By the numbers…

I’ll be staying with a friend for a few days in Paris later this summer. To thank her for her hospitality I decided to treat her to dinner at a Michelin rated three-star restaurant (where three is the maximum accolade). My first choice for over-the-top insanely wonderful (and expensive) food in a luxurious (but understated) atmosphere was Taillevent, a restaurant I’ve eaten at a few times over the years, always with great pleasure. I was shocked to learn that the restaurant had lost one of its precious stars in 2007. I was not only disappointed but also embarrassed to be so out of date. My second shock was to discover (how could I have forgotten) that the annual August closing of restaurants often begins in July. So, no Taillevent. On to the next. My next choice was Arpège, where I’ve never been, but has had dithyrambic reviews (and 3 stars) for as long as I can remember reading restaurant reviews. I was shocked (I’m easily shocked) that diners―on a separate ranking system–had given the three-star restaurant only 4 stars out of 5. And some positively hated the place. I’m waiting to hear back from them, though I suspect that they too will begin August on July 28―the last day I will be in Paris.

What does it mean that enough diners felt they did not have a 5-star experience in a 3-star restaurant? Or that they had a bad enough experience to bring the rating down to 4? Is it the restaurant or the eaters? Or the unpredictable encounter of an eater and her food? (Décor and service are part of the 3 stars, and how can one rank those except by “liking?” Pace de gustibus.)

Law-of-Large-Numbers-1024x640Anyway, I immediately and myopically analogized these restaurant rankings to Amazon rankings. My recent memoir has just lost ½ a star, down from 4 and ½ to 4. The readers who hate the book (or me) have dragged down the  readers who are fans from 5-4. I don’t know how the folk at Taillevent feel about their demotion, but I am vexed. I survived the review process at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly only to be demoted by a bored or irritated reader. And yet the readers who were not amused end up in a position to influence negatively any future reader. It makes no difference what the grouchy reader’s/eater’s palette is, the numbers―the stars―occupy the high ground.

Why does this bother me so much, beyond any author’s narcissistic pride?

The numbers and the stars always bring me back to a childhood memory. It’s specific but also unverifiable as so many childhood memories are. I must have been seven or eight―at whatever age girls (in that era) began to compare ourselves to other girls and figure out who is pretty and who is not. Mirror mirror on the wall.

One day, feeling that I was not as pretty as the popular girls in my class, I asked my father (the family consoler) whether I was pretty. My father hesitated and then answered with lawyerly precision: “Well, you are prettier than six out of nine girls.” I can still remember trying to figure out what those numbers meant. I could tell, but I already knew, that he meant that I was not the prettiest. He was trying to say, I thought then and still do now that he wanted to say that I was OK―neither the best nor the worst, somewhere in the middle. Six out of nine?

More and more our lives are ruled by numbers and not just metrics of appearance.
How many Facebook friends? How many Twitter followers?

I’m beyond old enough to know how dumb it is to count happiness by numbers. But I still do it.

Dream Reader, Nightmare Reviewer

This weekend brought two radically different responses to my new memoir that caused joy and despair, the alternation of outcomes my friend Carolyn used to refer to as the “swings and the roundabouts”―what you lose on the one (the swings), you gain on the other (the roundabouts). Things balance out in the end. In this case, though, it started with the roundabouts: a friend forwarded an email her twenty-year-old babysitter had sent her from vacation in the Dominican Republic, along with a selfie. I could not help smiling and sending it on to my friends.

IMG_8655The message read: “A pina colada and a cigarette in one hand, Nancy’s book in the other, with Spaniards and Frenchmen surrounding me. It’s actually a great vacation read.”

This image of my book lying on the thighs of a young woman I do not know, clearly enjoying herself on the beach, gave me a terrific kick. No other way to put it. While it’s true that the Press had labeled the book “travel/memoir” on the back cover, I had been skeptical about the category that I associate with guidebooks. The girl’s snapshot put another spin on travel: the book itself had traveled, and also the book could be read on vacation. I loved the beach atmosphere and above all the girl’s confidence radiating from the shot itself. I can’t quite work out how she took the picture, but the angle told the story.

There was also the surprise of seeing my younger self looking out from the book jacket on the lap of this lovely twenty-year old; it made me feel, more than any positive review (though I’ve been very grateful for those), thrilled that I had written a book that could speak to women in their twenties today, not just women of my generation, and that “real people” could read and enjoy. I was, briefly, a happy author.

A few hours later, I received an email from a young friend who had happened to see a review of Breathless in a newspaper I don’t read, but which is a major newspaper. She was excited for me and I was too―though cautiously―because this would have been my first, and probably only, review in national media. She hadn’t read the review but told me it was long.

I know enough by now not to look at reviews that might be negative, and I’ve asked the Press to send all reviews to my publicist and so that she can filter them. I need to know if there’s something bad out there (if other people know, and with Google everybody can, then I should know too), but I have found over the years that the hostile words stick in my brain and so I try to avoid reading bad news as much as possible. This one, alas, did not make it through the screening process. The Press let me down. But it turned out that our neighbors, who were away for the weekend, subscribe to the paper and it was sitting out there on the landing―unread. So my husband tiptoed over to their door and borrowed the paper in order to read the review for me. He stood in the kitchen with his back to me, reading for what seemed like a very long time. I studied his back, hoping for some kind of involuntary movement that would give me a clue as to what the review contained. Finally, he finished and turned to look at me, sadly. I asked him if there was anything good in it, and he said no. But he gave me some of the flavor of the prose, enough for me to recognize this as one of those “mean girl” reviews and one that smelled like the culture wars. He put the paper back on the landing.

One of the dangers of writing in the first-person―as a critic or a memoirist―is that readers may outright hate you, your “I,” your persona. A version of “he’s just not that into you.” But what has always baffled me is why, when a critic picks up an essay or a book and feels a visceral repulsion for the writer, and everything she stands for, why go ahead and review it? It always then gets personal in the most ad feminam way. I remember a reviewer of a book about my family, who wrote: “And she’s not even grateful her parents sent her to Barnard.”

Not surprisingly, the bad review erased all the pleasure the email with selfie attached had given me. And being me―and not my friend―in this situation the roundabouts did not even begin to even out the swings.

It’s too late in my life for me to develop a thicker skin―always the recommendation at this point. So I’ll just have to wait for the bad stuff to exit my system. Like a hangover, it always does.