I guess I’m the exception

Thursday, Apr 17th, 2008 @ 07:39 pm

Okay, the last (I think) entry on this subject. 

I’ve made a startling discovery: that I’m one of only a few authors in the universe who gets heartburn from a bad review.  Wow, who would’ve guessed that there are so many well-adjusted authors out there?  Authors who aren’t bothered in the least about getting whacked over the head by anonymous people in public forums like Amazon?  

(I think I’m also a Really Dumb Author for going public with my sensitivity.)

But EC said something in one of her comments that really resonated with me:

The Amazon.ca glitch revealed another sort of hypocrisy: the anonymous posters–readers, not writers–who didn’t want their names revealed and their words held up to public scrutiny. I’m sorry, but if you post, you’ve published, and you should be prepared to play by the same rules as professional authors. If you’re of the option that working writers should suck it up because it comes with the territory, then OWN YOUR WORDS and accept the possibility that what goes around, comes around.

So okay, maybe I’ve said things here that sound neurotic and hypersensitive.  But at least, damn it, I’m brave enough to OWN MY OWN WORDS.  On this blog, you all know exactly who’s writing these thoughts.

Unlike the cowardly anonymous reviewers who throw bombs and scuttle back under their rocks.

I’ve pondered the question of why, exactly, getting a bad review bothers me so much.  And I think it has to do with how much of my own soul goes into a book.  If I get an unkind comment about, say, a blogpost or an article, well, that’s only a few hours’ worth of labor that’s gone unappreciated. 

But I spend more time and more effort writing a book than I ever did gestating a kid.  By the end of a year’s writing, I’ve become personally invested in the characters and what happens to them.  I’ve gotten gray hairs over these people.  I’ve done the best job I know how to do, and once it’s done and published, there’s nothing I can do to go back and change it, no matter how many bad reviews I get.  So no, bad reviews don’t help one whit in improving the story; the book’s already done.  And whatever criticisms a reviewer may have don’t carry over as lessons into my next book, because that’s a completely different project with completely different issues to contend with.  Bad reviews aren’t Teaching Moments; they’re bombs thrown at kids who are already born and who can’t be stuffed back into the womb.

I’ve used children before as a metaphor for books, and how most of us would hate it if a complete stranger told us our kid was ugly.  Books are like babies — reflections of ourselves.  I keep hearing that “your book is not you”, and that we shouldn’t take criticism of our books personally, but you know what?  My books are as personal to me as my children are.  A book is what I’ve spent the past twelve months or more thinking about and dreaming about.  It’s not just a piece of garbage I nailed together, but something I’ve painstakingly labored over.  They’re the parts of me that will survive after I’m dead and buried.

I may be taking this writing thing way too seriously. 

On the other hand, the fact I take it so seriously — and so personally — may explain why I’ve managed to get as far as I have.

24 Responses to “I guess I’m the exception”

  1. Laura_K_C says:

    Actually, I think most writers take bad reviews personally. I remember ages ago John Connolly said that the only reviews he remembers are the negative ones. (Now, of course, I am going to have to go find that or it will annoy me, because his whole post on reviews was so fascinating.)

    I rarely review anything. Really, really rarely, mostly because I hate the idea of hurting people’s feelings. But when I do do reviews, I try to focus on specifics — grammar, style, plotting — rather than the kinds of things you generally see in Amazon reviews which come down to “this is awesome” or “this stinks,” neither of which is particularly useful.

    On the other hand, it never occurred to me to use my real name on Amazon reviews even though they are, by and large positive. Why? Because there are too many freaks out there who do stuff like hire PI’s to find out about the people who give them negative reviews. Like I need that??? Is it impossible to figure out who I am? Not by a long shot. It’s actually really easy. But if someone’s going to harass me, I want them to have to at least do a little work.

    OK, here’s Connolly on reviews:
    “Yet I have to confess that if I was asked to recall what precisely they had said in their reviews to prompt my letters, I would be unable to tell you. I can’t remember the good things that were said about my books because, in some deep, dark place inside of me, I didn’t quite believe them and so they didn’t stick in my memory. I can, by contrast, probably recite sections of the bad reviews verbatim. They stung because in another deep, dark place inside of me, I believed that they might be true.” From http://www.johnconnollybooks.com/2006/03/eternal-critic.html

  2. Laura_K_C says:

    Doh! Hit “Submit” too soon. I also wanted to say that before your post I never thought any author would consider a review as a “teaching moment.” To me, a review of anything — a book, a movie, a toaster, a pair of shoes — is for consumers. If I like a book, I want to point out what’s best about it so that people who concentrate on that particular aspect of things in their books know to read it. And if a book contains an element that might prove difficult for some readers, they should have that info before tossing down their dollars.

    If, for example, a book is particularly well-planned in regards to suspense, but is set in a future that’s not well-drawn, a helpful review would say so. The fact that the world isn’t particularly well-described wouldn’t stop *me* from buying a book, since that’s not a particular focus of mine, but I have friends who would find such a book a real wall-banger.

    I’ll walk out of a very visual, atmospheric movie completely enraptured. My husband will be utterly disgusted because nothing happened. I don’t expect the moviemakers to attempt to make both of us happy, just as I don’t think any author will make every reader happy. Reviews, especially reviews on sites like Amazon, should really be focused on what aspects of books might make a reader want to read it–or not.

  3. Craig says:

    As I’ve said before I rarely post Amazon reviews but did recently because the book was an absolute hoot–if you’re a dog owner. Cat owners may get a bit miffed. (Check out Janet Stevens and sister Susan Stevens Crummel’s masterpiece Help Me, Mr. Mutt!: Expert Answers for Dogs with People Problems. This is one of those sophisticated adult humor picture books disguised as a children’s book.) Now I got to meet the two ladies at a book signing several years ago and they went all out for the kids and really put on a show. There was/is no way I would ever do anything to hurt them and when their book was out for two weeks with no Amazon reviews I stepped in. I post only positive reviews and two other posters now agree with my assessment of the book. Again–if you hate a book don’t trash it, ignore it. As someone else mentioned–it may not be the book; it could be me. Sometimes books and readers don’t click. What really bothers me is if a reviewer pans a book because of subject matter. The problem that we have, here, Tess, is that I’m preaching to the choir. This is by far the most civil group of bloggers I’ve encountered. I may not always agree with all of you, but you are an absolute joy.

  4. Kyle K. says:

    I absolutely, 100% agree with you, Tess. When criticisms come from people I don’t know, I get really defensive. I can usually let rejection and things like that roll off my back… after a point, but at the time it really burns. It’s only bearable when it comes from someone I trust, and only when we can have a discussion about it and work to make it better (during the manuscript stage, of course). And probably only because I DO trust them so much.

    I’ve never had a kid (way too young, I think, thank you!), but I can understand the comparison. And, just think about people who take MORE than a year to write their books! All in all, I’ve probably spent 3 years on my first book, and I’m still working on it. Hopefully I’ll get to a point in my life where I have more time to write (I’m graduating college in May!), but I don’t want to think about what people are going to say about it when (when!) it’s published! I’m still in idiot mode for the most part, having left genius mode at the end of the first draft. Well, I’m kind of in the middle, actually, because I’m working on the second draft and liking the changes, even though I’m hating what was originally there! Haha. But I think if I focus too much on what might happen, I may never finish…

    You’re not sensitive at all. I agree that people are lying when they say it doesn’t bother them… And, in an age when you CAN check your Amazon rank and reviews EVERY DAY, ten times a day, it’s kind of hard to ignore.

  5. bob k says:

    Tess,

    You know I can’t imagine that you are one of just a few authors who are bothered by bad reviews…you may be one of the few who openly admit it.

    I know I can easily get defensive about my work – and not understand at all why the idiot running it down doesn’t see my brilliance. And I don’t think I am unique in that.

    The only problem I had with that original post (and yes…parts of it were funny…) was that the author kind of lost her grip on reality at the end and was getting scary…

  6. Christine says:

    An interesting entry Tess. Thank you. Lots of things to think about.

    I find it interesting that we imagine that other people think like we do. I rather doubt that many people think just alike. And I rather doubt that most or all authors are cut by a poor review here and there. If the weight of poor reviews was overwhelming, then…

    I am trying to write romance. I would love to have the ability to write more heavyweight work, but I simply don’t have several of the attributes required. I do believe that I can write well in my chosen genre, though.

    I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. It was a deeply satisfying book, but also a deeply disturbing one. It is a great and horrifying. Everything that I have tried to read since has seemed trashy and trite. This is just starting to pass, thank goodness, but I do suspect that sometimes when a poor review is posted, it may be because that reviewer has just read something deeper and more profound. A month later they might not have been so negative.

  7. JDK says:

    I think your book IS you and I do not blame you for taking reviews personally. But perhaps you should not read the anonymous ones at Amazon, just those written by professionals.

    That being said, if I were a writer, I would certainly try to use reviews as learning moments. Even though the next project might be totally different, there are still comments that can be carried over. If reviewers think a story is contrived, perhaps an author needs to find a way to keep that from happening again. If another reviewer think that a book ends too abruptly, ditto.

    I review books for a very small, local publication, so I am sure no author reads my reviews, but the above two examples are things I have mentioned in my reviews, things that I think an author could consider when writing his/her next book.

  8. Michelle says:

    Hi Tess,

    I’m also one of the authors who doesn’t take bad reviews lightly. It hurts. Even if it is evident that the reviewer just wanted to bash it and didn’t even understand what genre it is. Oh my god, a love story in a romantic supsense novel!
    But I don’t get the urge to slap them – well, not too hard. ;-) I can’t understand what the Miss McGil…ah was thinking when she did what she did. I read her answer on Amazon and it was really … strange.
    Of course I want every reader to love my storys, but that is never going to happen. So I just have to suck it up and read more of the positive reviews.
    Once I clicked on the ‘unacceptable’ button on Amazon for one of my books, not because of the 1 star, but because the reviewer insulted not only me, but my readers and, to top it off, non-german native language speakers. So I had it removed, but a day later it was there again. We did that several times, until the reviewer deleted most of the insults and I could live with it. (Even though I am really mad, that he can get away with such a nasty review.)

    So, you are not alone out there, Tess. :-)

    Take care,

    Michelle

  9. JerseyGuy says:

    I can only say this, Tess, if you didn’t care what reviewers, of any stripe, said about you, it is highly unlikely that I would be reading your novels. The lack of passion reflected in not caring about reviews would almost certainly show in your writing. It doesn’t.

    JG.

  10. drosdelnoch says:

    One thing that is being ignored to a certain degree is the people who actually explain why they put the review they did in. For example what worked and what didnt work for them.

    Currently Im engaged in reading a book called The Rose Labyrinth. So far Im not impressed. The principle protagonist, seems alien to me, I cant get a hook into him. Why? His priveledged life is another creature to me with him being raised in at least 2 countries, his choice in posh brands of food bores me and the fact that he rides a “ducati” means absolutely sod all. (Yes I know its a posh bike.) The point is, in the review that Im going to write I feel that its a fair point to make, that being unable to identify with the protagonist is a key element to the success of any book. This is making it a real struggle to get through.

    Yet for submitting that point of view and having an author tear you apart because it is part of thier life is not only unfair but also egotistical on the authors part. (The other thing that annoyed me about the author was getting something like 3 A4 pages of essay about her by her and her lifestyle choice (“Britains leading white witch”) Yeah, so what, is my POV on that. (Bright side her being a White Witch means she cant touch me. LOL) But whats the point in bringing it up, does it enhance the book? No, is it a boring detail, yeah it is.

    Expressing an opinion is something that everyone takes as a given right these days and it is. But this can lead to a difficult situation. Its becoming a witch hunt or perhaps an E-Witch-hunt. LOL Throw into the mix that because of putting a so-so review up, that reviewer is now banned from writing other reviews thanks to the efforts of the person and her cronies, and it demonstrates how ridiculous the situation is.

    I just hope that she’s got her millage out of it as unless she writes under another name she’s pretty much just commited career suicide.

    And Tess whilst we all may have our opinions on this matter it is something that is worthy of discussion. Its good to see that we can all express our POV’s without it generating into bickering as has happened in other area’s.

    Whilst review sites are anonymous to a certain degree you can tell genuine reviewers from the fakes by the language used, the choice of phrasing, the explanation of why it did or didnt work for that reader, the way in which the nuances of language appear etc. Generally all pretty obvious indicators in the long run. (Now currently wondering how long before I get banned for one of my reviews.)

  11. JD Rhoades says:

    Oh, you’re definitely not alone. I’ve had several close friends who were really upset by negative Amazon reviews. And, truth be told, it stings me as well when, for example, I see an Amazon review of The Devil’s Right Hand titled “Must Be The Hand He Uses To Scratch His Butt.” But really, after a few minutes’ reflection, how seriously can you take someone who writes something like that? (You’ll notice, however, I can still recite it from memory).

    But, like I say, considering the number of crackpots, loons and otherwise dysfunctional personalities on the Internets, if you get more positives than negatives, you’re ahead of the game.

    To sum up: sure it hurts. At first. But you’ve got to think past that.

  12. Doug Riddle says:

    This has been a great series of posts.

    Up until this week I thought people who posted on blogs and on Amazon as “anonymous” were basically gutless, and that their opinions should hold no weight since they weren’t willing to stand behind them. Well, I have to say that after what I’ve read this week, my opinion has changed. No one has the right to threaten someone or their family, even indirectly, for voicing their opinion.

    I also believe that once a reader buys a book, they have every right to say what they want about it….good, bad or otherwise about it as work. But they don’t have the right to make personal comments on the author.

    Years ago I used to officiate at baseball and baskeball games. At the start of each game I would go to each team and tell them they have the right to disagree with any call I make, but there were two rules…1. You can’t swear. 2. You can not use the word “You” in your complaint. Both will get you tossed, no second chances.

    Judge the work, not the worker.

    I would like to leave the following advice I recently read in an interview with David Baldacci. He was asked what was the best piece of advise that he was given that he actually followed…the advice came from the screenwriter and author William Goldman…..”Never believe them when they tell you you’re great and never believe them when they tell you you suck! That advice came compliments of William Goldman who wrote the script for Absolute Power.”

  13. emilee says:

    Tess,

    I’ve read your last three posts with a great deal of interest — a kind-of fascination I guess. Okay, I’m not a writer, I’m an editor. But that’s neither here nor there, because I’m interested in the larger discussion about criticisms, especially anonymous criticisms, and why those seem to affect some of us so deeply. I think it’s clear why the criticisms we receive from people we know — especially people we respect and/or care about, but also from employers, etc. I believe that most people “want to do a good job.” I know, for me, I’m a perfectionist, so when a publication leaves my office that I think it ready, then comes back and I find that first typo, I’m horrified, crushed, and deeply embarrassed.

    In my spare time, though, I’m a soccer referee. I referee all levels, from little kids right on up through adult leagues. When I get yelled at by a coach or a spectator (especially those who don’t really know the rules), I don’t get embarrassed or ashamed. I get angry and defensive; I’m thinking in much the same way you feel when you get a bad review. There seems to be something about that anonymity that is particularly bothersome. I suspect it sounds silly, but when I’m out there, I take pride in the uniform and I try my absolute hardest to do the best possible job. I want the game to be fair and safe, and I do everything I can to make that happen. Even though I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now, before EVERY SINGLE GAME, I still get so nervous. So, when somebody screams at me from the sidelines, frankly, it really ****** me right off. There is that visceral reaction of, “What right do you have to criticize me when you have no idea what it’s like to be out here?” Maybe like it is for you, “What right do you have to criticize me when you have no idea what it’s like to write the way I do?”

    Anyway, just my [admittedly odd] $0.02 worth.

  14. ec says:

    I probably should clarify that my comments on the last couple of TG’s posts have been general observations, and were not targeted specifically at the three-star review and the author’s response that prompted these posts.

    Now, about that.

    IMO, the author was way the hell out of line. An implied threat against someone’s children, even if it was meant to be some shade of black humor, is inappropriate, unprofessional, and seriously creepy.

    However an author feels about bad reviews, wherever he or she falls on a particular day on the spectrum between “This is valuable and valued feedback!” and “This soul-crushing snarkfest serves no purpose other than granting some semi-literate, anonymous coward a momentary sense of superiority…”, authors need to exercise restraint and strive for professionalism.

    Yes, I think that online anonymity leads to a level of snark, vitriol, and general nastiness that would not occur if people took responsibility for their comments. But no one, not even perpetrators of anonymous literary snark attacks, deserves threats and personal attacks.

  15. Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    I guess when you are an established author, you start to take on the traits of your characters, and you feel that they are members of your own family. So when you get a bad review, you take it as a personal insult. It’s hard to imagine someone NOT getting upset by negative comments, but it comes with the territory.
    Comparing writing a book to childbirth is interesting. But when you type “the end” on that last page, the book is finished. When that kid is born, the “fun” is just beginning. Either way, isn’t getting there half the fun?
    Abe

  16. BernardL says:

    You play right into the hands of an anonymous reviewer when you get ultra upset over being slammed, giving them the power over your own happiness, Tess. Use your accomplishments to insulate yourself from such events. If they know you can be reached at this level, sock puppets will come out of the woodwork to strike.

  17. john lovell says:

    Tess,
    You make a good case. I’m convinced. There’s no useful value in nasty reviews. Sometimes I suspect that reviewers, at least a few of them, are people who cannot write and their envy of those who can colors their comments.

  18. Joshua James says:

    It’s all personal, isn’t it?

    That’s what marks the excellence, I feel.

    the anonymous thing ticks me off, I’m very active on screenwriting and theatre boards, and I always sign my name. Trolls who don’t bother me . . . but I do have internet friends who operate under anonymity because of their jobs or profile . . . I get it, I understand, but I still believe it’s better to own one’s words.

    Because it’s all personal, in the end. Otherwise why else would we bother to do it?

  19. Count me in, Tess. I’m annoyed, irritated and sometimes just plain hurt by negative reviews. Maybe it’s because I write romances, where emotion is such a huge part of the story; if I’m not investing big chunks of myself in the book, I’m not doing a good job. It’s darned hard then to have someone slam the book. I’ve gotten enough glowing reviews to paper my office, including a starred PW review, but the bad ones are still there in the back of my mind, and they still twinge from time to time.

  20. I don’t know a single author who isn’t bothered by bad reviews. An author friend told me that every time somebody blasts her on Amazon or elsewhere she simply takes a dollar and puts it in a jar on her desk. That dollar represents how much she earned on the book when the reviewer purchased the novel. After a while she buys herself something nice or gets her nails done with the money as a way of thumbing her nose at the bad reviews. I’ve tried doing the same but the thought of that mighty jar overflowing with bills intimidates me LOL! The words we put on paper belong to us first and the public second. That’s why the bad reviews hurt.

  21. Me too!
    Bad reviews — I don’t mean thoughtful considered even handed reviews, I mean reviews that target an author personally — really sting.
    I’ve been told not to read them but like a moth to flame I go back time after time…
    The good ones? I read them once, smile, and put them away.
    It’s just comforting to know other authors feel the same way…

  22. Craig says:

    Something that I don’t think has been addressed here from a reader’s point of view is disliking a book that I just paid $28 for. That is some expensive dislike. What I have learned is to listen to other people, especially when they rave about a book, but then to sit down with that book before I purchase it to see if the author and I are going to be compatible. It all goes back to being compatible, doesn’t it?
    Honestly, I can’t imagine the circumstances that would cause me to trash a book in a review. Rarely do my favorite authors let me down; anymore when I’m disappointed with a book it’s due to my feeling that the author is in a rut. The worst thing that an author can do is not take chances.

  23. holly y says:

    Oh, I really like the idea in Wendy’s post about the jar with bad review dollars. LOL

    The internet has created a brave new world of communicating. We can say things here that we would never say face-to-face BECAUSE we have no face! We can be anonymous, we have instant access to public sites, we don’t get reprimanded for extremely rude words or behavior, we can voice our oh-so-precious opinions as though an auditorium of people are hanging on our words. As Tess quoted from ec, people seem to think that what they write on internet sites is the same as speaking, when it actually is now published. Would anyone really want to be known for their filthy mouth?

    The importance of this blog, and these posts, is that we — all of the world’s citizens — are searching for and finding new manners in communicating. Personally, I don’t hang out at mean-spirited sites, and I don’t read, or listen to, personal and obnoxious attacks on people.

    We are consumers of the internet, and we have the power of our patronage, I believe, to improve everyone’s manners. Call me hopeful. :)

  24. Tess says:

    Thank you all so much for the great comments and the helpful suggestions. I, too, like that idea of a dollar jar!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.