Everybody’s a critic

Imagine this scenario. You have just given birth to a brand new baby, and it has been a long, difficult labor. For a year you’ve thought of little else. You’ve lost sleep over it, obsessed over it, tortured yourself over it, and at last you proudly carry your baby out of the hospital.

Then a complete stranger comes up to you and says, “That’s a really ugly kid.” Or: “It’s deformed!” Or: “People like you shouldn’t even have babies.”

That’s what it’s like to get a bad review. I’m not talking about the ho-hum “coulda been better” reviews. I’m talking about a really, really nasty one where the reviewer comes after your baby with an ice pick. I doubt there’s an author alive with skin thick enough to be able to just brush these off. After all these years as a novelist, truly cruel reviews still make me double over in pain and make me want to crawl into bed and pull the sheets over my head. They make me want to never write another word. Writers may tell you that they don’t care about reviews, but they do. Every artist does. We all remember our truly awful reviews. We remember who wrote them. And we never, ever forgive or forget.

What do I mean by an “ice-pick” review? Herewith some of the winners that I’ve picked up over the years:

about HARVEST: “Will surprise only readers who move their lips.” (Publishers Weekly)

about BLOODSTREAM: “(Gerritsen’s) success is a sorry indicator of how far the book-buying public’s standards have sunk.” (Albany Times-Union)

about THE SURGEON: “Abusive garbage … The world would be a better place if she had stuck to her medical practice.” (Maine Times)

Whoa. Do ya think they hated the books? (Ironically enough, these three books all made the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list.) These are reviews that saw print in legitimate publications. We’re not talking about the occasional off-the-wall reader reviews on Amazon.com (and believe me, I’ve received a few of those too. Including from a reader who couldnt get past the fact she “hated” the name of Jane Rizzoli. Imagine that! A complete stranger comes up to you and tells you that not only does she hate your baby, she hates your baby’s name!)

How many of you have jobs where strangers feel completely free to tell you how incompetent you are? Strangers who have never even tried to perform your job themselves? That’s what it’s like to be an artist or a performer. We spend months or years toiling over the work of our heart, and anyone — anyone at all — feels free to take an ice-pick to it.

That’s how it goes. Bad reviews come with the territory. But boy, it sure would feel good to walk up to a nasty reviewer one of these days and tell him: “You know what? You’ve got a really ugly baby.”

“Of all the books you’ve written, which one is your favorite?”

Readers sometimes ask me “Of all the books you’ve written, which one is your favorite?” And, oddly enough, the book I think is my best is the one that sold the fewest copies:GRAVITY.

I’ve puzzled over just why this book sold so poorly. I’ve heard criticism from some readers that it was simply too technical, or that the topic of space travel didn’t appeal to them. I guess not everyone’s an old Trekkie like me. But every time I look up at the sky, I feel both a great sense of wonder and a deep sense of dread about what’s up there — and whether it wants to exterminate us. I just had to explore that issue of doom falling upon us from space, because it’s a recurrent nightmare of mine, and one that I still haven’t shaken.

Readers who happen to be big fans of GRAVITY often write to ask me why I don’t write more books like it. The truth is, I want to! I wish there was a market for it. Unfortunately, there isn’t — at least, that was my disappointing experience. The author is willing; the market isn’t.