Cool it, it’s Only a Bit of Criticism

“Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Aristotle

Aristotle, a man who knew a thing or two. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Aristotle, a man who knew a thing or two. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

If there’s just one quote that writers should tack to the wall above their writing desks, it’s that one. When you publish your work, you’re leaving it open to negative comments: not everyone is going to like what you’ve written, and sooner or later somebody’s going to say as much. This was brought home to me this morning when I noticed that a less-than-glowing 2 star review of The Quickening had popped up on Amazon UK.

How do I feel? Not too bad, actually. Reading it was not an altogether comfortable experience, I grant you, but I’m not the quivering, sobbing, half-past-drunk human wreck I feared I would become at this inevitable juncture in my writing career. In many ways, I really feel quite pleased.

The reviewer’s opinion is that The Quickening was altogether a slow read. She states, as she’s perfectly entitled to, that she found the story repetitive and the ending predictable.

Well all right, it’s not great. Still, I can’t argue with someone’s opinion, and I’m certainly not going to badmouth the person who’s been good enough to read and review my book. I left a comment thanking her for reading and reviewing, and saying that I was sorry that it hadn’t been to her taste. I’m not just being gracious, either; I’m genuinely pleased that my book is finding an audience, albeit a small one, even if they’re not all ecstatic about it. Indeed, according to one (admittedly optimistic) take on negative criticism, if you get a bad review it just means that you’ve extended your reach outside your target audience, which is ultimately a good thing.

Not to everyone's taste.
Not to everyone’s taste.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. No writer, no matter how talented, has ever managed to do that. Look up reviews of any book you love and adore, and sooner or later you’ll see what I mean. With a view to proving the point, I hopped over to Goodreads to see what my fellow Goodreaders made of some established classics – not that I’d ever dare to compare myself to these literary deities, of course.

First up, Wuthering Heights. “How this book got to be a classic is beyond me,” snaps one less-than-impressed reader. Well, fair play: Catherine’s obsessive, masochistic love affair with Number 1 literary git Heathcliff was never going to be to everyone’s taste.

Even the classics get the odd wuthering review. Picture credit: Lowell 1328-5-a Houghton Library, Harvard University, via Wikimedia Commons.
Even the classics get the odd wuthering review. Picture credit: Lowell 1328-5-a Houghton Library, Harvard University, via Wikimedia Commons.

Next, Melville’s doorstop-sized whaling classic Moby Dick. “It is remarkable,” says one reviewer, “how unpleasant the experience of reading this monster can be.”

Next, one of my personal all-time favourites, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “It was like raking my fingernails across a blackboard while breathing in a pail of flaming cat hair and drinking spoiled milk,” reads one review. For a moment my Conrad-adoring soul felt slightly miffed at this dissing of my literary idol. Then I laughed. Please: if anyone out there wants to give me a really bad review, try to make it as funny as this one! I’d be perversely proud to have a review like that under my belt…

And how about the granddaddy of all classics, Tolstoy’s War and Peace? “War and Peace,” according to one reader, “is a fat old worm – bloated and glistening and lifeless – that has been sitting on the shelves of libraries and bookstores for ages and ages.”

There you have it, then. Nobody ever wrote anything that pleased everyone. My advice? Getting a bad review isn’t as terrible as you think it’s going to be, and if you take them on board they might even help you to become a better writer. Take a deep breath, relax … the sky hasn’t fallen in. Nobody’s died. Somebody’s just expressed their opinion, that’s all.

“Calm down, dear,” as Michael Winner almost said, “it’s only a negative review.”

15 thoughts on “Cool it, it’s Only a Bit of Criticism

  1. My favorite negative review was for Joyce’s Ulysses. I wish I could find it again to provide a link, but I can’t. The gist, though, was approximately this: “The only thing that could make this book worse, was if it broke into my house, stole all of my stuff, and took a sh*t on my bed.” Wow, right? It’s so over the top, it becomes perversely wonderful. If I ever got a bad review that heinously great, I think I’d have a tee-shirt printed with the quote on it. I agree with you that there would be a teeny bit of pride in inspiring such ire.

    I’m glad you’re taking the Amazon review in stride.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Aniko! I’d actually really enjoy getting a review that bad, I think; at least you’d know you’d provoked a strong reaction in someone, albeit an unfavourable one. That’s got to be better than indifference, at any rate.

      I’m really surprising myself by how well I’m taking it. It actually feels like I’ve reached a milestone of sorts!

      BTW, sorry for leaving such an uber-thick comment on your blog post earlier. Mixing up reality and fiction – well, it wouldn’t be the first time. I was having a bit of a blonde moment … 🙂

      1. No worries about the comment on my blog! Almost to a person, everyone had the same reaction. I was just having a little fun with my own world, and had no idea that anyone would take me seriously! An unintentional hoax, for sure! 🙂

        I am hoping to someday reach a wide enough audience to get a low review. What will twist my innards a bit is if I get a low review from someone who is in my target audience, and who just doesn’t like it. That will be tougher, I think, but in time all things will happen.

        Keep mixing up your reality and fiction; that’s how stories are born!

  2. “if you get a bad review it just means that you’ve extended your reach outside your target audience, which is ultimately a good thing.”- Great point.

    I’ve also heard that you actually want some negative reviews. Otherwise, readers are starting to get suspicious that if they see all glowing reviews, they think the reviews are planted by friends and family of the author. Also, we tend to see negative reviews and wonder if we’ll agree. Very often this wondering is enough to get us to try something out.

    I think you’re handling it well. And I love that you went and found negative reviews for “the classics.”

    Hope you have a good weekend.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  3. Thanks for the comment, Paul! I’ve often been tempted to read books not by glowing reviews but by lukewarm or even negative reviews. And as a reader I also tend to feel a tad suspicious if I see nothing but 5-star reviews – nothing is that good! So those are both reasons for optimism.

    I’m taking it much better than I thought I would. Evidently I have a thicker skin than I imagined!

  4. A refreshing, uplifting take on bad reviews, Ms. Biella!
    I’ve seen a review “scoring system” that claims the best way to know how you’re doing is to “count the 2’s and 4’s.” A lot of 5-star reviews are from friends and family (I would know…”Howl of a Thousand Winds” currently has 11 5-star reviews, and I’m certain each and every one of them was a friend or family member, and I’m deeply blessed to have such wonderful people in my life), so you throw out the 5-stars. 1-stars are usually from someone with an axe to grind, or as John Locke pointed out, are WAY outside your target audience, so you toss those as well. 3-stars are middle of the road neutrals, so don’t swing you either way. A 4-star is a legitimate “Like” (to use a Facebook term), and a 2-star is a believable “Dislike” (which SHOULD be a Facebook option). Count the 4’s, subract the 2’s, and you have a good idea of whether you’ve written a winner.
    And if you have NO reviews on Amazon, it’s not a reflection on your book. It simply means you need to market more (the bane of most published writers).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Morris! I like this review scoring system: it seems pretty fair and balanced. Now all I need are a few 4-star reviews … 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by – I’m just going to head off to check out your website!

  5. Think this is an excellent post! And WH and Heart of Darkness are two of my personal favourites as well 😉 I think there’s a bit too much agonising going on over reviews at the moment. Wearing my other hat as a playwright, I became painfully aware over the years that there could be a glowing review in one paper while another critic hated the play. I’ve even sat in the audience and heard people arguing about it. (I didn’t identify myself!) I have a number of writer and actor friends who deliberately don’t read them. And one director who says that if he gets negative reviews from certain quarters he knows he’s doing something right – challenging people’s perceptions. Interestingly, I don’t know a single actor who would change his or her performance because of a negative review, however depressing. Maybe writers are more vulnerable to thinking they may have ‘got it wrong.’

    1. Thank you for commenting, Catherine! The comparison with the theatre is interesting. Off the top of my head, perhaps actors are less vulnerable to bad reviews because they generally have the support of directors and other cast members, whereas writers tend to go it alone.

      I do have moments where I think that maybe I have ‘got it wrong’, but ultimately I can only write what seems true to me. I’m very happy to take constructive criticism on board and try to improve on the basis of that, but in the end, and at the risk of sounding pretentious :-), I have to stay true to my own vision.

      Once again, thank you for stopping by. I’ve actually been lurking on your blog for a little while. ‘The Amber Heart’ is on my (very long) to-read list, and I can’t wait to get started.

  6. Very reasoned and reasonable, Mari. If reviews are extreme enough, you can turn them to your advantage, though. One reviewer clearly hated reading my novel The Sparrow Conundrum. He wrote:

    ‘Your adverbs look corny and misplaced.’
    ‘… your story does not stand up in this century. You show clearly you know nothing about IT, mobile phones or modern crime.’
    ‘… my personal opinion of your story is that it is not particularly funny or even marketable.’

    Last year it won first prize in the Forward National Literature Awards for Humor, so his comments have featured largely in my promotional efforts (as this comment proves).

    One of my radio plays was reviewed in a prestigious magazine by a professional reviewer, whose piece began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people’ and he was absolutely right. I thought I’d had a great idea for its structure but the result was that the characters had no freedom to be themselves – they were too busy serving my purposes. We need these correctives.

    1. Thanks for this refreshing and honest comment! It’s true: the reviewer’s comments about ‘The Sparrow Conundrum’ actually make it sound very interesting – so much so that I think I’m going to have to add it to my to-read list :-). So possibly negative reviews work in ways that positive reviews do not – reverse psychology, perhaps?!

      And you’re absolutely right – we do need correctives. It’s very easy to get caught up in our own mental morass, and sometimes a fresh insight is just what we need.

  7. Thanks, Mari – and I’ve just downloaded The Quickening. It sounds like my kind of book. I think you’re quite right about actors, too. Theatre is on the whole a very supportive environment so by the time a play and performance is ‘out there’ the people involved have a certain amount of confidence in it. It should be the same with trad published novels, but I don’t think the people involved feel themselves collaborating in quite the same way. Interesting insight!

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