Imagine your first book is about to be published. Imagine you’ve spent the past three (or four, or ten) years pouring your soul into a manuscript you know isn’t perfect but is the very best you can produce right now. Imagine the story you’ve written is your own story, or at least the most interesting parts of it, which you hope will strike a chord, or make someone laugh, or inspire a person to reconsider what it is they’re passionate about.
Imagine coming home one night, six weeks or so before publication day, no longer able to tame your curiosity about what the critics are saying so far. Your anxiousness trumps your willpower (which was, admittedly, flimsy to begin with). To hell with your vow not to read your reviews. You type your name and your book’s title in the Google search box.
What comes up is devastating — far beyond the powers of a lukewarm write-up on Amazon or Goodreads: a review from one of the most powerful journals in publishing, essentially panning your book. You read the first few sentences, disbelieving, hoping the tide will turn, that the reviewer will change his mind by the time he reaches the end of his assessment. But he doesn’t. Fear quickens your pulse. Despair creeps into your stomach. Your first thought: I’m ruined. Your next thought: where did I go wrong? Your next next thought: I can’t write.
You stay up for hours, drinking whiskey, staring at the computer screen, re-reading the review until it’s embedded in your memory, trying, and failing, to find something constructive in the critique. For some reason, the reviewer doesn’t bother with examples to back up his claims — his words have the ring of a person plucking a dirty rag off the floor and tossing it in the trash as quickly as possible.
The Morning After
Waking up the next day, you discover, along with your headache, a certain amount of rage and frustration mixed up with your despair. You’re powerless. You can’t respond to your critic. You can’t defend your work, as it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Aside from spiking your coffee, there’s nothing you can do. Or is there?
Couldn’t you decide not to read the reviews from now on? Ignoring the critics would certainly be easier on your soul, not to mention preserving your artistic integrity in the long run. After all, positive reviews can be dangerous, too, making you self-conscious about what you do well, possibly compromising its purity and/or your growth as a writer. Say, for example, someone says you’re great at dialog. You might lean too heavily on dialog in the stories you write later, out of insecurity or out of laziness, because X said you can write dialog so why not stick with what you’re great at?
But what if, being a new writer, or a writer who’s new to the game, you don’t have the willpower to ignore your reviews?
Then you have to figure out a way to brace yourself for the consequences. You have to prepare to be misread, misunderstood, hated, ridiculed, and/or dismissed. As my friend Karen (wisely) put it, the critiques can’t all be positive. You can’t control how people read your book, what they’re bringing to it, or what they’ll take away from it.
That said, allow yourself to react — initially. Be enraged. Be frustrated. Cry. Rip things up. Throw something across the room (without hurting yourself or anyone you love).
Your initial reaction could last hours or days or weeks. Let it go on for as long as it needs to. But by all means, keep it private. Be classy. Don’t comment. And for heaven’s sake, don’t retaliate. (As someone who’s earned a handful of red cards on the soccer field, I can assure you that swinging back gets you nowhere.)
You may or may not choose to psychoanalyze the reviewer, to figure out where they’re coming from (again, keeping your analysis to yourself). My husband, who has one of the most formidable bullshit detectors I’ve ever encountered, likes to say “What A says about B says more about A than it does about B.” It won’t change anything per se, but if you think about it in these terms, it can help soften the sting of a critique, particularly a destructive one.
Of course the best way to reclaim your agency in the face of a negative review is to search for the truth in the criticism. Usually this is something you’re only capable of doing after you’ve finished reacting and/or psychoanalyzing, after you’ve emerged from your initial shock and despair.
As difficult as it sounds, now is the time to open yourself up, to ask yourself what this critique has to teach you, assuming it’s constructive. Consider what George Saunders says: “One thing I try to do when I’m reading reviews is just say, well, how rhetorically sound is this argument, and of course the ones that are rhetorically sound are the ones that will help you the most, because the person is on the same journey as you, they’re acknowledging the flaws, they’re acknowledging that every work of art is flawed from the outset, and your artistry has to do with sort of making the flaw a beauty.”
In other words, if you commit, it’s possible to transform good criticism into something that will eventually strengthen your writing: “Saunders writes better out of love than out of anger,” he remembers one critic saying early on in his writing career. It was a gem, he says — but it took a long time for it to start feeling that way.
Which brings us to our final point: staying focused on The Big Picture. Do you want to keep writing? Then take whatever it is from your bad reviews that will help you with your next book, and leave the rest behind. Easier said than done, I know. But being a writer is being in it for life. One book, one story, one article, one poem is not the totality of who you are or what you can do. If you’re determined, if you’re disciplined, and if you can hold on to your sense of play, you’ll produce a body of work over your lifetime — though you may have to write something terrible before you can write something great.