Monday, 10 August 2015

Book reviews and how to survive them

“I have spent a good many years since―too many, I think―being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all.” --Stephen King, On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft

There have been lots of public meltdowns lately about bad reviews. Authors take to social media to have a public hissy fit over a bad review, which then turns into a viral shouting match. Social media makes it all too easy to lash out, which never ends well. Read BookRiot on recent internet brawls over bad reviews (and why you should never do it).

But the truth is bad reviews hurt. They do. There’s no way around it. I’ve received my share of great reviews, and then the less-than-glowing reviews, too. We all do, it’s part of the job of being a writer, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not easy being at the mercy of public opinion.

You’ve worked on a book for a year (or two, or three or god knows, 5 or more), you’ve polished, you’ve created something from nothing and had the faith in yourself and in your skill and in your publisher’s vision for the work to send it out there into the world like a toddler to their first day of pre-school... and for whatever reason, or for reasons that you can’t fathom, the teacher dislikes your child.

It’s devastating. Of course you’re hurt. Astonished. You may lose faith in yourself and your ability, at least for a while. You’re helpless because your only option, truly, is to take it on the chin. All you can do is choose to stop writing forever (or threaten to for a while), OR wallow for a little, lie around for as long as it takes, then as Mr. Marley said, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over.

Here’s the truth: you aren’t alone.

Everyone who has ever created anything has received a terrible review for it somewhere, even if buried among the thousands of good ones. Even Stephen King. Even E.B. White (whose Stuart Little was universally hated by critics when it came out in 1947). Even Shakespeare had his “slings and arrows” from the critics. Once loosed upon it, the world can say whatever it likes about your creation. Art is vulnerability.

If you're looking for some perspective on reviews, here are 5 ideas that might help:

1.      Read historical reviews. A quick web search will turn up a heady cornucopia of terrible reviews for now-famous books. Here’s what Emily Bronte had to endure from Graham’s magazine about Wuthering Heights:  “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.”  Start with this link for more examples of terrible reviews for famous books from Flavorwire if you like, but don’t stop there, misery truly does love company.

2.      "Sucks like you”: go to youtube and watch all the hilarious videos of authors reading their 1-star amazon reviews, there are dozens of them. Start here: Authors Read Terrible Reviews

3.      The 10% rule: peruse all your favourite authors and books with hundreds or thousands of reviews on amazon and Goodreads, and note that Neil Gaiman, Anne Rice, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling (add your favourite author to this list) all have roughly a 90% positive rating (give or take a percentage or two), meaning that close to 10% of their reviews are 1- or 2-stars. Go look. It’s a thing I’ve noticed: 1 in 10 people (minimum) will hate a book, no matter what it is. That holds true for yours too, unfortunately. The bigger point is it's not logical to expect that everyone will like your book, since precedent, statistics and human nature make that impossible. 

4.      Other authors won’t recoil from you: your family and loved ones mean well by telling you not to worry about your bad review (bless them) and they think you’re a great writer, but they don’t really get the self-doubt a bad review can inflict upon a writer. You should also brace yourself and have a business-like chat with your publisher and your editor, if it’s an important national reviewer who has disliked your book (likely you’ll get quite a bit of support from them too). But your best friends right now are other authors. Hopefully you’ve got a group of trusted authors to talk to, commiserate with, run ideas past (and if you don’t, get on that). Share your bad review with them, let them lavish kindness (and copious amounts of wine or whatever) upon you, and remind you that it’s a rough job, and you’re not alone. Read blog posts about how other writers deal with less-than-stellar reviews (which clearly you’re doing right now, thank you), like this one: Give yourself stars and stickers

5.      What did I learn? It’s okay to write as many clever retorts to your bad reviewer as you like in your diary but DO NOT PUBLISH THEM ANYWHERE, EVER. You can wallow for a bit, even grieve (because it does feel a little like the public death of your book), cry, wander around in a fog for a while, tell yourself you liked your book, you know it’s good … then after the initial pain subsides, decide whether or not you’re ever going to read any more reviews. Plenty of authors don’t read reviews. Get your publicist or editor (or trusted friend, someone who knows your work and you well) to read it and distill it for you. Or just don’t read them.  And once again (if you didn’t look at it at the top of the page) read this blog post from BookRiot about why it’s so important to NOT respond to bad reviews (they specifically refer to Goodreads, but frankly it holds true for anywhere else, too): Dear Authors, Don't Respond to Goodreads Reviews

After a while doing this job of being a writer, I've realized that what's really important is to keep writing. It's always great to receive a good review, and thank you to the many, many reviewers who have liked or loved my books, it's really appreciated. But also thank you to anyone who has taken the time to read my books, frankly, whether they liked them or not.  

Finally, ask yourself this: did you write your book to please reviewers, or did you write it because it was a brain tick and you needed to write it or die? If you told the story you wanted to tell, and told it as well as you could, then you stuck to your artistic vision and that’s the greatest success any writer could have as far as I’m concerned. Kudos to all of us who manage that.

If you're still reading, check out pundit Chuck Wendig on "25 Hard Truths About Writing and Publishing." As he says: "Go forth and art harder, little pen-monkey. Because really, what else can you do?"


Frieda Wishinsky said...

Well stated. The toughest time for me is when a book comes out. I can't control what happens then. But somehow we writers pick ourselves up and try again. It's the process we love in the end.

Philippa Dowding said...

Exactly, Frieda. I think all writers feel incredibly exposed and vulnerable when a book first comes out, there are no guarantees as creators of art (minus the death and taxes). Thanks for reading!