I began reviewing for BookBrowse at almost the exact moment that I began writing my book, The Mark Inside. There's no question that growing my own book affected how I read others' finished ones. I found myself immediately, instantly, irrevocably generous. I don't mean that I liked everything I read. Far from it. I mean that I found myself unwilling to dismiss anything without at least trying to understand why the author had designed it that way. In other words, everything suddenly seemed deeply intentional and well-meant, if not always well-executed.
As soon as I handed my manuscript over to the publisher and began the long wait until publication, I began to dread the reviews. I knew that the first negative comment had the potential to send me into the depths of misery, even if I knew it was unfair. Sometimes the rational mind can dismiss a barb but the emotional mind cannot. How could I arm myself against the sharp words of reviewers and critics?
The solution to the problem was office supplies. As it so often is.
I invested in a set of highlighter pens in five different colors. I would print out each review that arrived on my computer screen, and I would tackle it with the highlighters: one color for plot summary, one for praise, one for criticism that struck me as justified, another for the mean kind. The idea was that marking up the reviews would tame them. By placing each sentence into a little colored box, I would prevent them from growing in importance in my mind. I'd tape the reviews to the wall of my office and stand back to regard a visual map of the critical reception of my book. As I was formulating my plan, the New York Times Magazine informed me of the color codes for highlighting the Bible. Yes. This was going to work.
Then the reviews started to arrive. And they were good! I stopped preemptively flinching each time I checked my email and I allowed myself to exhale. Each enthusiastic word printed about my book filled me with gratitude, even the handful of sentences that qualified the reviewers' praises, because they were all written in good faith. The biggest surprise of the whole process was how many articles breezily disclose the book's ending, as if suspense weren't an integral part of the reader's experience of a book. I have been quite conscientious about plot spoilers in my own BookBrowse reviews, and the site's editors have caught me whenever I've erred. Overall, though, it felt like the reviewing I've done here at BookBrowse is continuous with the reviews my own book garnered, like there really does exist a community of readers and writers who genuinely love books, quite apart from the carping and turf wars elsewhere in the publishing world. I never did open that package of highlighters.
Amy Reading holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. She is the author of The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con, published by Knopf (March 2012). She lives in upstate New York with her husband and two children.