Any writer can tell you that a nasty book review is a stab straight to the heart – it’s like someone telling you your child is ugly. Actually, my own mother’s reaction to the first photo of my first daughter – now a legendary beauty as regular readers of this blog already know – was not especially diplomatic. ‘Well, I guess all babies are ugly.’ This by telephone, half way around the world, on receiving the first photo, by airmail, of the Most Beautiful Child Ever. And I got over that.
So, correction: a dismissive review is worse than someone telling you your child is ugly. But the difference, really, is that you know the Bad Reviewer is right. After all, you know your child is the most beautiful human being in existence – well, until your second child is born, anyway – but with your book, you have a weirdly snug feeling that only you know how bad the book really is. Nobody else – certainly not a reviewer – will ever see all the tiny awful failures that you encounter on almost every page. The places where you couldn’t quite find the right word, or couldn’t quite explain something well enough without it getting so long and convoluted that the explanation caused more problems than it solved. So curiously, my actual worry about my Bad Review was that the reviewer missed the book’s worst failings! For better or worse, the Author of the Bad Review did make one or two actual mistakes – probably not liking a book makes it harder to concentrate! – and that was somehow consoling. And I was gratified that the Publishers of the Bad Review were willing to publish some sensible and friendly setting-the-record-straight paragraphs by yours truly about the Mistakes by yours truly, which you can read here. (I promise, I would give a link to the Bad Review itself, but the TLS has a paywall for most of its content aside from the letters section. I think mainly the reviewer didn’t like the book’s tone, which is relentlessly cheerful despite all the alarming obstacles early Christian women had to face.)
Now, back to the Scowling Baby – did I mention how beautiful she is, these days!? She is now an almost-grown-up person, with a mind of her own, and it turns out that the nine months of bliss and seasickness that went into producing all of those tiny fingers and toes were only the beginning. I look at her now, and think, did I have anything to do with this miraculous creature coming into the world?! Living with a teen-ager can be terrifying at times, but for the most part it is awe-inspiring.
I suppose the books we write begin to have lives of their own, too. I have received messages from all over the world from people who have read Band of Angels, and found in it something of their own. I love the fact that long after I stop worrying about all the mistakes I made, the book will continue to fall into people’s hands and move them in ways I could never predict. Some of the letters I have received came from people who received the book as a gift, and one or two have written, delightfully, to say that they gave the book as a gift, and that the recipient liked it. A surprising number of those who have written to me have been from men – perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised – and they, too, are finding their own unexpected connections to the lost world that the book visits. So the conversation continues – and it is sometimes terrifying, but for the most part, it is awe-inspiring. For my own part, I will gladly continue listening in.