Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Case of the Thin-Skinned Writer

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 na├»ve.)  The good outweighed the bad, but some people clearly didn’t find me or my book as enchanting as I found myself.

That hurt.

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.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Does that mean you don't want to hear how much I like your books? :)

  2. I like your books too. And as an outside observation, it appears that at times for some reason there are people who write terribly bad reviews on Amazon. One almost gets the idea they are bad for a purpose, not that the writer read the book and did not like it, but in order to discourage someone from getting the book. Just as I have seen reviews that the person did glowing reviews of one author, I have read reviews that the person did only terrible reviews of only one or two authors....sort of as though there was a mission in mind. Now, that being said, of course I am prejudiced to like certain authors and certain books. In fact those authors are the ones whose blogs I read. I am honest about my prejudices.

  3. Annette, I couldn't agree more with that feeling that comes with some bad reviews--that there's a mission in mind. Sad, isn't it?

    As for reviews where people make comments about the author, speculating what they must be like, etc...I think those should be banned from sites for the cruel overtures that they are.

  4. Lil, too funny! I guess I can't have my cake and eat it, too???

    Annette, thank you. I'm still working out my feelings about reviews in general, seven years into my writing career. I'm trying to rise above and take things less personally but baby steps...

    Laura, you and I will discuss further, I'm sure. I think a Panera Bread roundtable is in our future. Maggie

  5. I think Annette is right. That's why I don't pay attention to Amazon and Good Reads reviews. So many seem to be written with an agenda.

  6. I once got a career-killing review on Amazon ("save your money") from a guy who still calls himself a professional reviewer. I emailed him and asked him what he did like to read, and he named a few men's thrillers, and then he said that he trashed my book because Hariette Klausner had raved over it, and she needed to be taught a lesson. I guess he showed her.

  7. Negative feedback seems to me to owe most of its reach and potency to our era of immediacy. There were bad reviews when the earth was still cooling, but it wasn’t until anyone could (just like I’m doing right now) start clicking away making comments—good, bad, or indifferent—as soon as the gumball dropped, without the hurdles of time or effort. This of course means that all the comments—ALL of them—are suspect and often go too far. Sometimes they are too mean and sometimes they are too fawning. They are, in these modern times, too many.

    So, the only thing I’d like to offer, and I know this is not easy, is to never take it personally. Sure, when someone who knows you and your work well or who you are sure has the chops to make sane, useful critiques speaks, by all means pay some attention. In my work it’s a frequent requirement that I take notes and revise (or as I tell myself: “Suck it up, Princess”). It is not always in pretty language or flattering terms. But even if they have the standing to criticize, sometimes people just have a bad day or fumble the pass and you shouldn’t take it to heart. The rest? Who cares? Most stuff on the internet is just one rung above the room full of monkeys and typewriters! Some of the monkeys are indeed trying to be personally offensive and hurtful, some are oblivious to it, but it doesn’t matter. These are monkeys way off in another tree somewhere and they don’t register or take seriously what they do, so why should you?

    Lastly, the biggest reason that reviews of any kind and from any source don’t matter is because they don’t change the work at all. You still have to and can only do the best YOU can. That’s all you control and even if everyone just loved everything you wrote as much as a fat kid loves cake, it wouldn’t make writing any easier or harder. So, read them or don’t . Just don’t internalize them. It’s not personal.

  8. Kate, wow. You are a brave woman! I am glad that you wrote the reviewer and found out his real intent.

    Vicky, "suck it up, Princess" is now my new motto. You hit the nail on the head re: immediacy of posting and such.

    Thanks, everyone. Maggie

  9. I love your books. I purchase them as soon as they hit the stores. I can't wait until your new (and different? oooh! really can't wait)book comes out so I can read it.

    As for a customer of Amazon, I do look at the reviews of books that I am unfamiliar with the author. But, you learn to recognize the names of the "professional" reviewers who trash everything. I don't care what the "professional" reviewers say...I care what the person who is like me thinks of the book. I want to know what that Mom/grandma thinks, the one who is so busy that they appreciate the little bit of time that they might get to spend with their nose in a book, Just relaxing and enjoying.

    In the end, it's the people who buy the books that matter. That is the true test of a good writer.

  10. Hi Maggie, I have just read Once Upon A Lie and I enjoyed it. I was a teensy bit negative in my review and marked it down a star (so sorry) cos I wasn't quite sure where it was going. But... I've hopefully conveyed in the review that I LOVE your writing. You had me from the line - something like - 'a hole in his head which wasn't supposed to be there'. I also really really loved the way you fleshed out your characters.

    I came here to read more of what you write (cos I like your writing that much!) and will now track down your series!

    Thanks and regards

    PS. I'm not a real reviewer - just do some on Goodreads and occasionally on my blog.