Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Paula Yoo on Book Reviews

I've reviewed books for CLCD for years now. I sweat over these reviews. I check facts, read and reread, try to make I'm not responding from some temporary impulse, but giving the book a fair assessment. Only three times have I ever heard from authors about my reviews. One was a complaint. The other two were notes of thanks. Two of the three reviews were mixed, containing compliments but also raising a critical point or two. One of the thank-you notes came from Paula Yoo. We traded e-mail messages about writing and reviews, and here's the conversation.

UK: Writers either exult over reviews, if they're good, or curse them if they're not. Some writers never even read the reviews of their books--it's just too traumatic an experience. But you have another way of looking at reviews, as part of a larger conversation of books. Talk about that.
PY: I always read my reviews, good or bad! Of course, I'm human, so positive reviews make me smile while critical reviews made me sad. But I believe critical reviews are vital to the writing process - how can you become a better writer if you don't analyze a reader's criticism of your work? It is an honor and privilege to have your writing published, so I believe it is my duty and responsibility as a writer to read and analyze all criticism of my work in order to grow as a creative artist. If I think a reviewer brings up an important critical point, I examine my work and ask myself - "How could I have avoided this criticism in the first place?" If I disagree with a reviewer's review, I must come up with a solid defense with concrete examples to support my original stand on why I chose to write the way I did. I look at book reviewers as part of a necessary dialogue between writer and reader - as long as a review is written fairly and with specific examples to support the reviewer's opinion, I take great pride in my words having such a strong effect on someone.

UK: Tell me how you got to thinking this way.
PY: I am also a musician and former journalist. Both worlds helped me develop a "thick skin" when it came to negative criticism and learning not to take it personally. As a violinist, I have done numerous auditions for concerto competitions and orchestra seatings and music gigs. I also attended dozens of master classes in college where a music professor would criticize everyone's performances in a workshop setting. You get rejected a lot as a musician - I learned to use these rejections to figure out what I did wrong at an audition so I wouldn't make the same mistakes again in the future. I was also a newspaper and magazine journalist for ten years - it's a brutal industry where editors don't have time to coddle you. If they hate your story, they won't mince words. There's no time to waste because of all the pressing deadlines. I quickly learned never to take these criticisms personally - in the end, all that mattered was THE STORY. Not your ego. Now that I'm lucky enough to be working full time as a novelist and TV writer, I've taken those lessons to heart.

UK: How can writers develop their ability to be critical readers, and why is this important?
PY: I think it's hard for writers to separate their personal selves and personal lives from their writing, because often, writers write what they know best - themselves. My debut novel GOOD ENOUGH is clearly very autobiographical - so when I read any negative criticism about the main character, I admit at first I took offense because the main character was ME! (I will add that fortunately I've been lucky and mostly gotten very lovely reviews!) But in the long run, I was able to separate my personal self from the reviews because... it IS a novel. It is NOT a memoir. I took real events in my life and transcended them, looking beyond the facts for an emotional journey and dramatic arc that turned a funny personal real-life anecdote into a much deeper and more symbolic fictional story. So once I realized that, it was easy to become a critical reader of my own fiction writing because I never asked myself, "What would I do here?" but rather, "What would my character do here? Is that consistent with the character's personality traits? What does my character want? What am I trying to say about life via my fictional characters based on my real life?" And so on. So I would say all writers should learn how to let go and treat their characters as FICTIONAL CHARACTERS who represent a greater theme about life that the writer feels passionately about. Once you can separate your personal self from the narrative fiction, it's much easier to become a critical reader. It's a tough balancing act but worth it because, in the end, you grow not only as a writer but as a human being... being a strong critical reader helps you focus on what YOU feel passionately about and what YOU want to write about next!

UK: You've been a reviewer, so you know that role. And you're sympathetic towards Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), the critic who delivers the monologue at the end of Ratatouille. You don't think that was just disingenuous? Talk about how having worn the reviewer's cloak (and dagger?) shapes your thinking as a writer.
UK: I was an English major in college, so when I wrote book reviews during my journalism days, I was quite careful in respecting the hard work that the author did in writing his/her book. I love to read "for fun," but as a book reviewer, I had to judge a book not only on its writing but also on its mission. Did the author accomplish his/her mission with the book? Did they successfully explore the themes set out in the book with the plot, character arcs, and so forth? My biggest concern as a book reviewer was not to be woken up from what I call the "fictional dream." I love it when the real world around me disappears and the book becomes my only world. But as a reviewer, that is not enough to earn a positive book review. I then also read for language - was the voice original and compelling? Did the story make sense? Were there interesting twists and turns that surprised me? Did I feel the characters "earned" their endings? I despise lazy writing (cliches, not thinking outside the box, etc.) because I feel that insults the reader who is spending time and money to read the book. So I expect a writer to treat me with the same respect I treat his/her book with my reading! :)

As for the famous monologue at the end of the movie RATATOUILLE, what I loved specifically about it was the line, "But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new." That is what book reviewers hunger for - a new voice, a new vision, a new way of looking at life. I always think about that when I write, often wondering, is what I'm writing original? Why should I write this story? Why should anyone care about my story? That inspires me and keeps me from lazy writing! I also liked the line, "Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere." To me, that meant that not everyone can be a great writer, but that's okay - they can be great readers. For we need both - one can't survive without the other. Too often, I have heard writing workshops and your Average Joe claim that everyone has a story to tell. That may be true, but not everyone can write that story well! The writer is not "better" than the reader - they are equals. So as a writer, I strive to honor my readers by respecting and analyzing negative reviews to make me the best writer possible... because our readers deserve nothing less!

UK: Thank you Paula. Good writing to you, and great reviews!


  1. Great conversation, Uma, and humbling, too. I especially like the bit about distancing one self from the personal experience and remembering that this is no longer "our" story, but the character's. Easy to say, not always easy to do, at least for me :)
    I also wonder if there isn't a whole cultural dimension to one's approach to critique? I believe that the person who was schooled in France - probably in India, too, wouldn't you say? - learned to take criticism a little better than the person who grew up in a system where things are not expressed as bluntly - not to defend one way or another, as there can be abuses in both systems. Still, developing that "thick skin" can turn out to be mightily helpful, if one is to embrace the kind of career where they'll have to face a lot of rejection and criticism.

  2. Growing a thick skin certainly helps, and we never prepare writers for all the shades of opinion that reviews can hold.