Book reviews: Do they make a difference to you?

First aired on As It Happens (06/07/2012)

It must be a nerve-wracking experience for an author to open up a copy of the New York Times knowing a review of their latest book is in those pages.

It certainly was for Patrick Somerville when he tried to read the review of his novel This Bright River. He could tell right away it wasn't going to be generous. It's a bit of a giveaway when the headline includes the description "unmoored and meandering."

patrick-somerville-bio.jpg"First, I gave the computer to my wife when I realized it was not the greatest review in the world, and I let her read it, and absorb it ahead of time," Somerville told As It Happens recently.

"But she mentioned she thought maybe there was a misreading in there, and eventually I gathered myself and sat down and read it myself, and it was strange."

What was strange was that the reviewer seemed to have confused two characters at a critical juncture in the plot, which influenced her perception of the story the rest of the way. As Somerville later wrote in Salon," there was no way the plot could have made any kind of sense to her, given that error."

It was a frustrating experience for him, since he believes around 100,000 people read that review by the following morning. But what happened next helped ease the shock and anxiety of it all.

bright-river-cover-110.jpgSoon after the review was published, Somerville found an email from New York Times culture editor Ed Marks sitting in the inbox of the email address he had created for Ben Hanson, the protagonist of the novel. In the book, Ben sends out a few emails, so Somerville thought it would be fun to answer reader questions in the voice of the character. The editor, in a playful but serious way, asked Ben to clarify the plot line that seemed to confuse the reviewer. The email began: "Given the vagaries of fictional life, I understand that you might not be able to answer this question..."

Somerville started a correspondence with the editor as Ben, which led to the Times printing a correction about the misread plot. The author appreciated the fact-checking and although he doesn't believe this well-publicized incident will help his book sales, at least fictional character Ben made a new friend.

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