Can you still be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize if Publishers Weekly thinks your book is no great shakes? Apparently you can.
Earlier this week on a writing forum we were talking about the importance of reviews. The subject came up because one of our members had received a poor review from one of the pre-pub trades. Here's what my comments were:
I used to be a PW reviewer and an independent bookseller, and there are so many factors that enter into whether an individual review hurts or helps or does nothing - like where it occurs, when it occurs etc - that I could probably write a whole book on the subject. But I'll spare you. Short version, if we're talking about the pre-pub trades (which is, I believe, where this started): an individual good review can help, because a good publicist will use it to snowball other reviews; plus if you do come out in hardcover first, you've got something nice to put on the paperback (or even the hardcover if the house has the time); oh, and it can also start getting everyone at your publisher more excited about your book - never a bad thing.
A bad review in the pre-pubs? People aren't really blowing smoke when they say those don't really matter. Those reviews come so late now, particularly PW - not like when I was a book buyer or reviewer - that they don't have near the relevance they used to in terms of shaping opinion and influencing orders, which are mostly already in place. They're also not seen by the general public unless, you know, you *want* to put something like "Lauren Baratz-Logsted sucks" on your book jacket. And in terms of people working in the trade - booksellers, agents, even your own editor - it's widely accepted knowledge these days that sometimes PW and Kirkus just get free-floating beause-it's-Tuesday bitchy. So a bad pre-pub review doesn't help improve things but it doesn't make things worse.
A bad review in the NYTimes, on the other hand...I'd kill to get one of those.
Then I came across a blog where where the blogger known as Editorial Assistant basically agreed with my assessment, here, that good helps but bad doesn't hurt.
Yesterday the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout won for Fiction. I was pleased with the win because OLIVE is a real writer's book and my second favorite fiction I'd read in 2008, Tim Winton's BREATH edging it out for first with me. One of the other finalists in the category was Christine Schutt's ALL SOULS, a book I'd also read and admired last year. For some reason, I trotted over to Amazon to read the reviews there.
Here's the final line from PW: Unfortunately, Schutt shoehorns too many characters into a relatively thin book, and though there isn't a boring sentence in here, Schutt doesn't do enough with the familiar prep school setting to make the story resonate.
Not exactly the kind of thing to get a reader excited, is it?
Now here's Booklist on the very same book: Schutt’s impressionistic style, with its extraordinary gift for exquisite economy, carries the day and creates a mood and tone that are hauntingly unforgettable. Oh, and it's a starred review.
So here's the thing, two things actually:
1) The PW doesn't appear to have hurt Schutt's book.
2) We like to think that at least at the upper levels that there really is something objective about assessing the worth of a book; that there's a concensus on what's great and what sucks. But the truth is, there's almost never a concensus. There's what you think, there's what I think, what she thinks and what he thinks. Nothing scientific about it all. Just people, albeit some with advanced degrees in literature or vast reading experience, bringing our own baggage to the subjective table when we sit down to pass judgment on what has worth and what does not.
So what do you think of reviews?
Congratulations to Ms. Strout, Ms. Schutt and all the other winners and finalists, no matter what any reviewers said about your books.
Oh, and yesterday The Sisters 8, Book 4: Jackie's Jokes - the series created for young readers with my husband and daughter - went on sale. Buy a copy. Make my day.
Be well. Don't forget to write.