Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but I’ve become very attuned to reviews of any kind. Movie reviews, shoe reviews on Zappos, clothing reviews of items on my favorite online store. Having become a student of the review, I’ve come to the conclusion—way too late for my self esteem—that they are all completely subjective.

I know—I’m late to the party. Everyone apparently knew that but me.

It’s hard when you’re a writer, or anyone else whose work is critiqued regularly, to remember that. As far as I am concerned, the good reviews are great, but the bad reviews carry more weight. So for every positive thing that I have heard about one of my books, I only carry around in my head the ones where the reviewer was critical. For instance, I’ll always remember the one where the reviewer claimed I was ‘not funny’ (that’s a dagger through my heart…really) or the one that accused me of not resolving a plot point (I had…it’s called ‘subtlety’). When things get really bad, I’ll conjure up the rejection I got from an agent who said that while she loved everything—everything!—about my story and my characters, she just didn’t like the way I wrote. Lordy.

I started thinking about this as I chatted with my mother a few weeks back. My mother and three girlfriends have a weekly date for lunch and a movie. When I say that they have seen literally every movie produced by a major movie studio, I’m not kidding. They have disparate tastes, but the idea of getting together dishing the dirt either before or after the movie over a plate of hot wings is really the draw for all of them. As a result, the one who hates violence has suffered through some horribly violent war and suspense pictures, while the one who loves World War II movies has sat in silence through a sappy Katherine Heigl movie or two. My mother, however, is happy watching anything. In all of the years that I been privy to her movie reviews, only one—“Four Weddings and a Funeral”—stands out for being a film that she didn’t like. And if I recall correctly, that was a film that was universally loved for its happy, sappy storyline and Hugh Grant’s tousled mop. I thought it was a great movie. Mom hated it.

When I reflected on my mom and her friends’ movie-going habits, one thing became clear: they don’t see movies based on reviews. Nor do they shy away from movies based on some critic’s comments about it not having a good plot or good acting. They see the movies that they want to see and don’t pay attention to what Roger Ebert is saying or any other reviewer. If the movie looks good to them, they go. If it doesn’t, they pass on it or see something else. My mother has told me repeatedly that she doesn’t give any credence to what a particular reviewer might say; if a movie or its plot line speaks to her, she’ll see the movie and for the most part, usually ends up liking it, because if there’s one thing she knows, it’s what she likes. And she’s not going to let anyone who sees movies for a living tell her any differently.

We in the “cozy” or “traditional” mystery world have a lot of fans like my mother, I would guess. They read our books because they know what they like and look forward to spending time with old friends, as one fan recently characterized my main characters. So why do I care if a trade publication doesn’t like the latest installment? (Although I did get a nice review in PW, so that did make me happy for a bit.) I write for myself and for the people who read my books and not for the critics. After all, it’s all subjective, right? There are certain authors out there whose books I don’t like and I don’t read them. And then there are others who I love and wait patiently for their next work. As my friend Annie would say, “That’s why we have menus. Everyone has different taste.”

Ok, remind me of that when new book--Third Degree--comes out on November 23rd, please?

Thoughts, Stiletto faithful?

Oh, and PS--happy 48th anniversary to my parents!

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Boy do I understand your reaction to reviews. Heck I can probably still recite any negative comments on my fourth grade compositions.

    Writing is personal. Criticize my cooking or my decorating, and while I'm not thrilled, I really can rationalize that someone else might not like herring in cream sauce (and that seems to be the general opinion in my household, sans me), or might not like my favorite colors for a couch.

    But criticize my writing and I see it as criticizing me -- the person doesn't like me and my feelings get hurt.

    BUT you can't get in this writing "business" without developing a harder shell. Even more important is to celebrate those who do like our writing and be delighted to have found a profession that can be so personally satisfying (most of the time!)

    Happy Anniversary Maggie's Mom and Dad!


  2. Happy Anniversary to your parents, Maggie! And Happy Great PW Review and Barely A Month 'Til Pub Date to you! You know I angst over reviews, as hard as I try to stay tough. Like Marian said, writing is personal, no matter that the world at large sees it as a business (well, if Lauren Conrad, Hilary Duff, Lisa Rinna, and all these TV stars can do it, it can't be that difficult, right? Argh). We create these people from scratch and develop their relationships and their lives. How can it not feel personal? I don't even mind "bad" reviews if they're done thoughtfully without spoiling plot twists. But no matter how you cut it, it doesn't feel good to have someone criticize your baby. If only all reviews could be good ones! But I don't think that's ever happened in the history of literature.

    I know you'll get more "yays" than "nays," girl! So I'll try to help you focus on those, okay? And keep a good stock of wine and chocolate, just in case. :-)

  3. I read what I like and I like what I read.

    I recently read a book that got a low rating, but guess what, I took a chance and I loved that book. It really is subjective to the reader.

    Whatever catches my eyes (visual), the blurb (written) and what I've heard (word of mouth) and recommendations (Facebook, reviews) will cause me to look at a book.

  4. Hubby and I have decided we always like the movies the critics pan. I think they are looking for something beyond entertainment. We've also hated some of the most highly acclaimed.

    When it comes to book reviews, a bad one does hurt. Once I got one where from what was written made me think the reviewer hadn't read the book.

    Happy Anniversary to your parents, we're coming up on our 59th.


  5. Negative reviews, while harsh, can be enlightening if they tell you what didn't work for them. When reading a negative review, for anything, I pay attention to the WHY - except in the case of humor. Humor is the most subjective sense on the planet, IMO. "You're not funny" simply means, "I don't share your sense of humor." No one knows how to dissect why the Marx Brothers don't work for them - they only know Animal Crackers doesn't make them laugh. But it's PAINful to be told you're not funny. I know.

  6. I agree with Marilyn. So many movies get 4 stars & you leave the theater wondering what you missed. I don't like movies where you have to find out what they are trying to say - the message. I'm there to to entertained. Many thanks for all the good wishes on my anniversary. mom

  7. I also find that if you coat anything with too many reviews or comments before you gobble it up, it affects your taste. Example: I liked the movie "Avatar", but did not crazy-love it and I enjoyed more than I expected the movie "LA Confidential". Why? Avatar was so over-hyped that it could not live up to that in my view and I had really low interest in and expectations for LA Confidential.

    Too much review and commentary, positive or negative, taints the iced tea, I say.