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Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious.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.

As 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….

The 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.

10 thoughts on “Authors: Don’t Let Reviewers Hold You Hostage”

  1. Ann Marie, that is a excellent insight into reviewers.
    I also think we live in a society that does not celebrate the success of others, laboring under the illusion that it somehow means less for them.
    As for reviews, just like life : don’t take anything personally.
    (Sometimes easier said than done)

    • As a longtime reviewer myself (print, radio, on-line), I think there may be some element of negativity in the reviewing world, but I don’t think the majority of reviewers set out to trash books. I think they want to be delighted, amazed, entertained, surprised, engaged. The best way not to take a review personally is not to read it or–unlike that hapless Salon writer–have it read to you. And definitely do not get fixated on reviewers and think they’re your friends!

  2. Thank you for your post. It was a good reminder because I am getting back to writing my motivational memoir as of tomorrow (it is Monday, after all!!”
    I haven’t had a book published to be critiqued.
    However, my grandmother was an International concert pianist who was frequently reviewed in the papers. After she had passed away, I found a poem which a cousin had sent her called: “The Devil Guardis” getting revenge of the music critic Neville Cardus who had given her a bad review. I never had the chance to ask her how she felt about such reviews as I had only ever thought she’d done brilliantly well although she had alluded to this.
    xx Rowena

    • You’re welcome! Being a concert artist is so much worse, I think, so much more exposing.

      In re/critics, John Updike’s novel Bech at Bay has the novelist in it killing his worst reviewers. It’s hilarious! He actually wrote three books about this Jewish novelist he created, an interesting project. That one was my favorite (understandably!)


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.