Sticks and stones…
I don’t read too many bad reviews of my books. Not because they’re not out there (they are) but because I have three things buffering me against them: a kind publicist, a dearth of tech-savviness, and my own fear. I only stalk a few select blogs and they’re written by people I suspect fit the profile of my perfect reader—they get me, they get my work and chances are, if they love and recommend a book, I will love it, too.
But occasionally I’ll stumble upon a bad review, often because the razor-blades are hidden in the last few pars and I’ve lulled myself into a false sense of security after stroking myself with a few opening phrases like ‘award-winning’ and ‘ground-breaking’. Bad reviews are like unopened bills—ignore them all you like but the print only gets bigger and redder. The only thing for me to do is read on. Then comes the sick feeling, the drop in my stomach, like I’ve missed the bottom step.
I have been known to print and obsessively read good reviews over and over (in an industry where rewards are more nourishing to the soul than the pocket, I take my warm and fuzzies wherever I can). There’s an immense satisfaction in savouring the connection between writer and reader, and in appreciating a reader’s (sometimes different) interpretation of your own writing. In the afterglow of reading a good review I’m one fat cat. My work has been validated, my characters loved, my work understood. Life is golden. It’s time to kick back and pour the daiquiris.
But the after-burn of a bad review, that’s something else. For me, grief over one bad review lasts longer than the euphoria over a good one (well, five good reviews, if I’m being honest). First, I wallow. Next, I drink. Then I get mad.
I’ve been criticised for using too much profanity (I’ll give you that one), of writing too darkly, for not dealing out justice where it is expected. I’ve had letters from readers who say I left them hanging or I didn’t make things clear enough. Some are frankly pissed that they spent twenty bucks, plus postage, on a book that wasn’t enough for them. I’ve been told I don’t have an authentic teen voice because my characters are too smart (I will not give you that one).
I’m not angry with the reviewer—I’ve realised that I cannot control a reader’s reaction to my writing; nor can I change it by responding to criticism. I can’t fix mistakes already in print; I can only acknowledge them and do better. An unflattering review feels personal, even if it is about my book, but an amazing thing happens after I read a bad review. I get mad with me.
I tell myself (internally, of course, because I don’t talk to myself):
‘You’re not a brain surgeon. You’re not an aid-worker and you don’t give a shit about world peace (I do really, but I tend to tackle big issues with small donations and I can’t afford more than one World Vision child). Your work is obscure, unloved and it will never mean as much to anyone else as it does to you, but there is a greater obscurity and you’ve been there. It’s a book, not a presidential speech; a book, not your last opus. You are a miniscule blot. You are a bottom-feeding amoeba in a bloody big pond and people are paying you to go to work in your pyjamas and tell big, fat lies. You wanted this.’
And it’s true. The biggest kick I get out of writing isn’t the royalty-cheque or the slowly lengthening line for my author signature. And it isn’t the good reviews. It’s the constant battle with myself—my laziness, my lack of self-belief, my blank page—because failure is a huge motivator for me. After my initial self-pity, a bad review sends me my back to my desk swinging. It’s a bitter burst of creativity and it usually sends me to some dark places, too, but hey.
Bad reviews inspire me.