There has been a good bit of noise on the internets lately about book reviews. Mostly this has consisted of writers accusing reviewers of being mean and snarky or inappropriately critiquing the writer along with the book, causing reviewers to tell writers to sit down and shut up because they weren’t even talking to them. This kind of argument is unfortunate and the type I used to resolve by sending my kids to time out.
As far as I can tell, everyone is behaving badly.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” -Kurt Vonnegut
But this post is directed at all you offended writers out there. Because I think your perspective is a bit . . . off. You’ve decided you should be up in arms because your work has been disrespected or your reputation has been besmirched? That a “bad” review is the worst thing that could happen to a writer? Seriously?
You are mistaken. In fact, you’re not even close.
Here is a list of all the things that could happen out in the big bad world of being a published writer, starting with the worst:
1. The worst thing that could happen is that no one reads your book. Ever. Write this down somewhere: Obscurity is your worst enemy.
2. The next worst thing? Nope, NOT a bad review. The next worst thing is that someone reads your book and feels nothing. Or they stop reading somewhere in the middle because they’re swamped with “meh.” Completely ambivalent. Bored out of their fucking mind. They don’t love it and they don’t hate it. They set it down in a dusty corner of their ereader — out of sight, out of mind — and never mention it to anyone. Ever.
3. The next worst? Again, NOT a bad review. The next worst thing is that someone reads your book and is incredibly moved — and by this I mean they either love it OR hate it — and they hoard this opinion like it’s their very own precioussss and never tell anyone, not even the cat. This is actually a very good thing, but we’re talking here about things that have an effect on you publicly. And remember? Obscurity is not your friend.
4. And now we’re getting into territory that is more accurately described as “best” rather than “worst.” The second best thing is that someone who is full of the “meh” feels compelled to go online and post a middle-of-the-road three star review that says your book wasn’t the best they ever read, but hey, it wasn’t the worst either. Probably this person’s favourite ice cream is vanilla. Without sprinkles. But you love them anyway because they read your book and made the effort to say so. That’s a big deal.
5. Finally, here it is: the BEST thing that could ever happen is that someone read your book and it made them FEEL something or THINK something and those thoughts and feelings were so strong that person went online and told everyone they know, and a bunch of strangers too, all about it.
You love this person. You love all their five-stars and all their one-stars equally. Why? Because you got to that person. You struck a chord, evoked a response. Your words made them feel and think and they were compelled to share that reaction with others.
“The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” -Edwin Schlossberg
It does not matter whether the things they say are “good” or “bad.” It is none of your business whether they loved your book or hated it. And it is not your job to judge or provide commentary about what people think and feel. Your job is to tell the story the best way you can and put it out there for people to read and hope it evokes a response. Period. That’s it.
You want to obsess over what people think and how they react and why? You’re in the wrong profession. Go back to school and become a psychologist.
You want unconditional love and acceptance? Get a dog. A dog will love you no matter what. You could create the worst piece of driveling dreckitude ever written and pepper it with bad grammar and egregious typos and even run-on sentences and a dog won’t care. The honey badger won’t care either, but a dog will love you. And not try to kill you. While you sleep.
Sure, you hope people will enjoy your books. Of course you do, that’s human nature. No one likes to hear negative criticism or be the target of snarky personal remarks. [And honestly, reviewers? You want to be taken seriously, review the damn work.] But as a writer, you need to be as immune to and oblivious of the criticism of readers as you should be of their accolades. Really. You can’t let the praise get to you either. That stuff is lethal.
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” -William James
Frankly, you shouldn’t even be reading reviews of your own books. That’s not why you’re writing. Reviews are not the end product of your work. Your goal is to tell stories. People are not like dogs, in case you haven’t noticed. Most of them don’t even have fleas, let alone big brown adoring eyes. No, people are difficult and ornery and unpredictable as hell. Some will love your work and some will hate it. Some will react so strongly to your stories they will decide they also love or hate YOU, the writer.
But it has nothing to do with you personally. Neither the love nor the hate. Those reactions have everything to do with each individual reader in the same way that once they read your story, once they process it through their own unique filter, it belongs to them in a way you can neither imagine nor control. Granted, the “meh” is sort of a ringing indictment of your abilities, but you’ll get better at evoking a reaction the more you write.
So go write another book. And if you happen to accidentally stumble across someone who has read your book and is talking about it AT ALL, smile quietly and congratulate yourself and be grateful. Because that’s the best thing that could ever happen to a writer.