What’s the worst that could happen?

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.


Filed under book reviews, health and well-being, reader opinion

10 responses to “What’s the worst that could happen?

  1. Wise post. Part of the problem (and I apologize in advance to the many people who are going to be offended) is that a lot of indie writers haven’t been slapped around enough by the system to learn to be grateful when ANYONE reads their work. Spend ten years collecting rejection letters and you get a clue about how hard it is to entice someone to read what you’ve written. Every writer starts out convinced their writing is brilliant. Every writer is convinced what they have to say is so special that the whole world is just panting in anticipation to read every word. Many writers start out feeling entitled to attention. The feel entitled to admiration and respect and perhaps even awe.

    I don’t know any writer who hasn’t been outraged or devastated by a form rejection letter. How dare that horrible editor or agent NOT EVEN READ MY WORK!?!

    After a while, after more rejections than anyone wants to count, after humbling experience after humbling experience, the writer figures out that nobody is panting and nobody thinks you’re special–until you prove you’re special. Even then, there will be those who line up to shoot you down.

    One thing rejection letters teach you is how to take criticism. They teach you a bit of perspective about how the business works. They teach you writing is not the path to love and admiration–get that from your mom or your spouse. As for the rest, as for readers and reviewers, and reader-reviewers, feel GRATEFUL they bothered, because trust me, they don’t have to. It’s just as easy to pick up somebody’s book that IS NOT YOURS. You’re not entitled to anybody’s attention.


  2. Pam

    Speaking as a reader…ignore the haters! They will just start you on a downward spiral of self doubt and no writing. I’m just interested in what you’re writing next and how soon I can get my hands on it.


  3. I love this post. I want to take this post home and feed it lots of chocolate, sing little songs to it, and put glitter nail polish on its ten tiny toes.

    I too have been reading lots of kerfuffle about bad reviews, and it’s a little depressing to think that some people never progressed, mentally/emotionally, past the grade school level.

    I might be biased, because I’m used to this. I get people dissing my writing all the time. (Well, some of the time, at least.) The fact that it’s non-fiction technical writing doesn’t change the fact that I wrote it and they think it stinks. (Well, some of them do.)

    The thing is, if you can’t take the criticism, find another job. Only show your writing to the dog. (Not the cat, /never/ the cat. They might use it as a little box.) Do not even attempt to call yourself a professional writer if you can’t find a way to deal with the fact that not everyone will like what you wrote.


  4. What Merry said.


  5. Lou

    Again, what Merry said… and remember, writers, many “reviewers” have their own agenda going for them. They have become “popular” on Amazon (or other places – like the work place) for their biting commentary on (fill in the blank)… They have a loyal following of other negative folks who get their jollies from putting-people-down-to-make-themselves-feel-better.

    A writer must learn, early-on, to distinguish between accurate criticism and emotional vomit – and then learn from the accurate criticism and ignore the rest.


  6. Jaye, I agree that much of this nonsense is coming from inexperienced writers. And I realize I fall into that same category, but I think it helps that my dad was a high school English teacher — I grew up having everydamnthing critiqued. My skin is pretty thick at this point.

    Pam, just to be clear, no one has been hating on my writing. At least not that I know of. Not yet. And thank you for the eager anticipation. Working on it.

    Merry, watch what you’re doing with that glitter polish, you’re getting it on my chocolate! Seriously, my toes and I appreciate the support from you and Theresa. I hesitated to even post this because it seems the minute anyone says anything on this topic, people on both sides come out of the walls with pitchforks and tar and feathers to beat you up and tell you how wrong you are. Which pretty much serves as confirmation that you’re right.

    Lou, yes, there is definitely a Queen of the Hill vibe going on with some reviewers. And it’s disturbing. But I’m pretty firm in my stance that readers are entitled to their opinions, whatever they are and however they might be expressed. But geez, people, grain of salt? Nerves of steel? Writers who let themselves get riled up over someone else’s negativity and snark just make us all look bad. You’re right, Lou. Enough already.


  7. cary

    I’m with merry on this one. I’ve had whole papers sent to the great circular file in the sky, usually without explanation. spend hours on a paper even my colleagues won’t read? That’s way worse than getting a bad/unhelpful critique.

    Great reality check!


  8. Thanks, Cary! Some of the reviews I’ve seen are pretty harsh (lots of incivility on certain sites), but some of the writer reactions lead me to believe they’ve never had anyone so much as breathe a negative word about anything they’ve ever written. Boggles my mind.


  9. McB

    WMS. Also, I was thinking as I read this post that it applies to life in general. As advice it works well for anyone who thinks life should come with applause and adoration, as well as those who try to look taller by whacking everyone else off at the knees.


  10. McB, I do wonder whether the people unable to accept criticism have gone through life getting trophies for participation and being told by well-meaning (but deluded) parents and teachers that there are no losers in competitive situations and no wrong answers and no failures in life. How can you reach adulthood and not have attained some degree of graciousness or at least acceptance about this stuff?