The Dos and Don’ts of Reacting to Bad Reviews

The other day, my friend Mai on Facebook pointed to an article about Sheryl Sandberg’s publicist, who sent the following tweet to Kate Losse, who’d reviewed her already endlessly discussed tome Lean In:

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My first reaction to this was “Sheryl Sandberg’s publicist wrote this? Most authors who lose their heads and attack critics have to do it themselves. I guess the rich really can staff out everything.” Then it occurred to me that Sandberg’s in a tougher position than most of us, in a way. Almost all authors spend their lives in a world of no, while corporate officer types can go for months or even years without meeting anyone who tells them “No”, “Forget it”, or (to their faces) “You’re full of shit”. Isolation from this kind of rejection can make even the mildest criticism seem both surprising and devastating.

Of course, there are worse ways for the rich and powerful to handle criticism.

So, as service to Sheryl–I can call you that right?–and all those others about to be where I’ve been, I wanted to present these dos and don’ts of handling negative reviews.

If possible, DON’T read your reviews.

I say “if possible” because not everyone has the luxury of a group of handlers who can read reviews and post the good quotes from them on the author’s social media pages and blog. Most authors have to handle that shit themselves, or it doesn’t get done.

But if you’re lucky enough that you can leave publicizing reviews to others, skip the reviews. Even if you could learn something from bad notices, you won’t because you’ll never be in the right frame of mind to read them objectively. A bad review can help you get into a marriage/relationship threatening snit for a few days, but since the laws of the universe won’t let you send the review back in time, it can’t help you rewrite your now-finished book. Neither should you want that bad review inside your head when writing the next book. Your head has room for only one inner critic. It ought to be you.

But most of us have to read reviews, so…

DON’T respond in public.

Really. Don’t. The internet is replete with tales of authors venting their rheum on their critics. (In the case of Richard Ford, this is literal.) And while everybody knows that literature ain’t all cucumber sandwiches, wine, and brie, everybody should also know that every time an author attacks a critic, it’s the author who comes off as an asshole.

Yeah, life isn’t fair. But of course, a lot of us started writing books to expose, or at least lament on, life’s unfairness, so it shouldn’t surprise us that this aspect of the literary world isn’t fair either. The inequity probably has to do with perceptions of power. Historically, publication confers on authors a disproportionate amount of prestige. Even now, when easy self-publication has made published authors about as rare as dust pollen, the position retains a vestigial esteem among readers. Book reviewers, even the famous ones, look like lesser figures. Sure, their reviews are often more widely read than the books they’re reviewing, but nobody throws a party when a review comes out. Nobody asks Michiko Kakutani to read her latest notices to a packed house at the public library assembly hall. Reviewers don’t tour. (Few authors do either, but still…) Demand is slow for autographed clips.

Of course, authors see the power relationship differently, regarding book critics as these cruel gatekeepers eager to destroy or reward on whims. Authors see negative reviews, especially those in print, as ineradicable stains on their reputations, and believe that anyone who’d write one is a monster dedicated to their personal ruin. But these feelings don’t count. (Again, life isn’t fair)

Because of the power difference the public sees between authors and book critics, an author who attacks a reviewer in public looks like Russell Crowe hurling a phone at a bellhop. Critics under assault from authors look like what they are: people being abused for doing their jobs. However justified the author may feel (and any article on motivated reasoning will tell you how easily we can justify even the most foolish feelings), a public attack on a critic will serve only to make readers think “I don’t know if the book’s any good, but the author sure is a bullying butt boil.”

DO recognize that readers are entitled to their feelings.

Readers buy, borrow, or steal books on hope. They hope they’ll be entertained, amused, frightened, enlightened, enraged, or soothed. They hope to be taken where they’ve never been or to see the familiar world anew.

Whatever readers are hoping for, they have a right to feel bad, and cheated, if they don’t get it. And if these readers are also professional critics, they have the right, and the professional responsibility, to explain these feelings to their readers and give their view on whether a piece of writing that demands money and attention is worth either.

Obviously, you think you’re wonderful, and you should feel free to go on thinking that (unless you’re Adolf Hitler, in which case, quadruple-fuck you). And I’m sure you think your work is wonderful too. But people are free to dislike either, and say so.


DO get pissed off.

I’m telling you this because you’re going to anyway. Having someone say your work sucks, in print, is a body blow. Your mom’s going to read that, and all your friends, and your boss, and all your frenemies from high school (with the reunion only days away). All that self doubt that you thought would be gone when you signed the book contract will roar back at you. When someone hurts you like that, it’s unnatural to shrug it off and be civilized. Getting hit makes you angry, so be angry.

Picture the critic in your clutches, strapped to dentist’s chair, while you unlock the cages of the feral cats and heat the #7 knitting needles to 537 degree Fahrenheit. Oh, it’s going to be a long night, Mr. Critic. And you’ll see. You and your bastard friends will all see, when you show them the footage of you force feeding Mr. Critic his own eyes.

Go ahead and think those thoughts, in your house, with the computer off. Share none of them. Keep all those images of delicious critic torture inside your head, or in drawings that you will never, ever show.

Then again, if they’re good enough maybe you should show them. Think of Dante. He wrote the most indelible images Western Literature has of Hell. Why? Partly, to get payback against people who’d shafted him.

See what you get when you fuck with me, Fillipo Argenti!

Just make sure you’re as good as Dante.

DO commiserate with other writers.

Having writer friends is always a good idea. Having famous writer friends will give you a particular sense of perspective.

Let me tell you a story.

A few years before Dismantle the Sun came out, I submitted the manuscript (under the title The Ice Age) to the Amazon Breakthrough Writers contest, and it reached the semifinals. (Before you get too excited about that, a thousand other manuscripts made it that far.) Two prizes came with that: free CreateSpace publication, if I wanted it; and a Publisher’s Weekly review. I didn’t want the publication. And as it worked out, I didn’t want the review either. I don’t have the exact quote from it, but I remember it saying my book was poorly paced and derivative of Roth and Nabokov while adding little new.

Yep, the reviewer hated, hated, hated, hated it.

I remember telling one of my more famous friends about this review. (I was deep in torture-imagining mode at the time.) My famous friend, whose name I won’t drop, told me it was an honor to be panned by Publisher’s Weekly. They’d panned my friend (who’s received most of fiction’s top prizes) repeatedly, which proved to my friend that they had no taste.

It did make me feel better. First because my friend got pissed off too. My friend is usually the calmest person in any room. I’d been expecting my friend to come on all sage, but instead my friend revealed an unexpectedly refreshing pettiness, which made me feel less petty. Second, because it reminded me that authors are all targets, and it’s good to have someone who knows how it feels.

Also, because of the review I started reading Philip Roth, which I’d neglected to do up until then. After all, I figured if critics were going to accuse me of cribbing from him, I ought to at least be familiar with his work.

In that sense, and in that sense only, the PW reviewer did me a solid.

DO take the long view.

Once a book comes out, it’s easy to fall into the trap of hoping for an avalanche of acclaim to descend on you immediately. (Along with money and chicks…or dudes…or whatever body type you like in a literary groupie…) When it doesn’t happen, you can wonder why you ever started in the first place. You begin to think that maybe your parents, and all your friends who’ve made it to settled, middle class lives while you’ve sucked down top ramen and borrowed their money, were right. Maybe you ought to go back to school and get that (whatever major leads to a secure job this week) degree.

And, okay, maybe you’re right to think that. There’s nothing wrong with quitting if you’re really unhappy. Literature will go on without you.

But your book will remain.

The odds are that over time it will disappear (sorry), but maybe it won’t. Your book could be discovered anytime. It could outlive you, and it could outlive your critic. And if your book is still read when old age has your generation wasted, a critic’s pan, which seemed so devastating to you, will live on only as the butt of jokes. Adoring future readers will read your critic, slap each other on the back and say, “I can’t believe people were so stupid back then. How could they not see [insert your name here]’s brilliance?”

Of course, by then, you may well be either too old or too dead to care. Nevertheless, you’ll have achieved every novelist’s ultimate ambition, to create a work that endures, that testifies not just to its time, but to all time. Your contemporary critics might have been able to hinder it, but in the end, because your work really was worthy, they couldn’t stop it.

Think of Robert Greene, the Elizabethan playwright who called William Shakespeare “an upstart crow.” At the time, he probably felt awfully clever; and Shakespeare probably spent a few nights imagining revenges (which probably ended up in Titus Andronicus). Today, that quote is all Greene’s famous for, and boy doesn’t he look stupid.

Maybe life is fair.

That’s your hope, and mine.

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