Last year I was on a panel with four people who write review columns. It was a cordial panel but the contention was there, beneath the polite acknowledgements of each other's basic worth. Reviewers are usually regarded by writers with the same wariness that timid children regard strange dogs: Will it bite me? Like me? Ignore me? Is it safe to approach?
Since I have had two books come out in the last two months, I have had a ton of reviews. Most, I'm glad to say, have been favorable. But reviews do more than label a book "good" or "bad." They can also baffle, enlighten, or frustrate.
One that enlightened was Gary Wolfe's review in LOCUS of my collection FOUNTAIN OF AGE AND OTHER STORIES. The review begins: "Nancy Kress likes domes." It turns out that over half of the stories in the collection feature domes -- and I had never realized it. I, the writer. What made this particularly interesting is that I just turned in a story for SOLARIS 2 that is all about domes: their manufacture and uses and social consequences. What would Freud make of this?
A review that baffled me came from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, reviewing AFTER THE FALL, BEFORE THE FALL, DURING THE FALL. In the novella, a woman named McAllister leads a very small band of desperate survivors who can briefly visit the past at unpredictable intervals to grab supplies and children, who otherwise are destined for mass destruction. The reviewer refers to the kids as "juvenile delinquents" and asks: "Does the fact that she is saving mankind make McAllister any better than Charles Dickens's Fagin?" My jaw dropped. Well.... YES.
Sometimes reviewers have opposite views that end up confusing the author. Pete, a protagonist of AFTER THE FALL, was described at Tor.com as "one of the most tragic figures I've encountered in SF in a long time....Pete's story is simply heartbreaking and unforgettable." LOCUS, on the other hand, found Pete to "at times partake too easily of what I've come to think of as the Hugh Hoyland prototype SF character from Heinlein's 'Universe' -- the rebellious young investigator in a rigidly contained society whose curiosity leads him to challenge received wisdom."
And one reviewer of FOUNTAIN OF AGE AND OTHER STORIES found the stories "not scary enough." That scared me about his review. Not one of the stories is meant to be horror.
So where does all this leave the writer? Sometimes shrugging philosophically, sometimes trying to learn from reviews, sometimes just ready to go drown her mystification in a bottle of nice Chardonnay.