Essays and Notable Articles

On Bad Reviews

By posted at 6:00 am on February 7, 2011 74

Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.

That said, the truth is that no matter how tough you think you are and how accustomed you are to the terrain, ugly reviews are never easy to read. I’ve published two novels, which has meant that twice in the past two years I’ve sold a book to a publisher and gone through the edits, and then the publication date is scheduled, the lead-up begins, and the first pre-publication reviews trickle in. It’s a nervous, hectic, mostly pleasant time, filled with anticipation and exclamation-point laden emails from booksellers and publicists, and then Publishers Weekly weighs in. By “weighs in”, I mean that Google Alerts delivers the literary equivalent of unexploded ordnance into my inbox. The next few hours are always a little rough.

A negative review is never pleasant, but PW reviews have a particularly heart-stopping quality for purely financial reasons: there’s a moment when it dawns on you, as you’re reading all about how your book’s clumsy, lukewarm, bland, awkwardly constructed, and stocked with characters who resemble cardboard cutouts, that this thing’s going to appear on your Amazon, Powells, and Barnes & Noble pages. Which is, practically speaking, frankly kind of a drag when you’re trying to move units.

But the sting wears off after a day or two, and then the review recedes into the hazy territory of tedious-things-that-must-occasionally-be-managed, like the laundry and grocery shopping. The major bookselling e-commerce sites can be persuaded to add other reviews to their pages, and positive customer reviews help balance PW’s tone. I’ve heard of tragically sensitive types who get a bad review and spend the next week in bed, but that kind of thing’s hard to pull off when you’ve got a day job and I find that bad reviews are usually not particularly agonizing once the initial shock wears off. Especially given that PW reviews are anonymous, and after fifteen years on the Internet I have a hard time taking anonymous snark very seriously.

The repeated experience of being swiped at by PW’s nameless ghosts has made me think, though, about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.

Vanity Fair, January 2007. Norman Mailer’s Proust Questionnaire:

Q: What is your greatest fear?
A: That I will never meet Michiko Kakutani and so not be able to tell her what I think of her.

Whenever a writer brings up the subject of bad reviews, a chorus inevitably pops up to point out the obvious: that bad reviews just go with the territory. Sure, and we all knew that going in. Speaking in sweeping generalizations, we are aware of how lucky we are to be in this position at all. Most of us aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected from the slings and arrows of our chosen profession, or if we are, we learn how to hide it in public.

But it’s hard to read a take-down of a work you loved, isn’t it? Let alone a work you actually wrote. I encountered proof of this a few months back, when I had the fascinating experience of watching a group of presumably reasonable adults fall to pieces over a negative review of a series of books that they hadn’t even written.

I’m referring, of course, to my Millions colleague Janet Potter’s piece on Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. The piece has accumulated more than eighty comments to date, more or less evenly split between people who agree with her and thin-skinned Larsson fans who seem just about ready to come after her with torches:

“Well said. You have aptly made your point that we, the unwashed masses, are unabashadly attracted to escapist drivel. And while I respect your contrarian impulse, I question your self-serving need to broadcast it. Why bother, other than to provoke, sully, and snark?”

“Laughable review. I do enjoy Literature Snobbery.”

“I’ll have to defend Stieg by point out the many ways in which this review sucks”

All of these commenters were, of course, entitled to their opinions. But what I kept thinking, as I read through page after page of vitriol, was “But you didn’t even write these books.” I found it difficult to shake the uncharitable suspicion that several of Janet’s more vehement opponents would last about five minutes as novelists.

I think sometimes about the increasingly blurred lines between writer and critic. Those who can, write, the worn-out cliché goes. Those who can’t, review.

It’s a convenient phrase to hide behind when either your ego or your favorite Swedish crime novel is getting bruised, but the economic realities of being a writer have long since rendered this obsolete, if indeed it was ever particularly accurate. There are dedicated book critics, but we’re reviewed quite frequently by a jury of our peers. It’s really, truly, unbelievably difficult to make a living writing fiction, which is why almost all of us have day jobs and why so many novelists write reviews for websites and newspapers in addition to working on our own books. (There are interesting implications for book criticism in this, I think, but that’s a topic for a different essay.)

covercoverJennifer Egan, whose fiction has been praised effusively on this website and just about everywhere else, is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The New York Times. Hannah Pittard’s exquisite debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was recently reviewed in The Times by Jennifer Gilmore, whose Something Red was one of my favorite novels of last year. Something Red was reviewed in the same paper by the novelist Susann Cokal.

Suggesting that any of these people are reviewing because they can’t write would be demented. The 21st century update, then, goes something like this:

Those who can, write.

Those who can write but who don’t happen to be among the 1% of novelists who manage to subsist on their fiction alone, also review. We’re just trying to pay our rent here.

A much-celebrated performer of my acquaintance received an unfortunate review in a major paper last year. Let’s say that this performer is an actress, in Toronto, and let’s say it was the Toronto Star. I found the review unfair—my personal opinion was that her show was brilliant—but I was stunned by her response. A day or two after the review came out, she sent the Star reviewer a long email.

She told the reviewer he was “full of shit”, made various vague statements that a reasonable person might interpret as a threat (“I guess I was due for a hatchet job from the Star given all the praise I’ve received over the years, going all the way back to my debut solo show ‘Toronto Star Theatre Critic Found at Bottom of River’”), suggested that the reviewer was racist—it happened that the actress and critic were of different races—hit send, and then forwarded it to her email list. Fortunately for her career, no one sent it to Gawker.

The day after the most recent and more vicious of my Publisher’s Weekly reviews came out, I fell into a conversation with a writer friend about this actress and her rebuttal. I’d found it appalling; my friend, who’s also had to deal with a bad review or two in his time, had liked it. I said something about how I understood how hurt she had been and I understood the temptation to respond, but that the actress had pretty much confirmed my long-held suspicion that arguing with bad reviews is a truly terrible idea.

“But why,” my friend asked, “should the reviewers always have the last word?”

Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you: we switch jobs all the time—see above, section no. 4—but at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.

But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.

This, at least, is as close as I’ve come to a coherent position on the matter. The question of how and if to respond remains troubling: I spent a long time writing and rewriting a letter to a major Canadian publication a few months ago, when I came across a lukewarm review whose reservations seemed based on such a complete misreading of the plot that I seriously questioned whether the reviewer had actually read the book. I didn’t really mind that the review was lukewarm, but I did mind that the reviewer had made two or three fairly major factual misstatements about what I’d actually written.

In the end I didn’t send it, because I couldn’t quite figure out a way to word it that didn’t come across as sour grapes. Better, I thought, not to respond at all. Better to ignore the review than to be graceless. This may possibly be cowardice on my part.

There are cautionary tales. Alice Hoffman’s 2009 Twitter meltdown has been immortalized for all time on Gawker. Richard Ford once responded to a negative review by taking one of the reviewer’s novels outside and shooting a hole through it. The novelist who gave him a bad review? Alice Hoffman.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the admirable Joanna Smith-Rakoff, who told me at a writer’s festival last year that she doesn’t read her reviews. Any of them. Positive or negative. She seemed, I couldn’t help but notice, considerably more serene than most writers of my acquaintance.

I wonder sometimes what Mailer would have said to Kakutani, if by some horrible slip of social planning they’d ever ended up in the same room. What do you say to the person who wrote terrible things about your work? It’s an awkward question. On the one hand, Richard Ford again: he waited two years before he encountered the fellow novelist who’d published a negative review of one of his books, and then spat on him at a party. (This is exactly the kind of behavior, incidentally, that leads to what marketing consultants refer to as brand damage: every time I hear Richard Ford’s name I think “guy who spat on other guy at party” first, “writer” second.) On the other hand, it might be oddly satisfying to remain impeccably polite.

But then, what if one were deserted by the power of speech? It’s a concern. I know I said in the first section that bad reviews are usually not particularly hurtful once the initial sting wears off, but the key word here is usually. There are some that get under your skin—either because they’re violently stupid, or so viciously personal that you find yourself Googling the reviewer just to see if maybe you inadvertently stole her boyfriend in high school, or both—and these are difficult to shake. If I ever encounter the lit blogger who gave me my first and so far thankfully only non-PW takedown, I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to breathe. I certainly couldn’t for the first few minutes after I read what she wrote about my first novel. Speaking might be entirely out of the question.

I did meet her editor. He turned out to be lovely. I was standing at my publisher’s booth at Book Expo America last spring when a man approached, holding a copy of my second novel. I glanced at his nametag, and I’ll confess that my heart sank a little when I saw the name of the blog he edited. The blog’s name always makes me think of old-school Usenet flame wars, partly because of the name of the site and partly because of the tone of the review they gave me.

“Emily, hi, I edit [redacted because name of blog gives me unpleasant flashbacks].com,” he said. “We reviewed your first novel.”

“I remember,” I said, as sweetly as possible.

“Uh oh,” he said.

Do bad reviews matter? There’s a school of thought that they don’t, but the thing about them is that they’re just so horribly memorable. Norman Mailer received countless laudatory reviews; but we’ll remember these less vividly, I think, than we’ll remember his decades-long feud with Michiko Kakutani.

“It does take three good reviews to overcome a bad one,” he wrote in a 2003 letter to the publisher of The New York Times, “if the bad one is a potential reader’s first acquaintance with the work.”

Mailer understood that negativity draws public interest, in the same way that blood in the water draws sharks. We’re naturally drawn to vicious reviews, to train-wreck actresses, to personal catastrophes and public feuds. His letter was scathing, but not intended for public attention: “I would rather keep all this in camera than disseminate it to the teeming raptors of the Internet,” he wrote. “Did I say raptors? I mean raptures, teeming raptures.”

I think bad reviews do matter, if only from a financial standpoint. I think we have to ignore them anyway. Kakutani’s habitual hatchet jobs on Mailer’s work were more memorable than the countless good reviews he received, but above all of this towers the body of work. He spent a certain amount of time doing battle with his most relentless critic, but he spent far more time perfecting the writing.

(Image: Broken Glass Shards Urban Exploration April 19, 20101 from stevendepolo’s photostream)

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74 Responses to “On Bad Reviews”

  1. How Not to Respond to a Review of Your Book | Sphaerula
    at 7:06 am on March 30, 2011

    […] Howett should invest some time reading BigAl’s response and Emily St. John Mandel’s essay, “On Bad Reviews,” on The Millions web site. This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink. ← […]

  2. Matthew MacNish
    at 11:26 am on April 5, 2011

    These things always make me think of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. Excellent essay.

  3. The chicken and the reviewer | Knitting with Pencils
    at 12:20 pm on April 5, 2011

    […] also linked to Emily St. John Mandel’s essay on bad reviews for The Millions, in which she expressed exasperation about her own  negative reviews, but in a […]

  4. Ann Littlewood
    at 12:56 pm on April 5, 2011

    Excellent and consoling essay, one I will save to comfort myself when and if my next book is published. A word about anonymous reviews–I understand that reviewers take considerable flak for offering up a bad review. My experience is that an identified reviewer is likely to review only books he or she likes and avoid the shit-storm of publishing a negative review. The result is positive reviews only. How is the reader to evaluate books under these circumstances? So I see a place for anonymous reviews. That said, still PW shouldn’t rule Amazon.

  5. TraciB
    at 5:10 pm on April 5, 2011

    I found your essay through a link on Nathan Bransford’s blog, and I’m glad I clicked on it. This post was illuminating for me, especially since I occasionally review books on my blog and several other sites.

    When writing a review, I have the reader and potential book buyer in mind more than the author. Even so, I try to point out the aspects of a book I like more than those that bother me. Truth be told, so far I’ve been blessed with good books. I’ll be reviewing one on April 11 that wasn’t my favorite so far, but the review will still be more positive than negative.

    I do these reviews for free (they’re good writing practice), so I’m under no obligation to post a positive one. Still, I think it’s better to exercise courtesy and restraint than to trash a work simply because something about it didn’t sit right with me. Could I be sarcastic, snarky and clever? Of course. Who would it benefit? No one.

  6. Laura
    at 8:34 pm on April 5, 2011

    Elegantly put and lots to chew on. If I’m ever lucky enough to have a book reviewed at all, I think I’ll take the “ignore the negative” route.

  7. Patrick Neylan
    at 8:34 am on April 6, 2011

    There are a lot of comments here suggesting that either:
    a) Authors should ignore reviews
    b) Reviewers should not review books they didn’t like
    Both attitudes, I feel, are misguided.

    Firstly, reviewers are readers. Your customers are readers (you ARE trying to make a living out of this, aren’t you?). Every other business is falling over itself to get to know its customers better, get their feedback, understand what they want and improve their products. And your customers are offering you their carefully considered opinions without you having to give away an iPad. But your business has a sign up saying: “Customers are welcome to leave comments but we don’t read them because we don’t give a s**t what you think.”

    Are you above that? Are you _so_damned_good_ at what you do that you’ve got nothing to learn? I admire you, Vincent. Sit there in your garret with your metaphorical bandaged ear. (NB, this does sometimes work, but only if you truly are one of the greats.)

    As for positive reviews, I don’t respect any reviewer who only writes nice things. The world isn’t perfect. No book is perfect, not even [insert your favourite book here]. A reviewer who takes the job seriously has a duty to be honest, and that means telling the truth. If you don’t do that, you’re putting your desire to be nice to other authors before the needs of those reading your reviews. Any writer who puts the readers second is either a bad writer, a dishonest one, a salesman or an Artist. And a reviewer is not an artist.

  8. Boyu H
    at 5:28 pm on April 13, 2011

    “Those who can, write. Those who can write but who don’t happen to be among the 1% of novelists who manage to subsist on their fiction alone, also review. We’re just trying to pay our rent here.”

    I laughed forever when I read those lines. So true!

    I agree with Patrick; good or bad reviews sbould both be read. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with what the reviewer’s saying; the fact that they took to time to both writing something about you work should be a compliment within itself.

  9. The Artolater » Friday Links
    at 7:58 am on April 22, 2011

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  10. Boyfriend Expo America- Day One « Books are my Boyfriends
    at 12:22 am on May 25, 2011

    […] for the MILLIONS and wrote a great piece about Dealing With Bad Reviews and Not Being an Asshole HERE . I ALSO got to meet Emma Straub, Brooklyn-Sweetheart writer who has written a widely agreed to be […]

  11. Anni
    at 11:45 am on July 5, 2011

    An author puts in a year or more of effort on a book, and signs his/her name. A PW reviewer can skim the book, and is anonymous. When the review is negative, the author must wonder if the reviewer actually read the book, has a personal agenda, or takes any responsibility for the results. A bad review – “just an opinion” – could nonetheless derail a fledgling career, especially for a first time writer, if there weren’t other compensating, positive reviews, or fans of the author’s earlier work. I doubt your average Amazon buyer puts the PW review process in any perspective.

    I do, because I have read a PW review where the reviewer clearly hadn’t read the book, just the book jacket and/or intro chapter, because the beginning had a sort of a “devil’s advocate” stance (and even a modestly careful reader would have understood that). Once into the book, the author challenged the “assumptions” outlined in the beginning. But the review was written from the perspective that the introductory chapter was, indeed, the author’s argument. So how can a careful review process miss that?

    If the reviews were obviously thoughtful, and the reviewers well-compensated (and thus motivated to do a careful reading), the anonymity would be acceptable. But this is a business model that doesn’t do a great job. Amazon shouldn’t feature PW reviews front and center – at least you know if Amazon’s amateur reviewers bought the book. In a way, I’d believe that someone who spent $15 for a book is more likely to have read it than someone who was paid $25 to review it.

    (If that ‘s true – that can’t possibly be true, can it????) How much DO the PW reviewers make? Do they ever make corrections? Has an author ever sued?

  12. CM
    at 12:57 am on July 19, 2011

    Thank you Emily!

    I just received a very bad review today of a play I wrote. Nothing about the actors or the music. Only few words about the director. Everything else is about how the playwright (me) is clumsy, unclair, predictable and not funny.

    Unfair and hurtfull it is.

    But thank you for putting things in perspective in your article. It helped. I might even be able to sleep tonight. Maybe.

    *Sorry for the bad english, it is not my first langage.

  13. Susan from SC
    at 12:46 pm on August 11, 2011

    I’m currently witnessing an author melt-down over one single negative Amazon review and, while highly entertaining, it is making the author look pretty pathetic.

    The saddest thing about the situation is that the review is pretty accurate and matches the same criticisms other reviewers, both online and in print, have made about the novel.

    This doesn’t bode well for future novels by this author. If you can’t learn from criticism, no matter how much it stings, then you probably should find another job.

  14. Genuinely Affecting | Laura Maylene Walter
    at 5:56 am on September 21, 2011

    […] this article, Emily St. John Mandel discusses reviews, including the bad (and ugly), writers who snapped back at […]

  15. Diana
    at 2:20 am on October 30, 2011

    It’s been a long, long time since Publishers Weekly and Kirkus moved the needle, positive or negative. Their reviews stopped being honorable years ago. Some reviewers skim; others seem to use the reviews as a written form of Prozac. Some reviewers are biased before they open a galley. Many reviewers are authors. Don’t think that favors can’t be called in. They are. This is one of the reasons the book industry is in a crisis. PW, Kirkus, and LJ were the gatekeepers of the gatekeepers, and their function was to inform bookstores, not the general public. Booksellers knew how to interpret a review. What would read like a mild takedown would be interpreted as “Yes, but it’s a really good read, and it will fly off the shelves.” The average reader doesn’t speak this language. Now, readers go to Amazon or GR to get the dirt on a book. Readers follow book blogs. No one cares about PW. What does it offer? Nothing that can’t be found on Publisher’s Lunch or a thousand other places. PW isn’t watching their reviewers–reviewers who don’t have a dog in this race, reviewers who skim, reviewers who aren’t above using a smackdown to hurt an author’s career (which is easily accomplished). Karma is a bitch. Reviews should be unbiased. Reviewers should have some honor. Some do, but the quality of PW’s reviews has dropped to a frightening level. Kirkus loves to support their pets; everyone else gets shredded (and god help the author who isn’t literary, but is really, really good–he/she will be eviscerted by Kirkus). The time for PW and Kirkus is over. Readers need to be educated. They need to understand that a starred review and a bloodletting isn’t an indication of a good or a bad book. Ignore them. And understand that all businesses, even publishing, can be corrupt. Kirkus was always ridiculous. No one in publishing pays any attention to them. Sadly, unfortunately, the same thing has happened to the once-great PW.

  16. Adrian Nicholas
    at 8:02 pm on November 10, 2011

    Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus gave starred reviews to Q.R. Markham’s Assassin of Secrets; Library Journal praised it. The book was pulled by Little Brown after an anonymous source tipped the publisher about Markam’s plagiarism. This says a lot about our review system. No, it’s unreasonable to expect every reviewer to recognize plagiarized passages, but this incident chips away at the outdated pre-pub review rags. They were necessary a decade ago; now they need to go off into the good night. In this day of pre-pub orders, what is the point of a review in PW? No point.

  17. Anonymous
    at 11:34 pm on November 13, 2011

    Thank you so much for this article.

    I’m a writer about to publish my book in early December and my editor all of sudden decides (based off some beta readers she collected and forced to read my book) that it needs a complete rewrite.

    There’s so much more to my ordeal, but I’ll leave the ‘information dump’ out.

    Our argument had me wondering if I wanted to publish…if I want to deal with negative reviews. Before reading your article, I literally made up my mind that I didn’t want to. My heart just can’t handle it.

    But now….maybe I can by keeping in mind that everyone receives bad reviews. They sting even the most popular writers.

    Thanks again.

  18. E.R. Mason
    at 5:10 pm on December 7, 2011

    About a year ago I published one of my novels on Amazon for free. It remained near the top ten, had 42 four or five star reviews, 9 one star. The most recent reader reviews get top billing with Amazon. In this book, a minor character had an accent in three or four lines of dialogue. The accent could have been interpreted several ways. One reader was offended by this and wrote a scathing review that implied between the lines that I was a racist and bigot, and for that reason readers should bypass the book and author. Amazon does not have an appeals process. I wrote to them, and they were sympathetic but not willing to make any changes. I could not leave this book posted on a web page with a review note below it suggesting such terrible accusations. I felt I had no choice but to unpublish from Amazon, although this book continues to do very well with many other distributors.

  19. Writing on the Ether | Jane Friedman
    at 5:03 am on December 15, 2011

    […] her fine article, On Bad Reviews, author Emily St. John Mandel (many of us are fans of her Last Night in Montreal) brings the sort […]

  20. Rob
    at 3:36 pm on January 12, 2012

    Great Article..
    Im not a writer, But Im a musician..

    most critics are ‘blocked’ artists, one the reasons they can’t create is in fact because they critique themselves so much, we as artists have to be strong enough and love ourselves enough to keep doing the work. And maybe do it for reasons other then what ‘they’ think ..good or bad.
    I find myself less concerned with reviews, even when someone says ‘amazing’ or ‘the best ive heard’ I kind of feel like..ok thanks..but i feel if i’m open to that then i’m open to the rather than have my sense of self worth be a puppet on a string I create just out of the joy and my personal mission in life..people who are really harsh with criticisms are really miserable people, they usually want to create but live in the shadows..I don’t think bad reviews do anything other then give parasites a job..but whatcha gonna do? like you said..comes with the territory..keep on writing!!:)
    my 2 cents..

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  22. Dale
    at 9:36 pm on July 6, 2012

    Why do people think that being entitled to your opinion means entitled to air it publicly in a way that harms someone else without possibility of your words being challenged?

    A book is out there for the world to read, including reviewers. Granted. But a persons opinion of the review itself is at least as valid as the original review.

    All reviewers should expect to be called on what they say, good or bad, and be ready to back it up with more than “It’s my Opinion!”.

    Otherwise every bad review on the net is eventually going to be answered with a string of harsh comments ending with that as a tag. It’s already starting to happen.

    You can say almost everything you want to without using bad language, insulting an author or saying untrue things about a book. If you can’t manage that, chances are the problem isn’t with the text, but with you, and stepping back, perhaps waiting for a while before attacking might be a good idea.

  23. Friday’s Round Up – December 14, 2012 |
    at 4:44 pm on December 26, 2012

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  24. Lee Cart
    at 7:50 pm on December 1, 2014

    Thank you, thank you for this article. Having just received my first review from PW on my debut novel, my first response was to google, “what to do when your book receives a bad review” and this article popped up. I appreciate all the wonderful comments by readers, too, and in full disclosure, must state that I am a financially struggling author who also writes book reviews for Kirkus and Shelf Awareness to pay the bills and because I truly love to read just about any and all genres. I attempt to write reviews that give an honest opinion of the book, while bearing in mind that reviews can be such an emotional roller coaster for new writers in particular. I will take my snarky review with a grain of salt or perhaps a shot of tequila and go on writing the many novels and memoirs waiting in my head. Thanks for helping make the sting a little less painful.

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