Unless you write in secret and never show anyone your stories, sooner or later someone will give you feedback. It could be a relative or classmate, or the editor of the school literary magazine. Or friend with whom you’ve swapped fanfic. What you want to hear, of course, is that they loved it. And chances are that’s what they’ll say, either because they’d love anything you wrote or they’re so impressed that anyone they know wrote anything, or they have no idea how to evaluate a piece of writing. If your friends are still in high school, they might have a passing acquaintance with writing book reports, but that’s not helpful in critiquing a manuscript.
I think this stage in the development of writers, readers, and reviewers is just fine. We all start out with boundless enthusiasm and undeveloped critical ability. When a writer is just starting out, praise and encouragement are a whole lot more helpful than disapproval. Case in point: the story of the Wranglers and the Stranglers (attributed to Arthur Gordon in A Touch of Wonder). Various versions run something like this:
A group of male college students with literary talent formed a club. They met regularly to read and critique each other's work. These men were merciless with one another. They dissected the most minute literary expression into a hundred pieces. They were heartless, tough, even mean, in their criticism. They were so relentless in their criticism that their group became known as “The Stranglers.”
Not to be outdone, the women of literary talent in the university were determined to start a club of their own, one comparable to the Stranglers. They called themselves the "Wranglers." They, too, read their works to one another. But there was one great difference: the feedback was positive. Sometimes there was almost no criticism at all. Every effort, even the most feeble one, was encouraged.
Twenty years later of all the bright young men in the Stranglers, not one had made a significant literary accomplishment of any kind. From the Wranglers had come six or more successful writers, some of national renown such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling.
Talent between the two? Probably the same. Level of education? Not much difference. But the Stranglers strangled, while the Wranglers were determined to give each other a lift. The Stranglers promoted an atmosphere of contention and self-doubt. The Wranglers highlighted the best, not the worst.
That’s what we need to get started: kindness and encouragement. Eventually, however, most of us encounter situations in which we benefit from critical feedback in order to overcome our own creative blind spots. And once we’ve started publishing, whether with a traditional publisher or self-publishing, we enter a new realm: our work being reviewed.
A review is not a book report, nor is it a manuscript critique. It could include formal literary analysis of the academic sort, or it could be more casual and personalized to the reviewer. It could appear in a small home town newspaper, a literary journal, a genre magazine like Locus, or online, either in the reviewer’s blog, GoodReads, LibraryThing, or a book-selling site. Chances are the reviewer will be a stranger, someone who knows of you only through the words on the page.
Some writers – a small fraction, I suspect – possess the self-discipline to avoid reviews. Most of us can’t resist. We want to know how much the reviewer praised our literary offspring. It’s wonderful when we get a thoroughly positive review, but devastating when a reviewer says caustic, negative things. It’s even worse when it’s clear the reviewer has either not understood what the text said or obviously never read it. (This happened to me with a book that had not yet been released, and only the editor and I had copies of the file.) Reviewers can also have personal agendas in eviscerating a book. I call these “revenge reviews.”
What is an author to do in the face of a negative review?
First, find a safe place to let your feelings settle. Don’t pretend it didn’t hurt when it did. The goal is let go of that upset so that you can move forward with the next project, but most of us need a moment or twelve to allow the adrenalin to drain away and to regain our composure. Sympathetic fellow writers can help, but not ones who tell you to get over it before you actually are over it. Let’s face it: having our precious literary offspring shredded hurts.
Second, decide whether there might be something of value to you in the review. You can’t do this while you’re upset, but you might be able to do it once you’re calm. The reviewer might have an axe to grind, but they also might see things you missed. Remember, you view the story through the lens of your intention, your dream for the story, but the reviewer sees only the words on the page. They might catch places where, even with the best editing in the world, the words fall short in capturing the story that played out between your ears. You might conclude, after consideration, that the reviewer was either careless or biased or just didn’t get what you were doing. It’s fine if you never way to read that negative review again. But it should be a conscious decision.
What shouldn’t you do?
Respond, either publicly or privately. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
No matter how hard you want to give that #$%^&* reviewer a piece of your mind, refrain. Even if there’s a crucial piece of information they missed, refrain. Even if they gave the book a terrible review because the book-seller shipped it a day late, refrain. Even if It’s Just Not Fair What They Said, refrain.
Writers often become reviewers (although not all reviewers are writers). I’m among them. I try to review all the ARCs I receive, and I also review for NetGalley. Not too long ago, I reviewed a book by an author unfamiliar to me. In my typical style, I began with how much I loved the premise and how well certain elements were handled. But I encountered problems having to do with larger issues, in this case, the moral and ethical implications of certain aspects of the story. I ended by saying that other readers might feel differently. I appreciate it, though, when a review sparks a discussion of issues, cultural or political or, in this case, ethical. As usual, I linked to my blog review on various social media sites and, also as usual, I tagged the author’s name and book title. The author was Not Amused and shot back a complaint that I had posted a “mediocre review” and how offensive it was to tag them with multiple posts.
So what should a reviewer do?
Much the same thing as a writer. Refrain from public response.
However, it seemed to me that this was an opening for discussing reviews from the reviewer’s as well as the author’s perspective. I waited, then scrubbed off anything like an identifier, and posted:
Note to authors: when someone posts a thoughtful, mixed review, it is not professional behavior to whine publicly to the reviewer. A "mediocre review" may in fact be just the thing that gets a reader to pick up the book and become a devoted fan.
As I’d hoped, this led to a discussion on several social media sites about reviews. Perhaps I erred in being too specific in quoting the phrase, “mediocre review.” As far as I know, no one connected my post with the original complaint. That does not justify what may have been overstepping the “Do Not Respond” rule. Unprofessional public behavior on the part of the author being reviewed does not justify unprofessional behavior on the part of the reviewer. We’re all a work in progress.
Various sequelae: I will be reviewing the author’s next book. The author took down the complaints on social media. Much good discussion engaged a number of readers. This post arose from those conversations, and will, I hope, furnish food for continued thought about our public discourse on literature.
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