What To Do With Bad Reviews

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

As a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

sleepingstudenty_LargeThe Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.W

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12 Responses

  1. Great blog, Lev, and wise. Virginia Woolf, I recall, took to her bed for a week after a bad review. And novelist Harold Frank Mosher here in Vermont would nail a negative review to the side of his barn and shoot it full of darts–made him feel good, he said. I was lucky with reviews until I put a mystery novel on Book Bub, had some 60 odd (very odd) reviews as a result–and one or two deliberately “sick” ones I couldn’t finish reading. Welcome to the cruel world. But we writers stick our necks out, don’t we?

  2. Thanks, Nancy! A celebrated novelist friend back in the days before the Internet suggested a world cruise when one’s book came out. But that wouldn’t work even if you turned off your phone because you might overhear someone talking about the book, or worse, have someone come up to you and mention the review. I was lucky. My very first print review was for a story in an anthology and it was a rave. Mine was one of a handful picked out to be mentioned so I framed the review. It stayed on my study wall for a long time as a talisman. 🙂

  3. Lev: One of the issues I cover in my classes is how to deal with negative comments in response to blogs or other on-line postings they do during the semester. Once we publish–a book or anything else–we open ourselves up to both positive and negative reaction. Learning how to handle the unfair comments/reviews is important and it is something that we need to help our students/new-authors learn how to do this.

    • Absolutely true, and you’re doing good work. Though negative reviews aren’t ipso facto unfair. Not everyone is going to like our work, and that’s also something new authors need to learn to cope with. However, even negative reveiews can sometimes have a nugget that can be used on the back of a book jacket. My publishers have done it, and one of the worst reviews I got for my first collection ended up being quoted positively. That was delightful “revenge.”

  4. When I am doing research, I occasionally interview someone who turns out to be out of date, uninformed, or otherwise useless to my research. That unfortunate incident does not destroy my project or kill my book. Likewise, reviews are not likely to kill an author or a particular book. I read ’em because that’s less traumatic than wondering what reviewers said. I even learn things from some of them.

    • I don’t find wondering about reviews traumatic. I’m with the Julian Barnes school. When I interviewed him for my radio show he said he and his wife had code. A great review was “We’ll have him/her for dinner” and a good one was “We’ll have him/her for tea.” A bad one was “We won’t be inviting him/her.” Of course, he did read the rave reviews. Who can blame him?

  5. Bravo and Amen, Lev! I would only add that if they don’t like my stuff, they’re WRONG!

  6. Great post, Lev. I am also careful about when and how I read course evals, as the few negative ones can take over in my head and throw the pile of lovely ones into a big dark shadow.

    A question: One of my books has a review on Amazon that’s just untrue and unfair (in the way it characterizes my own political & other beliefs). It was put up years ago & I have never responded, though it’s been tempting. What do you think: do you maintain your dignity and ignore it, or correct the record (in a civil way, obviously)?

    • Glad you liked it. As for the Amazon question: Never personally respond to any review anywhere, no matter how off base it is whether it’s a professional review or just a customer review on Amazon or a Goodreads review. You end up coming off as a crank and could start a flame war. If you feel strongly that the the Amazon review is factually wrong base, you can ask friends to click it as unhelpful or even ask a friend to comment on it as such. But authors should stay out of the mix.

  7. Reblogged this on Mitzi Flyte and commented:
    Very good advice…for anyone. Even non-writers get “reviews.”

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