Suppose Your Book Gets a Great Review in the Times

Few books, including Lolita (“highbrow pornography”), get great reviews in the New York Times. One that did is Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. According to Nicholson Baker, the reviewer, “Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own.” Someday — 20 years from now? — every review in the Times archives will be retrospectively assigned an Entertainment-Weekly-style grade by computer analysis and Baker’s review will be determined to have given an A to Shea’s book. I interviewed Shea about the experience.

Few of us will ever get such a positive review in the NY Times, so we must live vicariously. What were the effects on you of Baker’s review?

I have a sneaking suspicion that he liked the book more than I did, which is fine by me.  I’m an enormous fan of both his writing and his perspective on things, and there is no one who I would rather have had read it.  It did not change my feeling on who I am or what might lie in store for me in the future, but it did make me feel deeply and improbably happy.

What were the effects on your editor and publisher?

My editor [Marion Lizzi, who also edited The Shangri-La Diet] says she is quite happy with it as well, and I see no reason to disbelieve her.

What was the effect on sales?

I don’t know what the exact figures were, although I understand that they were significantly higher after the review came out.  I understand that the publisher is preparing another printing, which I suppose is to be credited at least somewhat to the effects of the review.

Did any friends/family contact you about the review?

Some of them did call or write – but both my family and my circle of friends are fairly small, so there was not so much hullabaloo.

How long did it take for the effect of the review to wear off?

It hasn’t worn off in some ways – I’m still delighted that Baker enjoyed reading the book.  However, in some other ways I’d say as soon as I began to seriously think about writing the next book that the incipient terror of that process nudged the residual celebratory feelings of the review somewhat to the side.

Earlier interview with Shea.