A friend who has recently published her second mystery novel (published, as in a real New York publisher and a respectable one at that) lamented online how difficult and anxiety-provoking it was for her to read reviews of her work.
While anticipating her first novel appearing in the bookstores, she suffered, “visions of humiliation, public contempt, vicious attacks on my writing, plot, and [background] information. I slept poorly and contemplated changing my name and moving to Belize.”
This person is an adult, an accomplished professional, and had done her authorial homework. She’d had solid workshop experience in addition to a rigorous academic background, so she was no stranger to feedback. What is it about reviews that can turn the most secure of us into quivering jellyfish (swimming toward Belize)? Why do we give them such power over us?
After all, anyone can write a review these days. No training or experience — or taste or perspicacity — are required. Just look at the reader reviews on amazon.com or similar sites. Blog reviews range from insightful to malicious to blindly adoring. Nor is it necessary to have actually read the book in question. I stumbled upon a review of Lace and Blade 2 several months before it was to be released (and since the publisher is Print of Demand, no ARCs had yet been sent out, no one but me had seen the final manuscript): “Not very good.” Since I knew the reviewer could not have read it, I had to ask, why post such a comment? Simply to strew the internet with negativity? To pose as knowing everything about everything? Some personal vendetta against one of the authors?
The generic nature of the comment offers a clue. Amateur reviewers can be thoughtful, articulate, and fair-minded. But they can also use the vehicle of the internet to disguise their personal agendas. I saw this in the comments about a recently-published book from a small press that dealt (with imagination and humor, I thought) with a controversial theme. Some reviewers had the honesty to say, “This was not my cup of tea” or “I disagree with the underlying premise.” But others simply said “It’s a bad book” with so little explanation that the remark could have been applied equally well to James Joyce’s Ulysses, the Kama Sutra, and an unabridged Mongolian-French dictionary.
Had it been my own work in question (and at times, it has been), I would no doubt have taken the generic judgment at face value. However, this instance and subsequent discussion led to a different perspective: that all too often, reviewers react to their own personal disturbance by denigrating whatever sets them off. Today’s world does not lack for hot-button issues and personal grudges.
Of course, not all negative reviews are based on unconsidered personal prejudice towards the subject material (or even the author). A member of a writer’s workshop used to occasionally preface remarks with “Normally, I would rather walk barefoot over hot coals than read this type of fiction,” and then proceed to give a reasoned, intelligent, and helpful critique. I might go so far as to say that a review that does not discuss a book’s shortcomings is likely to be superficial at best.
Regardless of the value of negative commentary, is it useful for the author to read such reviews? For that matter, is it useful for an author to read reviews that are unadulterated glowing praise? I suggest that it is not.
Most people seek approval, bask in adulation, and writers are no different. We want to be told we’ve done well, that our words are glorious, timeless, stupendously wonderful, stunning, rousing, awesome, terrific, and any number of the phrases so casually thrown about. The bottom line is that we can get all this and more from our dogs. Does it help us to become better writers?
(It is helpful when learning the craft of writing to know what has worked or not for a reader. Often the most valuable form of critique for me runs along the lines of, “You lost me here.”)
To write, we have to do just the opposite. We have to turn away from external feedback and listen to our inner voices, discern those visions that are ours alone. Praise, because it is pleasurable, is particularly potent and difficult to disregard. Therefore, it poses a greater threat to the creative process than does outright criticism. Yes, some beginning writers crumble under harsh feedback and never write again. But even more of us shape our work and distort our vision because of praise.
This is why many writers won’t show works-in-progress — the stories are not yet fully formed, vulnerable to someone else’s opinion. So what’s the harm in reading reviews, once the story is published? Hopefully, that story will not be your last. Reviews, whether positive or negative, persist in the writer’s mind. If we have only so many years in which to spin out the stories of our hearts, can we afford even the ghost of a distraction, not to mention the hours of anguish, insomnia, and thoughts of Belize?
We are all human. I have no expectation that I, or anyone who reads this, will successfully resist reading reviews. I hope, however, that we will take them cautiously, mindfully, ever aware of their illusory seduction . . . and then set them aside as best we can and get on with our real work.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing fantasy and science fiction professionally since 1982. Her first novel, a space adventure written under her former name, Deborah Wheeler, is now available as an ebook from Book View Cafe Press. Read her latest collaboration with Marion Zimmer Bradley, the Darkover novel Hastur Lord.