Yesterday my editor at HarperCollins emailed me the happy news–that Fresh off the Boat, my autobiographical novel about a 14 year old immigrant girl’s first year in America, was selected as one of the New York Public Library’s “Best Books for the Teenage” for 2006 (this means books published from the prior year).
I was really excited and I emailed the news to my whole family. Fresh off the Boat is a little different from my fun, escapist Au Pairs novels, and it’s a book I wanted to write ever since I survived freshman year in high school. It’s also the book that has garnered me my best reviews, and this made me think about the first-ever review of my book that I ever read.
The BAD one.
Cat’s Meow, my first novel, was published in 2001, and as a new author, I was very, very excited about its launch. I kept checking Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com just to see it posted on the site, with all the other books. Until I sold my first novel, for years, going to bookstores or libraries became very painful for me.
I literally would feel so sick in my stomach looking at all those wonderful books on the shelves, thinking that I would never see a book of mine among their ranks. I even stopped reading, denying myself my favorite activity–it just felt like the world had said ‘No’ to my dreams and to be a frustrated writer was just too hard to bear, especially when I was making a living writing computer code.
So when Cat’s Meow was sold, and then published, it was the happiest time of my life, and then I saw it–The Kirkus Review–the first review of my work, ever, in public. It was on Barnes and Noble, and it was a BAD review–an AWFUL review, it was so bad, that websites that covered the book publishing industry quoted from it, saying that my book (and my writing career) had “no lives left” (some kind of play on the “cat” in the title).
The review didn’t just say my book SUCKED, it said women would “burn their Blahniks” upon reading my book, because they wouldn’t want to be associated with my main character. YIKES!
And the weird thing was that, as I was reading it, I didn’t even realize the reviewer HATED my book until the very end–when he or she just comes out and says it. I turned to my then-boyfriend (now husband) in shock and horror. Mike was just as upset as I was, but his reaction was anger–it’s hard to have something hurt a loved one and not be able to do anything about it. He tried to console me, but I felt awful for weeks. That same sick feeling in my stomach returned. I believed I would never be able to write another book ever again, no one would ALLOW me to right another book ever again.
I told my parents, and like Mike, my mother immediately wanted revenge–the reviewer’s head nailed to the door, while my dad merely shrugged and told me to dismiss it, because “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” and reading books is a subjective, personal pleasure–there is no one great objective scale on which art can be judged. Stuff you love, someone else will hate. There was nothing I can do to change what someone thinks of me or my work.
At the time, I tried to come around to my dad’s way of thinking. But it’s taken years to really understand what he was saying–Madonna always said that if there were 100 people in a room, and 99 of them loved her but 1 did not, she didn’t care about the 99, she would be obsessed with making that last person change their mind. That was kind of how I felt–I didn’t care that Cat’s Meow ultimately got AWESOME reviews –it was even featured in the New Yorker! Ha! All I could think about was that one BAD review…
But not anymore. I guess I just grew up. And I’ve published more books since then, and I’ve had my share of bad, midddling and great reviews for my work. And when Fresh off the Boat got UNIVERSALLY great reviews, particularly from Kirkus (I have forgiven them now. Peace.), it felt good, but interestingly enough, not as great a high as the low the bad review took me too…
Because by this time, I knew my dad was right. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and you can’t change how people think about you, or your work, or your clothes, etc… You need to learn how to just live with it, and know that the freedom to have an opinion exists for you as well…
Which brings me to the New York Times Book Review piece today, by Naomi Wolf, on The Gossip Girl, A-List and Clique series of books. It’s a scathing review of the genre, she basically says that these books overturn the traditional viewpoint of moral values, like how poor-girl Claire in the The Clique wants to be more like rich-girl Massie rather than rebel against her materialistic values. Wolf called these books “candy covered corruption”. (My Au Pairs books are developed with the same company that created all of these books.)
And as I was reading it, I just thought, well, you just don’t get it… these books are guilty pleasures, and one of the things that is FASCINATING about the Clique is the way the Claire character isn’t the typical goodie-goodie–she wants what everyone else really, honestly wants too–to be popular. I very much enjoy the GG and Clique series, (I’m not a huge fan of the A List for some reason) and they strike a chord with readers–they are well-written, fun, escapist, with real, complex characters. I thought Wolf put out a cheap shot mocking Cecily Von Ziegesar for saying how Cecily thinks her books as “aspirational”, Wolf writes acidly: “As if that’s a good thing.”
Why is it so wrong to be aspirational? I don’t get it–it’s got a nice word in it “aspire” and to be aspirational means to want something MORE for yourself. I just read Jay McInerney’s new book The Good Life, and part of why I enjoy his fiction is because it IS aspirational–at 17, living in South San Francisco (“The Industrial City”), I read Bright Lights Big City, and I wanted so much to MOVE to New York to experience all that–dinners at the Odeon, inside jokes on the Colombian Marching Band, nightclubs, and in The Good Life I love all the details on how Park Avenue apartments are decorated, and what kind of olive oil to buy. (I thought the book kind of fell apart in the post-9/11 chapters, but I enjoyed everything else leading up to it.)
And as I was reading Wolf’s piece, my dad’s words of wisdom rung in my head: Everyone’s Entitled to their Own Opinion. Even Naomi Wolf. I wasn’t a big fan of The Beauty Myth either.
In more FUN news–I had lunch at Joan’s On Third the other day and who walked in but Kirsten Dunst! She looked so fab, she had long, messy red hair, a huge white v-neck T-shirt (probably like Hanes or Fruit of the Loom, it didn’t look like one of those “designer” white T-shirts), tucked into tight, tight, tight olive jeans and a thick olive belt looped around her tiny waist. And chic Lanvin flats and a big slouchy leather bag. She’s a doll, she waited on line like everyone else (although I noticed that the owner gave her a big hug), got her curry chickpea salad and beet salad and went on her way.
Then last night we saw David Lynch eating dinner at a sidewalk cafe in Los Feliz, with his shock of white hair and black suit. It was cool, we are big fans. My husband is the one who recognized him. Then today at the Coffee Bean I saw Michael DesBarres! Admittedly, he’s a D-List celebrity- those who even recognize his name must be Duran Duran fans, like I was. I saw The Power Station in concert in 1986, and Michael DesBarres subbed in for Robert Palmer on the tour, and so he’s a celebrity in my humble opnion! 🙂
Hope everyone is having a great weekend! BLUE BLOODS comes out in less than a month!!