A friend in the know—a book critic herself—once told me that Philip Roth, author of GOODBYE, COLUMBUS and PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, to name two, never read reviews of any his books. This was early on in my career and in a time when I devoured anything that was written about me or my debut mystery, MURDER 101. The early reviews were good. And then, something changed. A negative one cropped up and then another, mostly on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. (And by negative, I mean less than 5 stars. I was very naïve.) The good outweighed the bad, but some people clearly didn’t find me or my book as enchanting as I found myself.
It wasn’t like I went into the book-writing business with blinders on. I knew that there would be some people out there who didn’t like my plot, my characters, my setting…or a combination of the three…but still, it didn’t prepare me for what it felt like when I read those reviews and noted, with disappointment, the sometimes personal tone that the reviewer might take when penning their opinion. Things like “she thinks she’s funny…but she’s not” or the person who called me anti-something regarding something that I am definitely not against. One person told me I hate nuns. (I don’t. I think nuns are the backbone of Catholic education and a host of other Catholic social justice projects. Nuns kick ass, in my opinion.) There have been other pointed comments that have made my heart hurt. So, I stopped reading reviews unless they were sent to me by my publisher and vetted by the publicity department. I found that reading anything that took issue in a personal way or accused me of something that I didn’t believe to be true was just not good for me.
I don’t expect everyone to universally like—or god forbid, loathe—a work of fiction, even mine. Heck, I have seen a movie recently that everyone loved—it was nominated for Best Picture this year—and I hated. People can’t understand how I couldn’t love this movie; I can’t understand why anyone would like this movie. And that’s as far as it goes; I won’t go on any site and detail my disgust but when it comes up in conversation, as it often does, I do give my opinion to the wide-eyed disbelief of whomever I am speaking. However, if this particular director brings out another film that looks interesting, I may just go see it. For the time being, however, I will only think about this movie if someone brings it up. But other than, I watched it, hated it, and that’s the end of that. I won’t pontificate online about why I didn’t like it, or furthermore, why you shouldn’t like it either.
I have a new book coming out in December, much different from any book I’ve ever written, so the anxiety is starting to ratchet up a bit. I’m starting to wonder if people will like the book and what the reviews might be like. As a result, I decided, as I often do, to ask my fellow blogstresses—the gang here at Stiletto—to see how they handle reviews, the bad ones mostly. With one overwhelmingly consistent theme—we need wine to read or discuss reviews—there were some great insights. I’ll share what I learned from everyone else below.
Marilyn wisely says that the good reviews outweigh the bad ones for her. (I hope to get to that point some day in the near future and be able to compartmentalize the comments.)
Laura Spinella is just like me when it comes to reviews—and wine. She doesn’t like to read the negative ones and enjoys wine. (I’m thrilled to learn that. Misery loves company.)
Joelle is happy—as is Maria—to get feedback and even a 1-star review floats her boat because at least that way she knows she’s struck a nerve with a reader. To quote her directly, “the meh reviews really bug me.” Maria says a 1-star review means that “I’ve gotten under someone’s skin.” (Braver than I am that red-haired goddess [Joelle] and recent RITA nominee [Maria].)
Linda decides who’s reviewing and then makes a decision as to how seriously she’s going to take specific reviews. She takes the comments seriously of professional reviewers and strives to make her writing better. (Good advice.)
The Northern half of Evelyn David wisely points out that writing mysteries like we do is very personal and therefore, it’s hard not to take criticism personally. She also notes that “that we're all still learning, still struggling to find the right word, the perfect red herring, the clever ending -- and of course, characters that linger in memory long after the book is closed.” (Perfect way to put it.)
Bethany plans on not reading reviews, but does anyway. She considers the “headspace” of negative reviewers, which again, makes sense. Maybe I wasn’t in the proper headspace to watch the universally loved movie that I didn’t like; anything’s possible. But knowing that someone couldn’t suspend disbelief for whatever reason, or put him or herself in a character’s shoes due to a past experience, really makes a lot of sense. (Thanks, Bethany.)
As I always say, “It is what it is.” But that doesn’t mean I will start reading reviews again. I’ve discovered that for doing what I do, I’m far too thin-skinned and much too sensitive to see critiques that don’t offer a constructive way for me to make my next book better. I’m even skeptical about the positive ones. So, for now, I write this from my safest position—head in the sand—and hope that someone, somewhere laughs out loud, or cries a few tears, or even holds their breath as they read something I’ve written.