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.