A while back I wrote this about reviews and how authors should react to them. Today, I thought I’d expand a bit – largely because I’ve been noticing a growing number of comments from more established authors advising new authors not to read reviews.
“Don’t ever read your reviews. If they’re good, you’ll get complacent. If they’re bad, you won’t be able to write for the rest of the day.”
My advice is not to obsess over reviews but not to ignore them either. I’m probably biased as my first reviews were on Del Rey’s online writer’s workshop. They were more critiques than reviews and it was the first feedback I’d ever received on my work. At last I could find out what other people thought of my work!
I soon found out that not all reviews are equal. Some reviewers appeared to be talking about a completely different story. Others really got it. And others saw something I hadn’t. The latter two were the most valuable.
The other thing I learned quickly was to develop a hard skin. Writers have to. No book, however brilliant, will be universally adored. Someone, somewhere will throw it against a wall after twenty pages, and then proceed to tell everyone on Amazon, Facebook and LJ that the book stank so much it even stuck to the wall.
It’s easy to use a bad experience like that as a reason not to read reviews. But my feeling is that that’s a way to lose touch with your readership. Using a musical analogy, it’s like the rock star who spends all their time in the studio and refuses to tour. Or only demo their songs to hardcore fans. Sometimes you learn some unexpected lessons by touring live – that certain songs, or types of songs, go down a lot better than expected, or that certain arrangements don’t. Not all critical reviews are mean-spirited or wrong.
I’m sure all of us know of a book series that started out brilliantly but then went rapidly downhill. Sometimes it’s because the series didn’t grow – book 7 was basically the same as book 2 with a few names changed. Sometimes it’s because the series changed too much – all the tightly-plotted suspense replaced by gratuitous sex scenes. Sometimes it’s because the publisher was making so much money out of the series they farmed the writing out to less talented co-authors to churn more books out. Or sometimes, perhaps, it’s because you changed.
In an interview with Gerald Clarke, P.G. Wodehouse was asked if he ever read reviews.
“I always read them really carefully. You do get tips from them. Now, that last Jeeves book of mine, Jeeves and the Tie That Binds, I forget which critic it was, but he said that the book was dangerously near to self-parody. I know what he meant. I had exaggerated Jeeves and Bertie. Jeeves always reciting some poetry or something. I’ll correct that in the next one. I do think one can learn from criticism.” *
P.G. Wodehouse was around 90 when he said that.
* copyright 2011 The Paris Review
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .