Yesterday, to my surprise, I discovered that Publishers Weekly had reviewed my forthcoming novel The Shadow of the Sun in this week’s issue. I knew PW had received a review copy, of course, but for the last couple weeks, everything PW had been reviewing bore March release dates, and Shadow is slated for February. So I figured they had passed the book by, and just checked in to be sure I wasn’t overlooking something.
And there was my name.
Usually when writers talk publicly about their reviews, their comments fall into one of two categories: either “Hey, look, I’m AWESOME!” or “Why did this awful, mean reviewer abuse me so?” This post is meant to be neither of these; as always, I use a single primary criterion for deciding what to talk about here: whether what I want to say will be of use to others, particularly writers. I hope this will.
The title of this post is something of a misnomer: this is not the first time PW has reviewed a book I’ve worked on. But in all of those cases I had been editor and/or publisher; I had a certain distance from the experience. I generally look at PW reviews from a marketing perspective: good or bad, a review in PW means sales for a book, so I always welcome them. And any reader of PW reviews knows PW pulls no punches; they tend towards the snarky and judgmental. Which, of course, is natural for a publication that serves the book business, which is composed almost entirely of New Yorkers. Nobody does snarky better than New York. As an editor, it’s generally my job to talk any writer lucky enough to capture the attention of PW down from the ledge they invariably occupy after reading the review of their work: to remind them that what they’re seeing is just PW’s way, and they really are good writers, and there are quotes we can use, however slim, buried among the barbed wire. Presumably after we get off the phone they go away somewhere quiet and drink a lot.
Last night I needed that phone call. Fortunately I am married to someone who has listened to me deliver that speech more than once, and he knew his lines.
So, back to my tale. There was my name in the Publishers Weekly review listings. I was alone in the office, doing One Last Thing before I went upstairs to make dinner. When, against all expectations, I saw my name, I said, “Holy f**cking s**t!” (Yes, with asterisks.)
And then I read these words:
The Shadow of the Sun
Barbara Friend Ish, Mercury Retrograde (Ingram, dist.), $20.95 (502p) ISBN 978-1-936427-01-7
Mercury Retrograde founder Ish debuts with a clumsy but enthusiastic epic fantasy piled high with Celtic-themed fantasy tropes, conventions, and clichés. Disgraced former wizard Ellion has turned away from gods, magic, and conflict. When a power-hungry wizard begins conquest in the name of the old religion, Ellion flees to the Tanaan realms, but assassins pursue him, as does a dynastic crisis. As his allies fall one by one, Ellion is forced to choose between the talents he forswore and the triumph of evil. Ish’s prose is competent without being noteworthy. The grander conflict that drives the book will be familiar to readers, but Ellion gives hints that his eventual solution to his inner conflict–to be resolved in future books–may yet demonstrate a bit of welcome innovation. (Mar.)
When I hit the word “clumsy”, my head began to ring the way it does when one’s chin connects with a really solid uppercut. I knew all along that beginning this series in this place was going to lay me open to the accusations that are all over the rest of the review, but *clumsy*? Ouch.
I took my ringing head upstairs to find Mark, bewildered by conflicting emotions. A debut genre author getting airplay in PW is huge, and the publisher in me was pleased, but Writer Brain was reeling.
“Publishers Weekly threw up on my book,” I told him. “I can’t figure out how I feel about this.”
Mark looked at the review. He is on the finance side, and thus has a certain distance. It was not a bad review, he patiently pointed out. It was just PW being PW. And look, there was a quote we could use.
Nevertheless dinner was a shambles. People had to step in and help me with stuff that is ordinarily effortless; Writer Brain had hijacked me, and I was gone. I wasn’t weepy or offended, just mentally hamstrung by the ringing in my head and the conflicting responses.
Needless to say I took the evening off and watched TV, and once I’d slept on it, I had it back in perspective. This morning I’m delighted and honored to have been reviewed by PW, and I understand that I brought much of the snark on myself by beginning this series in overly familiar territory. But as usual, my experience as a writer of a debut novel has given me perspective I will take back to the other side of the desk.
Like all writers, I am painfully insecure about my work. If in a given workshop session I receive ten compliments and one really withering criticism, it is the criticism I will take home. As a published author it is my task to put that aside; to be glad that people take the time to read my work, to understand that we all have our own reactions and opinions, and to do what I must to nurture the belief in my own vision that allows any of us to commit words to formats less ephemeral than Facebook. It is incumbent upon reviewers to speak the truth as they see it; else they are no more useful than that woman who became a top reviewer on Amazon by writing positive reviews of EVERYTHING she ever encountered. And the old saw quoted to me by Tara Maya is absolutely true: There is no such thing as bad publicity.
So there’s really only one appropriate response to this turn of events:
Holy f**king s**t! Publishers Weekly reviewed my book!