How to Muscle Through a Bad Review

First: Scream into a pillow. Second: Look away.

There was quite a dust-up on the World Wide Interwebs the other day when a writer bashed a reviewer for a cranky review of the writer’s forthcoming book. Actually, to be accurate, it was a four-out-of-five star review, which most writers would consider enthusiastic. Much of the angry response was not directed toward the reviewer but toward the writer, who came off like a spoiled brat, a diva. Most of all, the writer violated the unspoken pact between creators and reviewers. Creators get to have a big, wide public distribution of their products, and reviewers get to say what they think of these products without fear of retribution. Getting reviewed, in other words, is the cost of doing business in the public sphere.

That said, getting reviewed is terrifying. It feels personal even when it’s entirely professional. It’s a one-way conversation in which anyone can say anything about something you have lovingly crafted, and unless they allege a specific failing to which you can respond (such as suggesting you have plagiarized another work or misstated facts), you can’t fight back. Reviews are opinions; opinions are by definition neither right nor wrong. There’s no argument against them except to say you have a different opinion.

The day before my first book was published in 1990, I realized with horror that it would be reviewed. (Interestingly, I first typed that as “I would be reviewed” rather than “it would be reviewed,” which tells you everything about what I’m about to say.) I had spent five years working on the book, bleeding a little on every page, and could hardly believe it was about to be released into the wild. I read book reviews regularly, but still, until that moment, I had never quite grasped that my book was now leaving my protective custody and would be consumed and criticized by reviewers. I panicked. I had a moment of wondering whether I could call it off and not publish the book—I was that scared. It wasn’t that I assumed the reviews would all be harsh. It was the nakedness of it, the idea that people would read and judge something of mine, and I wouldn’t be able to defend myself or explain the choices I’d made.

In those days, pre-Internet, you didn’t necessarily see all the reviews of your work, and you certainly didn’t see them immediately. There was also no forum for citizen reviewers to air their opinions—no Goodreads, no Amazon reviews. My agent had a clipping service that sent him his clients’ reviews from newspapers around the country. He then read the reviews and forwarded them to me. Or perhaps he didn’t: I’ll never know if he winnowed out some that were particularly mean-spirited. There was some comfort in knowing that someone else was running interference. You might disagree; you might argue that I should have seen every review whether it was a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. But really, why? It’s true that a good reviewer’s criticisms can be instructive, so there is something to learn in those instances. But often, it’s an opinion about what you’ve done that might be positive or might be negative, and maybe you don’t need to hear all of them. This is especially true in the free-for-all of platforms like Goodreads. I wholeheartedly support the right to post opinions about books, and I just as wholeheartedly suggest that writers might not want to read all of those opinions, especially if, like me, you are a writer who bruises easily.

One time when I got a bad review I really wanted to come out swinging. It took all the self-control I have, and some that I don’t have, to resist. I’m glad I managed to rein myself in. I would have made a fuss and not gotten what I really wanted, which was to inflict shame on the reviewer and have him write a rebuttal to his own review, reversing his position. In the history of the world, this has never happened. I would have looked petty and prickly, and that’s all. I’ve written book reviews before, and if someone I reviewed had screamed and yelled about my opinion, it would have only hardened that opinion. I would have never reconsidered my stand.

I am still terrified of reviews. These days, I can’t avoid them—thank you, Google alerts!— and I no longer have my agent pre-approving them for my consumption. I have developed a technique that involves squinting and skimming the reviews quickly to see if there are any standout adjectives (good or bad) that will prepare me for the general tone . I do a lot of deep breathing and teeth-clenching. I assure myself that it doesn’t matter either way, even though I know, in my heart, that it does.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own book club (join me!)

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