I once asked a very famous person how to deal with bad reviews. The very famous person said, “Generally I say something like, ‘Oh, that? I barely read it.’ Or ‘Well, that’s merely one person’s opinion.’ Or ‘Hey, can’t win ’em all.’ Then I lock myself in the bathroom and sob loudly into a throw pillow I take in there with me for that purpose.” This is an accomplished professional whose career has been the absolute template for success in a field.
The relationship between authors and reviewers is a very complex one. Having done both, I can tell you that neither is easy, neither pays especially well except at the very top of the profession, and both are done for the sheer love of the form in almost every case. I’ve written reviews that I wish I could take back (all negative ones, even when the film/book/play/record in question was truly awful–I was snarky and shouldn’t have been), some that I would hold up for all the world to see and some that, well, I had a deadline and it was a slow week.
I’m proud of every novel I’ve written, which admittedly isn’t that many just yet (I’ve written five; three have been published, one is on its way and the other is still looking for a home), and have been happy to send each one out to book reviewers. Then I hold my breath, take some Maalox and make sure there’s a throw pillow within grabbing distance.
Book reviews are to authors what Snausages are to my dog: a hoped-for reward for a job well done. Granted, his job is somewhat easier than mine–it involves taking care of a bodily function in the right place–but the concept is similar. He does what he’s supposed to do, and we give him encouragement and approval.
That’s when the reviews are good. When they’re not, it’s more like we’ve done something we shouldn’t have in the house.
I know many book reviewers who are extremely scrupulous about their work, and making sure there’s no hint of favoritism (which is an interesting concept, since reviewing is by definition subjective, and you’re going to have favorites), who won’t let an author buy them a beer at a convention, citing conflict of interest. Most of the reviewers I’ve met are very serious about what they do, understand it has an impact on the work, and are dedicated to the genre and to books in general. They are, in my limited experience, remarkably conscientious about their work.
I don’t like to brag (no, wait a minute–I LOVE to brag), but my books have been almost uniformly well reviewed. I’ve been lucky, and since my Aaron Tucker novels have been published by a very small press, remarkably so, to have been reviewed in so many venues. There have been extremely generous comments in newspapers and magazines, and on a great many web sites. And I have been flattered by each and every one.
But the one I remember most clearly is the single outright pasting I took on a web site whose reviewers love virtually every book they can find (and whose name you may just as well not expect to see mentioned here). This review of my most recently published book AS DOG IS MY WITNESS was an eyelash short of violent, a pan of epic proportions that stopped just before the reviewer was to suggest I apply for a job at Home Depot and give up this writing thing before I did some real damage.
I could quote you whole sections of that review from memory. I read and read it, even as I told myself that it was wrong, that there were factual errors, that the reviewer got a major character’s name wrong, that all the other reviews had been very positive.
I took every word to heart. Finally, the world had caught up to the fraud that I am. Someone had discovered my secret–that I don’t know what I’m doing–and said it out loud. I was a hack, a pretender, a lightweight idiot who didn’t know his noun from his verb (actually, the “lightweight” didn’t seem so bad–I could lose a few pounds). It was all true, and I felt I should quit this business and move on to my true calling, whatever that was. Maybe this Home Depot idea wasn’t so bad. I hear they have dental.
After fifteen minutes or so, my blood pressure returned to normal. I forwarded the review to my publisher with the snide suggestion that he might like to pull a quote for our next praise sheet, suppressed the urge to call my mother so she could tell me how brilliant I was, and moved on to my next actual paying gig. Okay, so maybe I read a few of the positive reviews in the interim, just to remind myself that I had fooled some of the people some of the time. And that was the day I asked the very famous person about bad reviews.
Reviews should be a tool used by readers if they trust the reviewer’s judgment and not just because the reviewer has a tower to shout from. These days, everybody and his pet dog can post a review on the Internet, so readers need to be selective, reading carefully considered reviews from people like Sarah Weinman (who has never reviewed one of my books, so I can say so) and Oline Cogdill (who has). Read a few reviews of books you’ve read, and see if you agree with the reviewer. I tend to pay attention to reviews by Janet Maslin of the New York Times because I agreed with her even back when she was writing about movies. Those critics with whom I tend to disagree obviously won’t have as much influence on my consideration of a book, a movie or a whatever.
But I’ll never make a decision not to read or see something based on what a critic says. I might be persuaded to give something a try if I read that it’s something special, but if I’m interested in something I’ll make my own decision no matter what the critics said. I honestly don’t think Ishtar was all that bad (it’s no classic, but it’s also not the biblical disaster you’d think from the reviews), and I’m not that crazy about The English Patient despite the raves and the awards. That’s my taste; it might not be yours. Doesn’t make either one of us right.
The idea is to make up your own mind, and good reviewers will be the first to tell you that’s what you should do. Their job is to provide information and some perspective. My daughter went to see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie Friday night, as soon as it was released, despite disappointing reviews. She didn’t love it as much as the first in the series, but she still wants to see it again. Her brother told her the critics didn’t care for the movie, and my daughter shrugged.
“What do they know?” she asked. “They’re part of the audience, just like me.”
(If you want to know why The English Patient doesn’t make sense, feel free to email me at jeff at aarontucker dot com.)