Authors: Don’t Let Reviewers Hold You Hostage

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

123rf frustration laptop over head123rf frustration laptop over headAs a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

sleepingstudenty_LargeThe Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in genres from memoir to biography.

Why I Strongly Disagree With Anne Lamott

I know, I know: a lot of people swear by her.  And a lot of writers find her inspiring.

People especially like to quote the writing guru on the subject of first drafts.  She’s apparently very reassuring for anyone who fantasizes that established authors get it right the first time–though are there really folks naive enough to believe that?  They can’t have thought too seriously or deeply about writing.  But then there are also people who tell me that they’ll write a book if they ever get “some free time”–as if that’s all it took.

Lamott’s unsurprising points about revision are certainly valid: you have to keep revising, and revision is the heart of good writing for most writers. Where I think she goes seriously wrong in Bird by Bird is when she uses the word “shitty” to describe first drafts.  And she says that all good writers write them.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?

puzzled-look“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own and it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught anywhere.  I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate.  Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished, inferior–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity degrades your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott is ostensibly trying to make people relax and feel confident.  You get writers used to applying a word like shitty to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey other work of theirs in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed in people who already have to deal with doubts about their abilities and cope with their jealousy of other writers.

Of course, if she says it, she must be right, and she’s spawned hundreds, maybe thousands of writers who throw the words “shitty” and “shit” around in connection with their work without thinking through its implications.

I once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won that MFA program’s literary prize for the story so I was partly armored against his slam, but I was still offended.  I feel the same way when I hear reports from my own students who report what other professors have said to them about their work.

In that same Bird by Bird essay, Lamott also talks about how much writers suffer, and how writing is never rapturous.  Well maybe some writers do suffer the torments of hell, and maybe for some writers their work is like a series of root canals without anesthesia, but never rapturous?  Her writer friends must be really miserable.  Many of the writers I’ve met actually enjoy writing.  Yes, it’s true!  They’re not martyrs–they love what they do.

You do not have to suffer to be a writer.  It is not a requirement.  It is not a badge of honor.  It is not a proof that you’re a professional.  And you definitely do not have to disparage your own work.

None of my 25 books has tormented me when I wrote them, and none of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and I knew they would need more work.  For me, any draft is just opening a door, that’s all.  I don’t need to label it or dismiss it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed.  I just keep working.

author 6Publishing is where I’ve encountered misery, true misery, because I had so little control once the work left my desk.  And that includes even publishing in magazines and newspapers where editors could sometimes make changes I objected to, changes that distorted what I’d written.

But writing itself? Yes, I do find that intensely pleasurable; I always have and likely always will.  Writing is a high for me, one of life’s great joys.  Some of the happiest times of my life have been writing a book or a story.  And that was even before I started earning money as a author.  How cool is that?

arms wideLev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Advice for Writers) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.