Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Bad Review

I got a really bad review a few days ago. No, let me re-phrase that. Not merely bad. Rotten. Dreadful. As in, this reviewer said everything I imagine someone saying in my worst nightmares about my book. I wasn’t expecting it -writers rarely do - and at first I sat there, stunned. I couldn’t believe anyone could take such offense to what is, in the final say, fiction. A novel. Entertainment. It didn’t help that as I re-read the review, with that weird bewilderment which sets in as you realize someone out there really dislikes your work, I found the reviewer had put an enormous spoiler in the review and evidently thought nothing of it.

Bad reviews are, of course, part and parcel of being published; it comes with the territory and there’s no handbook to teach you how to deal with the emotional impact. Some authors cry. Others get drunk. Some call a friend to gripe. Most get mad. A few take it in stride, or at least pretend to. After all, it’s your book someone just skewered—the tangible fruit of years of labor. You’ve sacrificed valuable time with family and friends; forgone movies, restaurants, sex; you’ve walked the dog aimlessly in circles, muttering like an indigent to yourself; burned or forgotten meals; lost sleep; tussled and agonized over a single word, even screamed at your computer when no one was looking. The hard truth is writing is tough and writing a novel is the epitome of toughness. It takes perseverance, ego, and more than a touch of insanity. I mean, you spend all this time by yourself, locked in your head in a room staring at a screen or piece of paper, conjuring imaginary things, and hoping, praying, someone else will care enough to want to read it, let alone publish it. Then, insomniac, battered and badly in need of a shower, you turn the manuscript in and have to deal with everyone else’s opinion of it— your agent, your editor, the marketing team, the booksellers. In their own ways, they will each shape your work into something that can be packaged and sold to the public. Sentences you slaved over will be cut without mercy; scenes shifted here or re-crafted there; a character will be eliminated and another, to your astonishment, will attempt to hijack the plot. You’ll go back over the same lines time and time again, until you can recite them from memory and your spouse or significant other will look at you furtively as you sit hunched at your desk, crab-handed over those first-pass pages, and remark perhaps it’s time for us to start thinking of taking that oft-delayed vacation.

In the end, the idea that started as a seed in your febrile brain, was nurtured on imagination and the internal chug-a-lug of I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can will become a cooperative project, a team effort. A Book.

And then, it gets sent out. To anonymous people and places you’ve never seen. Newspapers (though these are less and less); trade magazines; online sites; bloggers—hundreds of eyes will peruse your painstakingly crafted prose and, within a few lines, maybe a few chapters, if you’re lucky, pass judgment. To review or not review; to like or not like. After all, this person who will now review your book has no stake in your well-being, particularly. They don’t know if you’re a nice person or a mean one; if you talk on your cell phone when you should be driving; if you donate to an animal shelter or spend too much money on shoes. All they care about is that visceral, subjective moment which you have no control over, when they read your words for the very first time and had a reaction. Or didn’t. So, those words you hoped and prayed were worthy of attention will now, finally, garner words of their own, for better or worse.

In some cases, as in bad reviews, you’ll almost wish they hadn’t. Almost, but not quite. Because in the end, even a bad review is still a review. It means someone cared enough to take the time to say: Hey, this sucks. Don’t bother. Buy a DVD instead. Check out the latest Ikea catalog. Collect stamps. Browse online for new underwear. Do anything but purchase this lousy book.

Yes, someone cared. And isn’t that what every writer dreams of? I know I do. So, how did I deal with the bad review? How else? I cried. I got mad. I pretended not to care. I poured myself a stiff drink and called a friend to complain.

And so it goes.


ChristyEnglish said...

I love it Chris. Beautiful post. I wrote about this today, too. We have all been there.

Cheryl said...

I'm sorry to hear about this turn of events, Christopher, but you're taking it in stride. Good for you.

I hope it helps to know that there are many others out there who love your work and scramble to pick up a copy of your latest as soon as its available.

All my best,


DeAnna Cameron said...

Yes, an excellent post. Cry, scream, complain, drink -- and here I thought I was the only one who dealt with it this way :)

Unknown said...

If I ever wrote a book, I would take bad reviews so personally. My skin is way to thin for that kind of abuse!
If the book was really that bad, why even finish it? All readers have had books that they put down for one reason or another!
And the bad review still doesn't even touch all the wonderful reviews!

Leslie Carroll said...

And I send you hugs and a glass of whatever you're drinking. I've been there too, more times than I prefer to admit, and sometimes skewered online personally in a review, one time by an anonymous someone who I'm sure I've never had the pleasure of meeting.

As you know from my status posts on Facebook, it boggles my mind why anyone feels they must tell the world why they hated something. Imagine all the time it took to read the book and then write such a damning review. How many wonderful things might have been accomplished instead by that person in the same amount of time?

My skin is far too thin as well, but I like to think that my vulnerability enables me to access my emotions that much more easily, which is a plus for an author and actress.

Rejoice, Chris in the dozens upon dozens of good reviews and in your glorious talent. And may karma get whoever posted that painfully negative review and they choke on their own bile. Just sayin...

Gareth Russell said...

I honestly didn't think I was thin-skinned until my book came out, but some of the reactions can be quite shocking. That being said, I suppose you're right that a negative review still shows someone cares.

Anyway, thought this was an absolutely brilliant article and posted it on 'Popular's' blog, if you don't mind? (

I laughed a lot at some of this and nodded with a broken air at others :)

Unknown said...

My worst review was actually in haiku, but it turned out ok for me in the end, and I'm sure this one will turn out ok for you too. I can't tell you how many books I've bought based on a bad review--quite possibly more than I've bought from good reviews!

C.W. Gortner said...

Thanks all; Gareth, loved your post! Like I said, part and parcel of being a writer. I can laugh at it now :)

Lizzie said...

C.W. you sure have taken it with class and dignity which demands so much respect. I will love you forever no matter how many people give you bad reviews. Much love.

Unknown said...

C.W. something good is going to come out after this

Unknown said...

Oh, Christopher. I don't mind a bad review if it's thoughtful. But as you say, don't these people realize you've sweated blood over this?

My first consolation on getting a really thoughtless or painful review was to go to the Amazon review page, find my most favourite book in the whole world and then read the one star snotty reviews people (lots of people as it turned out) gave to my beloved author. The things they say! This (apparently very nice) woman had sold over 400,000 copies and won a Booker - and they were so mean to her!

My second consolation was to call my friend Vinny and put a contract out on the reviewer. No not really, but I was tempted.

They say you need a thick skin but that's for rhinos not rhiters. Bourbon works for me.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Excellent post Chris! I received my first crappy review, and in a way I wore it as a badge of honor that I was now really an author. Yes, it hurt like hell, and I thought the reviewer completely missed the point of the book, but when you put your baby out there, there are going to be people who feel the need to, for whatever reason, to knock your work. It's never easy. I still remember the bad reviews that I received when I was still acting.

Robert Stephen Parry said...

It's always heartening when a well-known and successful author has the humility and courage to write about such things. It is even more heartening when an excellent one does. Thank you indeed.

N. Gemini Sasson said...

As much as we tell ourselves they're simply giving an honest reaction to our work, not passing judgment on us personally, it still feels like a kick in the gut. It's like someone just called your firstborn child 'ugly'. I find it helps to look up my favorite books, check out the 1- and 2-star reviews and just remind myself that every reader has different likes and dislikes. Even the bestsellers and classics get panned. If we all liked the same things, it would be a pretty dull world, wouldn't it?

On, and Stephanie is so right - sometimes what one reviewer hates is precisely what I love in a book.

Meanwhile, dig up your fanmail. Read it out loud. Remember who you're writing for.

C.W. Gortner said...

Thank you. Wow. Such amazing support! I'm fine, now. You think you have that thick skin and you get hit out of the blue. But no use fretting over it, plus just writing this post helped me get the icky out of my system.

Stephanie Cowell said...

I notice that what one reviewer loves, another will say is terrible. But I don't understand mean reviews! I'm so sorry. I am trying to invent a pill (or a wine) which makes writers impervious to hurtful and unjust words!

Teddyree said...

Blood, sweat and tears, I try to remember that when I'm reviewing someone's baby ... you might not like a book but there's no need to be a "biiatch" about it lol.

That aside Christopher, you know how much I love your work and I hope that us who DO make up for the few who don't.

and btw what a great post, you made me laugh ... "Check out the latest Ikea catalog" bahahaha