Living with Silence by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Earlier this year, a friend mentioned to me that another friend of hers had just published a book. “Oh,” I said, thinking of the second novel I was about to launch. “How’s it going for her so far?”
“OK,” said my friend. “But I think she’s struggling a little with the fact that there just haven’t been many reviews.”
I nodded sympathetically. Inwardly, though, I felt a sheepish pulse of relief: Thank goodness I wouldn’t have that problem. After all, my first novel—published in 2008—came out to a plethora of print coverage; The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune and almost all the major women’s magazines covered it very positively. Best of all, I got that coveted and elusive gold star of the review world: a rave in the New York Times Book Review. My second novel was a more ambitious and—by general consensus—skilled work, blurbed by three bestsellers and a Pulitzer Prize-winner, unqualifiedly admired by Kirkus, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It seemed obvious to me that the coverage it would receive would be at least as good. If not better.
Fast-forward a month. My novel has been out for two weeks, and I’m on the phone with my agent, biting my lip. “I just don’t understand it,” I’m saying, as I scroll online through big-press reviews of other novels. “Why is no one writing about me this time?”
“It is strange,” she replies. “I’ll talk to your publicist. Try not to panic.”
But of course, I do panic. By this point with my first book, I’d already racked up most of my big-press accolades. Now I’ve had (count ‘em): one. Ok, so it was a good one—O magazine gave me both a “Book of the Week” slot and a glowing write-up. And Vogue.com gave me a two-line mention that was good for both a pull-quote and a brief Amazon spike. After that, though, the critics seemed to have nothing more to say. There was nada mas. Bubkis. Zero. A couple days later, my agent calls back with a list of everything my publisher had done to garner press. It seemed exhaustive: both my editor and my publicist have made overtures to all the major reviewers, and we’d run campaigns on big sites like Goodreads and Bookmovement. Yet none of it made a dent in the crushing non-notice.
The weeks and months that follow don’t prove to be much better, though my Google News alert deigns to throw me a few scraps: a librarian in Connecticut admired my novel in The Day. Two writers—one a friend, the other the winner of a Canadian lit prize—told The Brooklyn Eagle and The Montreal Gazette (respectively) that they were enjoying it. I know it’s self-indulgent, but I can’t help asking myself why the brouhaha seems too muted this time. Did I choose the wrong subject matter? The wrong characters? Or was the book simply not as good as everyone said it was? In retrospect, I’ve come to realize—to the extent one ever can (writers being the world’s least self self-secure professionals)—that it’s probably none of these things. Rather, that resounding silence is one of the hallmarks of the strange new publishing era in which we now find ourselves.
It’s no secret that in the years since my first novel came out the professional review has become an endangered species. Stand-alone book sections have disappeared from every major paper save the New York Times—and even the New York Times Book Review is tasked with finding balance amid plunging advertising revenues and the incursions of electronic media. Add to that the fact that remaining review spots go mainly to established writers or debut writers with “buzz” (I’ve actually heard tell of one writer who published “debuts” under seven different aliases for this reason). And to men writers over women–something statistics recently released by VIDA dishearteningly demonstrate. So perhaps it’s no wonder that mid-listers like myself and my friend’s friend are feeling a mainstream passover—as, I’ve since learned, are most of the other writers I’ve spoken to in past months. Still, I’m not ashamed to admit it: the silence hurts. It’s one thing to have someone read a work that you’ve sweated over for five years and dislike it. It’s another to be simply ignored. It’s kind of like the difference between going through a breakup and never getting asked out on a date.
“If a book falls into the world and no one reviews it, does it exist?” I asked my husband one day.
“At least you’re published,” he said. “And you’re not getting bad reviews.”
“But aren’t bad reviews better than no reviews?” I asked. And then (light bulb!): “Hey–maybe that’s what I should do. Write myself a bad review. Sort of like a meta-thing. Tongue-in-cheek. The New Yorker could publish it in Shouts and Murmurs.”
He looked at me as though I’d suggested publishing my next book under an alias. “Maybe,” he suggested mildly, “you should just try to find affirmation outside of the mainstream press.”
Of course, he was right. The question is, where? Where can a mid-list–and mayhap female–writer find affirmation in this stark new land of literary criticism? To be honest, one source lies simply in perspective: in reminding ourselves that in a world where traditional publishing is also getting harder, just being published is a pretty amazing thing. For all the insecurity and angst it offers, writing is still a luxury–and getting paid to do it more of a gift than ever.
Somewhat ironically, though, another source of affirmation is the same one responsible (at least, in part) for the disappearance of traditional reviews in the first place: the Internet. For just as “professional” literary criticism is shrinking on paper, online review venues are multiplying exponentially. For example: three months into my first novel I had perhaps a dozen or so blog reviews. Over the same time period for the new one I did an informal survey and found I’d been mentioned, interviewed or reviewed on almost a hundred; from tiny “boutique” blogs like randomthinking.com to major players like Shelf-Awareness.com and TheRumpus. Similarly, the new book has been getting ratings and reviews on major bookseller and social media sites at a far faster rate than my first one did—even with no one reading about it in the Times or the Trib.
Granted, a review in the New Yorker is not the same thing as “BrooklynBetty’s” five-star Amazon recommendation. The latter reaches a smaller readership, and carries less prestige. It probably won’t appear on the Praise For pages of my paperback edition (which, incidentally, is coming out in January). But it does offer something that big-time reviews cannot: a connection with my real readership base. For in the end, online book reviewers are first and foremost book-lovers, writing less in the name of professional advancement than out of the simple joy of reading. And as such, they provide something once unobtainable for an author: a direct and nearly instantaneous line into their readers’ minds. Click through a TLC blog tour schedule or a Goodreads review page and you’ll find a highly-textured summary of how your work is being taken in—one created not by a published author paid to evaluate other published authors, but by people who picked up your book because it looked interesting. These are the people who go to sleep at night to your words; who mull them over at lunch breaks and on beach days. In short, they are the readers for whom, in the end, you are really writing.
Of course, there are drawbacks. A mainstream reviewer will rarely take points off a novel because it contains, say, graphic sex or a handful of curse words (“I marvel that the author is a mother of two,” tssked one reviewer of my new book). But they’re also less likely to jot down those key two or three phrases that—while maybe spelled or structured in a manner less-than-conventional—reveal that they took away exactly what you wanted them to. That you, as an author, have written into an anonymous universe and (in the words of E.M. Forster) only connected. Which for me, is really the whole point of being a writer.
All this isn’t to say that I’d trade a New Yorker rave for 25 more Amazon or Goodreads stars. I’m still Googling my novel far more often than I should in the hopes that I’ll turn up something more substantial than a peripheral mention on a real piece of paper. If I don’t, though, I’ll remind myself—as so many others like me must do these days—that my book’s value doesn’t depend on whether some critic in the greater media decides to write about it or not. I’ll go back to Amazon or BooksSpeakVolumes.com or any one of the dozen other book blogs who are kindly considering my work on a blog tour I’m currently on this month. And I’ll remind myself, once again, just how lucky I am to have them there—and to be doing the thing that I love.
Jennifer Cody Epstein is an unrepentant book addict and the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, as well as the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Nation (Thailand), Self and Mademoiselle magazines, and the NBC and HBO networks, working in Kyoto, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok as well as Washington D.C. and New York. She currently live in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, filmmaker Michael Epstein, two amazing daughters and an exceptionally needy Springer Spaniel.
Learn more and order your copy of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment here.
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