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Reading Aloud & Icepick Critics

From Roy Peter Clark:

David McCord tells the story of how he once picked up an old copy of St. Nicholas magazine, which printed stories written by children. One of the stories caught his attention, and he was “suddenly struck by a prose passage more earthy and natural in voice than what I had been glancing through. This sounds like E.B. White, I said to myself. Then I looked at the signature: Elwyn Brooks White, age 11.” The qualities that led McCord to recognize the young author who would one day write “Charlotte’s Web” can be summed up in the word “voice.”

Clark on reading aloud:

The most powerful tool on your workbench to test your writing voice is oral reading. Read your story aloud to hear if it sounds like you. When teachers offer this advice to writers, we often meet skeptical glances. You can’t be serious, say these looks. You don’t literally mean that I should read the story aloud. Perhaps you mean I should read the story “in-loud,” quietly, with my lips moving.

No, I mean out loud, and loud enough so that others can hear.

The writer can read the story aloud to herself or to an editor. The editor can read the story aloud to the writer, or to another editor. It can be read this way to receive its voice, or to modulate it. It can be read in celebration, but should never be read aloud in derision. It can be read to hear the problems that must be solved.

Tess Gerritson on receiving icepick criticism from strangers (paraphrased substantially; it’s a funny read–the 6/10/2005 post on her blog)

Then a complete stranger comes up to you and says, “That’s a really ugly kid.” Or: “It’s deformed!” Or: “People like you shouldn’t even have babies.”

That’s what it’s like to get a bad review. I’m not talking about the ho-hum “coulda been better” reviews. I’m talking about a really, really nasty one where the reviewer comes after your baby with an ice pick…

What do I mean by an “ice-pick” review? Herewith some of the winners that I’ve picked up over the years:

about HARVEST: “Will surprise only readers who move their lips.” (Publishers Weekly)

about BLOODSTREAM: “(Gerritsen’s) success is a sorry indicator of how far the book-buying public’s standards have sunk.” (Albany Times-Union)

about THE SURGEON: “Abusive garbage … The world would be a better place if she had stuck to her medical practice.” (Maine Times)

We’re not talking about the occasional off-the-wall reader reviews on Amazon.com (and believe me, I’ve received a few of those too. Including from a reader who couldnt get past the fact she “hated” the name of Jane Rizzoli. Imagine that! A complete stranger comes up to you and tells you that not only does she hate your baby, she hates your baby’s name!)

How many of you have jobs where strangers feel completely free to tell you how incompetent you are? Strangers who have never even tried to perform your job themselves? That’s what it’s like to be an artist or a performer. We spend months or years toiling over the work of our heart, and anyone — anyone at all — feels free to take an ice-pick to it.

That’s how it goes. Bad reviews come with the territory. But boy, it sure would feel good to walk up to a nasty reviewer one of these days and tell him: “You know what? You’ve got a really ugly baby.”

Two reactions. First, at least you’re getting written about. According to MJ Rose, over half of the books published these days aren’t being reviewed at all. Don’t underestimate the positive impact of even lukewarm or Icepick reviews. To have any readers these days–even malcontents– is a blessing. Second, I have a feeling that these icepick reviews are written out of resentment, perhaps because a big publisher stands behind a book. Championing the small publisher is always more sexy.

But you have to roll with the punches. Occasionally I publish things in bigger publications, and nowadays, you can attract hundreds of comments sometimes. I’m always tempted to respond or explain, but most of the time it is just seems futile and runs the risk of making you seem petulant. If anything, if people think you are were pilloried unfairly by a critic, they’ll read you more sympathetically.

(I’ve written more about this in my article Disclaimers and Conflicts of Interest 101 and my review of the worst book ever written according to Amazon.com commenters).

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