wrong it can go.’

Before The Legacy was even published it attracted attention because of my literary family background (my mother is a literary agent and my father is a poet). ‘If you were to put money on anyone getting published, it would be Kirsten Tranter,’ said one memorable notice, with the unspoken ‘no matter what she wrote’ impossible to ignore. I made a decision early on to avoid reading the articles that appeared once the book came out, so many of which focused on my family. I repeated the mantra about being lucky to have the attention, and tried to ignore the sensation of excoriation that came with it.

Being a writer involves intense and maddening dichotomies. The work of writing requires isolation and withdrawal from the world, a retreat into obsession, both in the act of writing and in the months and years of deep imaginative work while the book takes mental shape. It is a job for an introvert. The process of publishing requires a schizoid opposite, as the work that has been nurtured in the safe, protected space of the computer (or the notebook or the typewritten page) is turned into a commodity. It is the ultimate alienation of one’s labour: seeing the words you dreamed up in your head, wrote down and spent months perfecting go from imaginary to solid form, from singular to mass produced. The sensation of handling stacks of printed galleys of my book was at once deeply satisfying and strangely terrifying. To see the book become more than one – to see it become multiple, reproduced – that was very weird. It was at once the desired thing, the aspiration realised, and something else unexpected: what was intimately mine had become an object for sale; what was malleable had become fixed.

And then, with the reviews, comes a different experience: what was produced in seclusion had become subject to public scrutiny. Like any writer, I hoped for good reviews, although like any reasonable writer I was sharply aware of the imperfections of my book. I expected to be thrilled by any positive critical assessments if they came, and hoped that I wouldn’t disgust myself by becomingly too egotistically bound up with them. I expected to be disappointed by bad reviews if they came, though I believed I would be good at handling criticism. I thought the glow of acceptance from publishers around the world would insulate me from negative reviews.

What surprised me most was how excruciating it was to be reviewed at all. It was an extension of the weirdness and ambivalence that came with seeing my book in print, for sale. In those first few weeks I felt the urge to go into shops and take all the copies off the shelf and bring them home. This whole writing thing was a job for an extrovert. I had started my second novel and began to find it hard to integrate these two sides of the writing life. The anonymous solitude of writing, the necessary shutting out of noise and life and self, paired strangely with the life of publicity, performing the author function at readings and festivals (again, I was fortunate and grateful), conscious of the reviews being out there even if I had read only some of them.

The other surprising thing was how difficult it was to read the bad reviews, or the negative parts of the mixed reviews. I had seriously overestimated my ability to deal with criticism; ten years of rigorous study and critique in graduate school had not prepared me for what public criticism would be like. I disappointed myself, and still do, with my painful sensitivity. Like many writers, I am shockingly insecure, a symptom that goes oddly hand in hand with the monstrous vanity that declares one’s own work good enough to be read and bought and sold and discussed by others.

It felt sometimes as though, despite my best intentions, every negative word engraved itself in my brain in solid Roman capitals, while the words of praise were of a thinner substance. I felt an obligation to read reviews in a way that I hadn’t felt for the profile pieces preoccupied with what it was like to grow up with feuding poets in the house (answer: I had my head in a book and didn’t notice or care). I was so fortunate to be reviewed, I reminded myself, and to be reviewed by critics I admired. Reading them seemed respectful. But very quickly I decided to avoid the negative ones, a decision with which I have stuck, even though I’m fairly ashamed of it.

If bad reviews just made me feel terrible that would be one thing, but the problem is that they derail the writing – and the muse is fickle enough as it is. I know several writers who read everything written about them, and I admire their courage and ability to just not give a fuck, their capacity to distance themselves. But my policy is to rely on others – my publicist, my husband, my parents, my friends – to vet the reviews.

What I soon noticed – and it keeps me relatively sane even now – is that for every reaction there was an equal and opposite reaction. My characters were superficial; my characters had great vivacity and vigour. I was a tough plain stylist; my writing was as rich as expensive brocade. It was a haphazard story; it was a satisfying mystery. You will struggle to get through the first paragraph; you will wish that you were ill so that you could stay home in bed with this book.

It was difficult to recognise some reviews as being about the same book. I began to understand that the image of reproducibility I’d seen in those stacks of printed books, all identical, the mass of them, was a mirage. The book meant something different, lived a different life, for every reader. That seems so obvious now, but wasn’t at all obvious then, despite the fact that I’d spent years arguing about the meaning of books.

I hadn’t written the book to please reviewers. I hadn’t written it to please readers, although I hoped that it would be pleasurable to read. I hadn’t even written it to please myself, exactly, but more to please a very demanding and rigorous muse who felt at times quite separate from myself. And yet once the book had a physical form, I discovered an uncomfortable desire to please everyone, knowing this was impossible. I hated to disappoint anyone who had given their time to the book. I suspect that this is something that women experience differently to men. To be modest, to be inoffensive, to be self-effacing: these are traditional feminine virtues, and publishing in some way violates all of them.

As I was preparing to write this essay, I came across an interview with Janis Joplin, the last one she did before she died. I listened to a recording of it. It’s hard to imagine anyone who embodies the spirit of not giving a fuck more than Janis. But what she said was, ‘It was important whether people were going to accept me or not. In my insides it really hurts if someone doesn’t like me.’

And then she lit into herself for having this reaction in a way that felt very familiar: ‘I should be able to get past that. I should be able to do that. Girls need to be reassured. It’s silly.’

It is silly, meaning it’s a reaction I wish I could put aside. But it is a surprisingly stubborn and unresponsive reaction, one that refuses all invitations to leave, all attempts to shame it out of existence or to tell it to ‘get past that’. I’ve decided that all I need to do is put the response aside enough to be able to write.


Kirsten Tranter is a literary critic and the author of two novels, A Common Loss and The Legacy. She was a co-founder of the Stella Prize, and teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley.

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