Why I don't read book reviews


by Elif Batuman

Let’s say you’re writing a book.  Every day you get up and think about it and work on it and change it. Then, at some more-or-less arbitrary point (I didn’t realize before I published a book how arbitrary this point is), it’s taken away from you and sent to copy-editors, printers, buyers, and the world at large.

Meanwhile, time passes. Birds fly south for the winter.  Your shoes wear out and you buy new ones. Eventually, if you’re lucky, reviews start coming out.  I.e., reviewers are now evaluating and discussing in detail things that you wrote at least a year ago.  (I wrote The Possessed between 2005 and 2009… and the first UK edition just came out in 2011.) Reviews treat the finished book as a stable representation of who and what you are as a writer. That’s the critic’s job: taking a literary work as some kind of unity that it’s possible to talk about and interpret.  It’s important and difficult work.

For a writer, however, seeing your work and yourself talked about in that way can be very agitating.  I for example am already prone to thinking and rethinking the past to an unhelpful degree, so reviews send me into an endless loop of unproductive thoughts.  Although I am always delighted to learn that I received a good review (or that any non-reviewer enjoyed anything I wrote), I still prefer not to read even what I know to be very positive reviews.  When you sit down to write, the first huge hurdle you have to get over is self-consciousness. It’s distracting to have a voice in your head—even the world’s most judicious, loving voice—telling you, “Try to wear the green scarf like you did last Thursday—it really brought out your eyes.”

I definitely do recognize that the ideal attitude towards press would be a moderate one. It would be fantastic to be able to read things people write, think, “Hmm, interesting!” and then think about something else. However, because I currently find such moderation impossible, I have to take the more drastic step of just not reading anything. (I do of course come across extracts and quotations sometimes, it’s not like I have to put my eyes out if I see a single word; I just mean that, as a general policy, I don’t click on the links or receive clippings.)

When I tell people that I don’t read reviews, it often seems to leave a terrible impression, or rather a series of terrible misimpressions, which I would like to address for you today.  Here are my perceived top three:

1.  “You don’t appreciate people who took the time to read your book and write nice things about you!”

Not so! I am enormously grateful to all the hardworking critics who took the time to write nice or critical things about my book. I just don’t feel it’s necessarily beneficial, to me or to them, for me to know all these things in detail.

Furthermore, although I don’t read my own reviews, I do keep an eye out for other reviews by reviewers who I know liked my book.  In this way I discovered a lot of fantastic criticism (by the likes of Dwight Garner, Laura Miller, David Ulin, and Christopher Tayler), and got turned on to a lot of books that were right up my alley and that I might otherwise have missed.

2.  “Don’t you think you have anything to learn from your critics?”

Absolutely! I just don’t think the best way for me to learn it is by reading reviews. It sounds paradoxical, but that’s really how the human brain is set up: you learn more from 3 inputs than from 75 inputs. For this reason, I think most writers rely for criticism on a relatively small number of trusted readers, including people like editors and agents, whose job includes reading reviews and telling the writers what they need to know.

3. “Do reviews and interviews per se not matter to you? Do you feel publicity is degrading to literature?”

I’m glad you asked! No, I don’t think those things at all. I’m very grateful that there are readers who like my writing, and I would like to reach as many of them as possible. When it comes to getting the right books into the right hands, nothing is more powerful than the press. And deservedly so!  That’s why, with the help of the heroic Dave Lull, I regularly post reviews here, and put interviews on my Facebook page. I really want information like that to be available to the people for whom it is intended—namely, you guys, current and future readers. Thanks, as always, for your support!

No Reviews at all, really

A response to a comment from Chad (to my post about not reading reviews):

How do critical responses to your articles come into play? I’m mostly just curious about whether or not you’ve read Mark McGurl’s response to “Get a Real Degree” in the LA Review of Books.

Dear Chad!  You’re right – it’s a very similar situation. On the one hand, it seems solipsistic to be sitting at a desk writing things and ignoring the responses… especially when what you’re writing is criticism… and especially when that criticism is couched as some kind of polemical gauntlet, e.g. by means of a title like “Get a Real Degree” (which I did not come up with myself). [1]

On the other hand… these dialogues invariably involve such a time-lag! Someone writes a book; you take the time to read it and articulate what you think the deal is; the writer takes the time to read your opinion and articulate what he thinks the deal is, and by then years have passed. (I wrote the LRB piece in 2009, six months before it was published.) It’s a real investment to get back into the state of mind you were in before. You lose time and tranquility.

Is it selfish of me to value my time and tranquility over the exigencies of public debate regarding American creative writing programs? I don’t know. (For real, I don’t know.) All I can say is that right now I’m getting started on a new project, totally unrelated to creative writing programs, and full of totally new challenges, and it needs all my energy.  There’s just one of me, and, if I don’t keep the momentum going, who is going to do it for me?  (Pushkin?  My intern?)  For the time being, that means no adrenalinizing detours down memory lane. Although there is no doubt in my mind that McGurl’s response is super-smart and thought-provoking (as was his book), and although I fully intend to read and think about it when my own work permits, now is not that time.

As always, a big thanks to everyone who doesn’t think that whatever I just said makes me some kind of jerk. (Am thinking of appending this disclaimer to everything I write.)

In the meantime, my temporary solution to the solipsism problem is not to write any more book reviews.  For various reasons, I actually haven’t reviewed anything since my own book came out – partly because I’ve been busy, and partly because my views about authorship and criticism have changed.  Writing 100% good reviews would probably be lots of fun, but, for better or for worse, God gave me a grouchy and overcritical nature, combined with a great deal of affection for my fellow humans, and I need to find a way to work with these things.

Some months ago I expressed a version of these concerns to the books editor of the New Republic, who had asked me to write about the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of  Doctor Zhivago. I basically declined on the grounds that I hadn’t cared very much for the book the first time I read it – and was charmed to nonetheless receive a review copy with the following Post-It note:

I do love you, Yuri, sort of!  But sometimes a writer just has to mind her own garden, if only for a little while.

[1] For the record, in my LRB piece, I was trying to respond to the picture of the MFA program—the particular authors it produced, during a particular time period—that McGurl presented in his book. I was not trying to come up with any final or essential characterization of MFA programs, which are not only extremely numerous, but are also I believe getting more (pedagogically, aesthetically, ideologically) diverse every year.

Pieces originally published at My Life and Thoughts | Creative Commons License