How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Almost) Love Reviews

June 14, 2011

by Deborah Atherton

Once upon a time, in my ever-more-distant youth, I longed for reviews. Reviews meant someone out there had noticed that you existed. And at that time of my life, I also loved reviewing things, and saying exactly what I thought about them, in the most clever way I could. I particularly liked it when authors wrote back, explaining why I DIDN’T GET IT, giving me the opportunity for a second go round. And sometimes, I admit, even when I review things as a grownup (or as grownup as I am likely to get) the old impulse to be snarky overcomes me, and I write down something I know I really shouldn’t.

These days, I’m less excited by getting reviews. Bad reviews remain disappointing, and good reviews still inspire some elation, but I’m far enough down the road to realize it probably doesn’t make a heck of a lot of difference in the long run. Yes, in this day of the Internet, everything you have ever written, and everything anybody has written about you, remains ever-present. But the truth is, nobody much cares. (Unless of course, you are the producer of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, when presumably whomever provided the much vaunted $65 million dollars wants some return on their investment other than media indignation over the mounting body count.) But I’ve had bad reviews, and I’ve had good reviews, and I’ve had no reviews – I’m beginning to sound like a Sondheim character – and I’m still here. I’m not famous; I’m not infamous. I’m a mid-career artist with a day job which, while it does not make use of my ability to create rhyming couplets, accomplishes some good in the world.

What the young authors who wrote to me, the even younger reviewer, did not understand at the time was that I didn’t have to get it. I might even have been right in my judgments; it is too long ago to remember exactly what prompted them. What I remember today is the thrill of getting a real letter (because in those days, of course, there was no email) from a real writer. And I try to remind myself, when I read reviews good and bad and indifferent, that it is all communication between creators and audiences, and whether I am on the receiving end, or the judging end, what matters is the excitement in that flicker of acknowledgement. Somebody read my work, or watched my work, and whether they liked it or not, they thought a little bit about it and wrote something down in response. And that, in the end, is what it is all about.

And all that being said, if you’d like to read one of my recent reviews (and yes, of course, it is one I liked!) check out:  New History Operas on the Way: Monsters and Wars.