James McBride Doesn’t Read Reviews. Here’s Why.

If you’re an author who happens to be a glutton for punishment or, worse, an insomniac — or, disaster scenario: both — you might be familiar with a certain masochistic feedback loop. It begins on Goodreads, which tends to have the gentlest of anonymous criticism, and ends with Amazon’s ratings system, that easily sortable and searchable slam book which doesn’t tread on a writer’s dreams so much as stampede them. Between these poles are all forms of social media; and, on a different continent but still the same planet, reviews printed in the font you’re reading now.

When it comes to all of the above, James McBride takes a page from Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Like the titular clerk, McBride prefers not to — in his case, read reviews. “I’m just not strong enough to do it,” he said during a phone interview about “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,” his new best seller, which Danez Smith described in their review as “a charming, smart, heart-healing and heart-blistering novel.”

McBride went on: “I’m happy for good reviews. I’m grateful that people read the work. But I’ve always found it healthier not to listen to what other people say.”

He credits his mother — and his background as a reporter — with instilling this attitude. “I went to Columbia for journalism,” McBride said. “I’m still of the mind that for anything good to happen in terms of gathering data, you’ve got to go out and just put your shoes on and hit the sidewalk. If you’re writing about humans, you’ve got to be around humans. The big secret to writing good books is to stay around people, and not stay around what they write on the internet.”

McBride admits that he will occasionally have a paragraph of commentary foisted on him by a well-meaning messenger who insists that he must read it. He won’t say no; it’s nice to receive a bit of praise every now and then. But, McBride said, “I can’t write for what other people expect; I’m just trying to explore the world.”

While he was working on “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,” McBride made a number of pilgrimages to Pennsylvania — to Pottstown, where the book takes place; to Norristown State Hospital and “the horrific Pennhurst sanatorium up the road in Spring City,” as he describes it in the book; and, perhaps most important, to the Variety Club Camp in Worcester, where he worked as a counselor when he was a teenager. (To find out how he wove these places together, you’ll have to read the book … or the review.)

“I wrote this book like I wrote all my other books. I went out and talked to people,” McBride said. “Oftentimes I came up with nothing other than an empty tank. But, you know, the gold nuggets are everywhere.”

Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”

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