Handling Criticism

A few weeks ago, I read yet another story about an author losing his mind over a bad review. (You can read through the debacle here if you have some time to kill.) The indie author in question went absolutely hysterical on a reviewer who left him a one-star review, eventually resorting to calling her—and everyone else who jumped into the fray—the scum of the earth and accusing them of heartlessly sabotaging his career. Lest you think this kind of behavior is limited to the slightly Wild West world of indie publishing, rest assured that it isn’t. Not long ago, bestselling author Ayelet Waldman threw a very public fit, not over a bad review but over the perceived snub of her latest novel not being included on the New York Times’s “100 Notable Books” list. Author Kathleen Hale actually stalked a reviewer and then wrote about it in a piece in the Guardian that is both compelling and cringeworthy.

Hale mentions that Goodreads is aware of the potential downfalls of letting authors and readers connect so directly. They issue the following warning to authors who attempt to comment on reviews of their own work:

We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review, even to thank the reviewer. If you think this review is against our Review Guidelines, please flag it to bring it to our attention. Keep in mind that if this is a review of the book, even one including factual errors, we generally will not remove it.

If you still feel you must leave a comment, click “Accept and Continue” below to proceed (but again, we don’t recommend it).

Most writers are sensitive people, and having one’s work in the world can feel excruciatingly vulnerable. Feeling frustrated, pissed off, and distraught over a bad review is absolutely understandable. Especially in this new world where “critics” include not only educated readers at papers of record with actual codes of conduct, but basically anyone with an internet connection and an axe to grind. And yet, reviews are never meant to be a dialogue—no matter how bait-y they appear—and any author who does engage loses almost by default. There is virtually no way to respond (at least publicly) to a review and come out looking good; the very act of doing it is petty. By putting art into the world for public consumption, you are opening yourself to criticism, and it is a bargain that you must accept. This does not include, by the way, personal attacks. Your looks, your character, your worth as a person shouldn’t be up for scrutiny. But reactions to your work? The good, the bad, and the ugly are all fair game.

So what’s an author to do?

Not reading reviews is an option. Gretchen Rubin, a bestselling author many times over, doesn’t read hers. I admire the discipline of a writer who can do that; I can imagine how that would be healthier than the alternative. I have a feeling that my curiosity would get the best of me, though, and besides, if you never read the reviews, you also never get to hear the good.

It’s also worth remembering that getting reviewed in the first place is a privileged position. Many authors’ work—even that which comes from venerable publishing houses—is roundly ignored by the media. If there’s anything worse than (or at least just as bad as) a bad review, it’s silence.

Lucky writers have been through years, maybe decades, of rejection by the time they are receiving—or not receiving—their first reviews. They’ve forged an iron belief in themselves; they’ve built a resilience that can’t be shouted down. They’re determined to carry on no matter what.