Once upon a time I used to think that the worst thing about Being a Writer was the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love having written and I love making up stories and I love writing funny dialogue that (shamefully) makes me chuckle as I type it up, but I don’t much like the actual writing bit, which can be really hard sometimes and gives you headaches and breeds guilt and gets in the way of mindless TV watching. When it’s going well it’s the most amazing feeling in the world ever, but when it’s going bad you wish that your biggest dream was something a bit more doable, like to fly in a plane or find a toy inside of a Kinder egg.
But anyway. I digress. My new worst thing about Being a Writer is reading bad reviews.
Now I’ve been very lucky not to have had too many bad reviews. I’m hoping this is not because the people who hate the book couldn’t be bothered to review it, or because they are discussing what a wretch I am on Disney fan message boards I can’t access because I’m not a member. And to clarify: a bad review is not a review where the reader didn’t like, wasn’t impressed by or is is ultimately ambivalent about the book you spent a year of your life writing. Those are just normal; we don’t all like the same things. A bad review is a baaaad review – one where the reader is so annoyed by the sheer audacity of you committing words to paper that you can practically hear them spitting blood as you read their opinion.
What does it feel like to read a bad review of a book you’ve written? Ooooh, it’s really not nice. The closest universal experience I can compare it to is when you’re like 19 and you really, really, really fancy someone and you think, after a protracted flirtation or other signs, that they like you too and then out of the blue and without any warning at all, they show up with their girlfriend. And she’s pretty. And thin. And they’re all over each other right next to you and you have to carry on as if nothing is amiss at all, that you’re fine, when really you just want to run home and cry. It’s that sudden-stomach-dropping feeling, that I’m-about-be-sick-feeling, that blood-rushing-in-my-ears-drowning-out-all-other-sounds feeling – or, sometimes, all three rolled into one.
And people are nice. You are nice. And you tell me to not pay any attention and that you liked my book and that the reviewer doesn’t know what she’s talking about and has she written a book? and look at all my good reviews and all this and I really, really appreciate it, really I do, but in that moment of discovering a bad review, it doesn’t matter. You could have just won the Booker Prize (I imagine) and yet you’d still feel like upchucking your Weetabix.
How can this horrible feeling be avoided?
- Write a book that everyone will love and/or avoid reading your reviews. Although I have yet to encounter a writer who has managed to do either; if you know of one, do let me know.
- Print out or photocopy a review of your book that you really like from a source you explicitly trust and/or one whom you recall has raved about books you’ve loved and been blasé about the same books you’ve given up on. Stick it somewhere prominent, or in multiple somewheres prominent. Maybe even put an emergency copy in your wallet. Force yourself to read it immediately after the encounter of a bad review.
- Look up a book you adored on Amazon and read its reviews. This is always a good one, if only because the reasons people come up with to dislike books never cease to amaze me, not to mention the imaginative insults they heap on it afterwards. (Yesterday best-selling author Jill Mansell tweeted about a reviewer who left one of her books on the train because she “couldn’t bear to have such rubbish in the house”. ??!!! etc. etc.) Remind yourself that you loved this book and yet BigReader874124 thought it was “not good enough to wipe my ass with in a no-toilet paper emergency – I’d rather use my hand.” You can’t please everyone. (And why would you want to?)
- Look up the reviewer’s other reviews. On Amazon especially, this can be a very soothing exercise. Maybe they gave Freedom one star because it didn’t have any pictures, or maybe they slated Little Women for false advertising once they discovered it wasn’t actually about vertically-challenged females. (Thanks Rebecca!) Or maybe they thought Never Let Me Go, one of your favorite books of all time ever ever, was not good enough to wipe their asses with in a no-toilet paper emergency.
- Write a response. Bad reviews tend to linger with us because we are passionately arguing with them in our heads. I didn’t mean it literally! You took that out of context! I really did do that! You obviously don’t understand what I was getting at! Did you even read the blurb? Did you even read the book?! So put a stop to this by sitting down and typing out a response. You can always delete it or dump it or print it out and set fire to it afterwards. Or, you know, comment on the review on Amazon. (Although if you’re going to do this, wait a few days. Cool off. And be sober.) The fan blowing the shit is multi-directional, you know.
- If all else fails, get drunk and ask anyone who’ll listen, ‘Did she write a book? No. I didn’t think so.”
On a more serious note, I watched an interview with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Oprah last week (one Big O Disciple, right here!), and he said something really interesting. Oprah asked him what he thought of his rock star status among certain groups – East Coast college students being the prime suspect – and (I’m paraphrasing of course but) he said that he thinks there are people who like him too much and people who hate him too much, and that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
I think this is the perfect way to look at reviews. I’ve had some reviews so gushing I wonder if I bribed them and then forgot that I had, and some so bad I feel like entering the Witness Protection Program is the only way to recover from them. But I think the truth of how good (or bad!) my book actually lies somewhere in the middle, and I’m perfectly happy with that.
And I must remind myself of the alternative: having written no book – good or bad – at all.
(If you’re going to leave a comment, please don’t mention my book. I’m not fishing for compliments or looking to be cheered up – my Twitter stream did that for me on Saturday night, when I shared The Most Horrendous Review That Anyone Possibly Has Had in the History of the World. But do feel free to share your thoughts on Amazon reviews. Do you read them? Do you rate them? Do you pay any attention to them? How do they affect your book buying, if they do? And if you’re a writer, what’s the best rubbish one you’ve got?)