There are some authors who never feel the sting of an ugly review.Â Throughout their careers, they enjoy the unstinting and unfailing praise of critics whoÂ gush: “The best crime writer in the country today!” or “Yet anotherÂ masterpiece!”Â They are the darlings who have never heard a harsh word from the literary kingmakers.
I am not one of those writers.
I wasÂ reminded of this when I read Marilyn Stasio’s review of THE MEPHISTO CLUB this morning, a review so awful that I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.Â She complains that I’ve always skated close to the edges of horror with my icky, bloody plots about fiends who harvest organs and murder pregnant women.Â She dismisses me as “a lurid writer to begin with.”Â AndÂ this time, she says,Â I’ve goneÂ over the top.Â WAY over the top.Â
Once upon a time, a review like this would have sent me diving under the covers.Â I wouldn’t have had the stomach to talk about it.Â It’s like having a death in the family — everyone knows about it,Â but they don’t dare bring up the subject for fear you’ll start sobbing hysterically.Â Â
Man, am I way over that.Â Because I’ve gone through this before.Â Many, many times before.Â I, my friends, am the queen of bad reviews.
Every so often, when I’ve indulged in a few too many glasses of wine among my fellow writers, I’ll suggest that we have a few laughs by reciting our worst reviews.Â I’ll throw out a few of mine, and wait for someone else to recite theirs.Â Invariably, I’m met with stunnedÂ silence.Â I don’t think it’s because they’re reluctant to share.Â I think it’s because none of them can come close to the bad reviews I’ve gotten through the years.Â I’ve been dismissed as a talentless hack by some of the most influential names in the business.
The ironic thing is, the books that garnered the worst reviews and stirred up the most violent responses were the very same books that significantly advanced my career.
My very first thriller, HARVEST, was called a “terminally bad read” by theÂ late J.D. Reed, a People Magazine reviewer who was praised for his infallible literary instincts.Â In Mr. Reed’s highly esteemed literary opinion,Â my career was dead on arrival, and he probably assumed thatÂ the world would never have to endure another Tess Gerritsen novel.Â (Much less ten more of them.)
The infallible Mr. Reed must have thought the world had turned upside down when HARVEST hit the New York Times bestseller list.
Then there was Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post, whoÂ declared VANISH a worthless read and said that no male reader in his right mindÂ would want to read about a lactating detective.Â Case closed.
Mr. Anderson must have gnashed his teeth when VANISH was nominated forÂ the Edgar and Macavity Awards.
So Ms. Stasio’s nasty review is actuallyÂ a very good sign for the success of THE MEPHISTO CLUB.Â And I think it’sÂ not such a bad thing to be called “lurid”, if you considerÂ the alternative: colorless and dry and boring.
“Boring,” thank god, is the one critique that’s never beenÂ leveled at me.
While I admit to some pretty thin skin, I’ve also learned to accept the fact thatÂ reviewersÂ sometimes getÂ malicious, for reasons that escape me.Â Â And I say this not just as a writer on the receiving end, but also as an uninvolved observer.Â I have a friend — a published novelist herself — who sometimes reviews books for various major publications.Â She is a very sweet, very personable woman who knows what it’s like to get a bad review.Â I’ve always liked her, and could not imagine her being cruel to anyone.Â One of the books she reviewedÂ a few years ago was written by a mega-bestselling, much-beloved author of women’s sagas.Â I myself had read that book. Â I adored that book.Â It entranced me, it made me cry, and by the end of it, I wished that I had written that book.Â When I found out that my friend had written a review of it, I was curious to find out what she thought of it.
I was shocked.Â My sweet, generous, kind friend had turned into the literary equivalent of Freddie Kruger, slashing away atÂ the novelÂ with such cruelty that I could not believe we had read the same book.Â She likened it to a repulsive piece of garbage littering the road.Â There was nothing — NOTHING — in that book that deserved such abuse.Â Maybe it wasn’t a genre my friend liked.Â Maybe it was a little sentimental.Â ButÂ thoseÂ should have raised nothingÂ more than a few quibbles, and not the outlandish hatred I saw in that review.
May I add that these two women did not know each other.Â There was nothing personalÂ between them.
I have never asked my friend why she wrote the review.Â I just didn’t have the stomach toÂ talk about it.Â But ever since then, I’ve wondered about the reasons for it.Â One of the reasons, I suspect, is that the authorÂ is far, far more successful than my friend will ever be.Â Jealousy must be a factor:Â “I can’t sell as many books as you can, but darn it, I can still cut you down to size, bitch.”Â Or something to that effect.
I also suspect that reviewers save their nastiest, cruelest reviews for the authors whom they believe can take them, the authors whose careers are solid enough that a bad review won’t hurt their sales.Â No one wants to kick the underdog.Â But everyone loves toÂ swat atÂ the high flyers.
So for those of you who are unlucky enough to get a really awful review — maybe you’re actually the lucky ones.Â Maybe it’s anÂ occasion to celebrate.Â I know you’re sick to your stomach.Â I know you feel like hiding in a closet.Â Don’t do that.Â Take it as a sign of success.
And keep writing those deliciouslyÂ lurid novels.Â Because damn it, somebody must be buying them.