On Bad Reviews

February 7, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 79 9 min read

Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.

That said, the truth is that no matter how tough you think you are and how accustomed you are to the terrain, ugly reviews are never easy to read. I’ve published two novels, which has meant that twice in the past two years I’ve sold a book to a publisher and gone through the edits, and then the publication date is scheduled, the lead-up begins, and the first pre-publication reviews trickle in. It’s a nervous, hectic, mostly pleasant time, filled with anticipation and exclamation-point laden emails from booksellers and publicists, and then Publishers Weekly weighs in. By “weighs in”, I mean that Google Alerts delivers the literary equivalent of unexploded ordnance into my inbox. The next few hours are always a little rough.

A negative review is never pleasant, but PW reviews have a particularly heart-stopping quality for purely financial reasons: there’s a moment when it dawns on you, as you’re reading all about how your book’s clumsy, lukewarm, bland, awkwardly constructed, and stocked with characters who resemble cardboard cutouts, that this thing’s going to appear on your Amazon, Powells, and Barnes & Noble pages. Which is, practically speaking, frankly kind of a drag when you’re trying to move units.

But the sting wears off after a day or two, and then the review recedes into the hazy territory of tedious-things-that-must-occasionally-be-managed, like the laundry and grocery shopping. The major bookselling e-commerce sites can be persuaded to add other reviews to their pages, and positive customer reviews help balance PW’s tone. I’ve heard of tragically sensitive types who get a bad review and spend the next week in bed, but that kind of thing’s hard to pull off when you’ve got a day job and I find that bad reviews are usually not particularly agonizing once the initial shock wears off. Especially given that PW reviews are anonymous, and after fifteen years on the Internet I have a hard time taking anonymous snark very seriously.

The repeated experience of being swiped at by PW’s nameless ghosts has made me think, though, about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.

Vanity Fair, January 2007. Norman Mailer’s Proust Questionnaire:

Q: What is your greatest fear?
A: That I will never meet Michiko Kakutani and so not be able to tell her what I think of her.

Whenever a writer brings up the subject of bad reviews, a chorus inevitably pops up to point out the obvious: that bad reviews just go with the territory. Sure, and we all knew that going in. Speaking in sweeping generalizations, we are aware of how lucky we are to be in this position at all. Most of us aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected from the slings and arrows of our chosen profession, or if we are, we learn how to hide it in public.

But it’s hard to read a take-down of a work you loved, isn’t it? Let alone a work you actually wrote. I encountered proof of this a few months back, when I had the fascinating experience of watching a group of presumably reasonable adults fall to pieces over a negative review of a series of books that they hadn’t even written.

I’m referring, of course, to my Millions colleague Janet Potter’s piece on Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. The piece has accumulated more than eighty comments to date, more or less evenly split between people who agree with her and thin-skinned Larsson fans who seem just about ready to come after her with torches:

“Well said. You have aptly made your point that we, the unwashed masses, are unabashadly attracted to escapist drivel. And while I respect your contrarian impulse, I question your self-serving need to broadcast it. Why bother, other than to provoke, sully, and snark?”

“Laughable review. I do enjoy Literature Snobbery.”

“I’ll have to defend Stieg by point out the many ways in which this review sucks”

All of these commenters were, of course, entitled to their opinions. But what I kept thinking, as I read through page after page of vitriol, was “But you didn’t even write these books.” I found it difficult to shake the uncharitable suspicion that several of Janet’s more vehement opponents would last about five minutes as novelists.

I think sometimes about the increasingly blurred lines between writer and critic. Those who can, write, the worn-out cliché goes. Those who can’t, review.

It’s a convenient phrase to hide behind when either your ego or your favorite Swedish crime novel is getting bruised, but the economic realities of being a writer have long since rendered this obsolete, if indeed it was ever particularly accurate. There are dedicated book critics, but we’re reviewed quite frequently by a jury of our peers. It’s really, truly, unbelievably difficult to make a living writing fiction, which is why almost all of us have day jobs and why so many novelists write reviews for websites and newspapers in addition to working on our own books. (There are interesting implications for book criticism in this, I think, but that’s a topic for a different essay.)

covercoverJennifer Egan, whose fiction has been praised effusively on this website and just about everywhere else, is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The New York Times. Hannah Pittard’s exquisite debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was recently reviewed in The Times by Jennifer Gilmore, whose Something Red was one of my favorite novels of last year. Something Red was reviewed in the same paper by the novelist Susann Cokal.

Suggesting that any of these people are reviewing because they can’t write would be demented. The 21st century update, then, goes something like this:

Those who can, write.

Those who can write but who don’t happen to be among the 1% of novelists who manage to subsist on their fiction alone, also review. We’re just trying to pay our rent here.

A much-celebrated performer of my acquaintance received an unfortunate review in a major paper last year. Let’s say that this performer is an actress, in Toronto, and let’s say it was the Toronto Star. I found the review unfair—my personal opinion was that her show was brilliant—but I was stunned by her response. A day or two after the review came out, she sent the Star reviewer a long email.

She told the reviewer he was “full of shit”, made various vague statements that a reasonable person might interpret as a threat (“I guess I was due for a hatchet job from the Star given all the praise I’ve received over the years, going all the way back to my debut solo show ‘Toronto Star Theatre Critic Found at Bottom of River’”), suggested that the reviewer was racist—it happened that the actress and critic were of different races—hit send, and then forwarded it to her email list. Fortunately for her career, no one sent it to Gawker.

The day after the most recent and more vicious of my Publisher’s Weekly reviews came out, I fell into a conversation with a writer friend about this actress and her rebuttal. I’d found it appalling; my friend, who’s also had to deal with a bad review or two in his time, had liked it. I said something about how I understood how hurt she had been and I understood the temptation to respond, but that the actress had pretty much confirmed my long-held suspicion that arguing with bad reviews is a truly terrible idea.

“But why,” my friend asked, “should the reviewers always have the last word?”

Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you: we switch jobs all the time—see above, section no. 4—but at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.

But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.

This, at least, is as close as I’ve come to a coherent position on the matter. The question of how and if to respond remains troubling: I spent a long time writing and rewriting a letter to a major Canadian publication a few months ago, when I came across a lukewarm review whose reservations seemed based on such a complete misreading of the plot that I seriously questioned whether the reviewer had actually read the book. I didn’t really mind that the review was lukewarm, but I did mind that the reviewer had made two or three fairly major factual misstatements about what I’d actually written.

In the end I didn’t send it, because I couldn’t quite figure out a way to word it that didn’t come across as sour grapes. Better, I thought, not to respond at all. Better to ignore the review than to be graceless. This may possibly be cowardice on my part.

There are cautionary tales. Alice Hoffman’s 2009 Twitter meltdown has been immortalized for all time on Gawker. Richard Ford once responded to a negative review by taking one of the reviewer’s novels outside and shooting a hole through it. The novelist who gave him a bad review? Alice Hoffman.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the admirable Joanna Smith-Rakoff, who told me at a writer’s festival last year that she doesn’t read her reviews. Any of them. Positive or negative. She seemed, I couldn’t help but notice, considerably more serene than most writers of my acquaintance.

I wonder sometimes what Mailer would have said to Kakutani, if by some horrible slip of social planning they’d ever ended up in the same room. What do you say to the person who wrote terrible things about your work? It’s an awkward question. On the one hand, Richard Ford again: he waited two years before he encountered the fellow novelist who’d published a negative review of one of his books, and then spat on him at a party. (This is exactly the kind of behavior, incidentally, that leads to what marketing consultants refer to as brand damage: every time I hear Richard Ford’s name I think “guy who spat on other guy at party” first, “writer” second.) On the other hand, it might be oddly satisfying to remain impeccably polite.

But then, what if one were deserted by the power of speech? It’s a concern. I know I said in the first section that bad reviews are usually not particularly hurtful once the initial sting wears off, but the key word here is usually. There are some that get under your skin—either because they’re violently stupid, or so viciously personal that you find yourself Googling the reviewer just to see if maybe you inadvertently stole her boyfriend in high school, or both—and these are difficult to shake. If I ever encounter the lit blogger who gave me my first and so far thankfully only non-PW takedown, I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to breathe. I certainly couldn’t for the first few minutes after I read what she wrote about my first novel. Speaking might be entirely out of the question.

I did meet her editor. He turned out to be lovely. I was standing at my publisher’s booth at Book Expo America last spring when a man approached, holding a copy of my second novel. I glanced at his nametag, and I’ll confess that my heart sank a little when I saw the name of the blog he edited. The blog’s name always makes me think of old-school Usenet flame wars, partly because of the name of the site and partly because of the tone of the review they gave me.

“Emily, hi, I edit [redacted because name of blog gives me unpleasant flashbacks].com,” he said. “We reviewed your first novel.”

“I remember,” I said, as sweetly as possible.

“Uh oh,” he said.

Do bad reviews matter? There’s a school of thought that they don’t, but the thing about them is that they’re just so horribly memorable. Norman Mailer received countless laudatory reviews; but we’ll remember these less vividly, I think, than we’ll remember his decades-long feud with Michiko Kakutani.

“It does take three good reviews to overcome a bad one,” he wrote in a 2003 letter to the publisher of The New York Times, “if the bad one is a potential reader’s first acquaintance with the work.”

Mailer understood that negativity draws public interest, in the same way that blood in the water draws sharks. We’re naturally drawn to vicious reviews, to train-wreck actresses, to personal catastrophes and public feuds. His letter was scathing, but not intended for public attention: “I would rather keep all this in camera than disseminate it to the teeming raptors of the Internet,” he wrote. “Did I say raptors? I mean raptures, teeming raptures.”

I think bad reviews do matter, if only from a financial standpoint. I think we have to ignore them anyway. Kakutani’s habitual hatchet jobs on Mailer’s work were more memorable than the countless good reviews he received, but above all of this towers the body of work. He spent a certain amount of time doing battle with his most relentless critic, but he spent far more time perfecting the writing.

(Image: Broken Glass Shards Urban Exploration April 19, 20101 from stevendepolo’s photostream)

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn. www.emilymandel.com.


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  2. You’ve got, in most cases, frustrated writers who have not published a book, reviewing the work of writers who have published a book(s). When one considers this, it’s kind of amazing every review ever written isn’t harsh.

  3. I once found myself at a cocktail reception and introduced to a reviewer who’d written a less-than-glowing review of one of my books. We spoke briefly about the conference we were attending; I was polite to him and he was polite to me. I did not mention the review and neither did he. There is really no point in handling the situation any differently. He’s entitled to his opinion and I’m entitled to write what I please. The bad review was of my book, not of me as a person. I was glad I took the high road.

  4. Whenever I write a negative review (something I loathe doing, even though it’s an easier exercise than writing a positive review) I always want to insert lots of disclaimers to the tune of “This is just my opinion and hey, maybe I’m having a bad day.” But that would drive up the word count too much. And just as authors believe in their books, reviewers believe in their reviews. Ideally. Great essay. That’s an honest review.

  5. “A word on critics: All writers will encounter critics, both professional and amateur, from the moment they begin writing. Remember that those men and women who are paid to share their opinion on the hard work of others fall into two classes of person. One, the man who critiques because he cannot write and, two, the writer who churns out reviews because her writing alone cannot support her family. Both of these individuals, of course, want nothing more than for you and your book to fail, just as you, naturally, want them to fail at their chosen life’s work. Those critics closer to us, in our families and our social circles, are much harder to endure. But the same principle applies. Remember that they hate you out of jealousy and you, too, are free to pick on their careers, belittle their life choices, and sue them for sole custody of the baby.” —Judson Merrill, on The Outlet from Electric Literature

  6. I don’t even like reading positive PW reviews. Those people just make me cringe, and I’m sorry that any author has to pay attention to their drivel.

  7. I agree with Jeff. The reviewer is entitled to their opinion. That is, after all, their job. To act as if it was a personal attack and not a comment on your work is unprofessional and would most likely hurt you more than the bad review.

  8. Does anyone know who PW reviewers actually are? Grad students, journalists, office staff, library volunteers? They’re giving out some odd starred ratings these last few years, to say the least, and sometimes the reviewers don’t seem to have read the whole book. Or understood it. (And don’t get me started on Kirkus.)

  9. The longer I write, the more I realize just how tiny the publishing world can be. There’s no point in burning bridges. Most reviewers don’t give negative reviews because they want to, or look forward to it. They give them because it’s their honest opinion.

    As much as I would like to rail on people sometimes, I usually find it best to just vent to my husband for a few minutes instead. What else are spouses for? :)

  10. I’m terrified of reviews. In fact, my CP’s and family have volunteered to screen all reviews first, lest I become one of the bed-ridden writers you mentioned! ;) I think we have to remember that taste is subjective and you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But let’s face it, a bad review is like someone telling you you have an ugly baby. There’s no way to take the sting out of it. We just have to remember that for every handful of bad reviews, there’s a bushel of loyal readers at our backs! Great post!

  11. I think the best response to bad reviews is to do what my pal, Bryan Gruley did: He made a T-shirt out of his worst Amazon review. It was something like “predictable mystery trash”… and, mind you, that was for a book that was nominated for the Edgar Award and won the Anthony Award. (He’s worn the “predictable mystery trash” T-shirt at conferences, to great comic effect).

    Which reminds me, I need to have a T-shirt made for a one-star review I just got. The reviewer was kind enough to put on both Goodreads and Amazon: “I cannot fathom the enthusiasm for this egregiously opprobrious mystery novel.”

    (I had to look up “opprobrious” just to make sure it was a bad thing for a novel to be… turns out, it is).

  12. Maybe the critical dyspepsia is a function of the Cratchit-level pay? Does anyone know what an unsigned *PW* review pays?

  13. I was a PW reviewer for a while! I wrote reviews of sports books, mostly, but occasionally they tossed me something meatier. I never imagined myself to be too harsh, but then again, I never really read that many other PW reviews. I did this while I was otherwise out of the book business, and it wasn’t exactly the most rewarding experience of my life. You’re paid poorly — very poorly if you’re a slower reader — and you are asked to read some very, very bad books.

    I wonder, in general, if the importance of PW reviews has decreased as more and more publishers are sending galleys to bloggers and members of sites like Goodreads (where I now work). Perhaps PW still carries a lot of sway with book buyers and librarians. I’m not sure. I do know that various other measures of a book’s worth — twitter and blog mentions, and the number of people who have already added the book on Goodreads — are present in the online catalog for Edelweiss…so maybe that poor review from PW doesn’t stand out so much.

  14. This is a refreshingly honest response from the author’s point of view. What it fails to consider is the reader. Despite the cries that literature is a dying art form, there are more books being published now than ever in the history of mankind. (And in an increasingly confusing array of formats).

    Even the most avid reader can’t read all the new titles that appear, so we depend on reviewers (both professional and Amazon-amateur) to help us decide where to spend our book bucks. And while a negative review may sway a potential reader, I think most of us are able to discern the prejudices and agendas (or sheer ignorance) that may be behind them. That includes the predictable snark of PW. On the other side of the ledger, the fact that the author “worked hard” on a book is not a sufficient reason for the reader to spend his money or time reading it.

    Finally, not all books are for all readers, and reviews of all types provide a useful filter. God knows in our information-overrun times, we need one.

  15. This is a great essay – and you are absolutely right: we do our job as writers, and the critics do their job by reviewing our work. Once we put our work out there, we have to be prepared for whatever comes.

    That said, I would put no value into an anonymous review. It’s a lot easier to sling insults at a work if you don’t have to stand up to your own words.

    And there is the saying that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Hopefully most readers can tell when a negative review is also a bad review (bad as in poorly written, perhaps not even making sense). The reviewer or their publication must have thought that the book had some value to even have selected it from the thousands (millions?) out there to review. Even if the review is negative, at least potential readers have now heard of it – and perhaps will look for other info on it before making their buy/don’t buy decision.

  16. This is a very elegant article about a very difficult subject.

    As a book blogger (and writer, myself) I never post negative reviews. No one has ever asked me to tell them the last book I hated. I’m asked all the time what books I’ve read that I’ve loved. My policy is to only review books I would recommend.

  17. Splendidly done, and fun too. As Brad Parks notes, my wife made me a great T-shirt from the headline of a vitriolic review I got on Amazon. It was actually RAMBLING SUSPENSELESS TRASH, but I told my wife RANDOM, so the white-on-black shirt says RANDOM, which is pretty close anyway.

    Now my latest book has one on Amazon headlined WHAT A DISAPPOINTMENT! Sounds like something to add to my wardrobe!

  18. I’ve commented on reviews before in my blog. I do tend to take reviews personally–but more the reviews of the work of fellow authors than my own.

    One review accused a well-known author of cheating on her husband on Twitter. That was the one that set me off.

    I don’t comment on my reviews–other than to thank the reviewer occasionally.

    Would I like to comment more often Ummm..yes. But, I know better.

    Authors shouldn’t review for companies in my opinion–a negative review of a fellow author WILL come back to haunt them, I think.

    If I can’t say SOMETHING nice about a book–I generally won’t leave a review at all.

  19. As an author and a reviewer I understand both sides here–and I am glad that the author of the post pointed out the other authors who were reviewers, I get a lot of stick of the “those who can’t…” variety.

    The best response to ANY review, in my opinion is no response. Not even thank you, because I think that looks a bit desperate, an author hanging around reading reviews. I will thank the reviewer if they’ve emailed me to let me know a review has gone up, but that’s a personal email. I don’t believe in responding in public. Wail to your friends, and say nothing online.

    On my review site we DO do unfavourable reviews but I am pretty strict with my tiny band of reviewers, if we dislike a book we must qualify why we don’t–” i thought it sucked” simply won’t do under any circumstances. We try, if we can, find something good to say–even if the book gets 1 out of 5. Similarly I don’t want reviews which are full of snark and “cleverness” – that smacks that the reviewer is trying to make him or herself popular by an acid tongue, and it’s the book that matters–not the reviewer.

    I once applied to a website to do some reviewing and was told that they never posted a bad review. If the book was that bad they wouldn’t post a review at all. I couldn’t work for them–if all reviews are good, how can the reader trust your opinion?

  20. Negative reviews suck but are necessary. I’m an author not a reviewer but I do an occasional review and to tell you honestly, the only time when I feel the urge to write a negative review is when I feel insulted by the writer, which is rare. If I don’t like it than I don’t finish it. If I finish it, it means it had some qualities I have to discuss in the review that are positive. Even then all I do is bring up where I thought it could have been better and juxtopose it next to what I thought worked.

    Then again, I attach my names to my reviews so there’s that.

  21. As a reader, every time I am tempted to be critical of a novelist’s work I remind myself that I can barely write one sentence. It’s way harder than it looks; and the same goes for editing.

  22. Goodreads frightens me in particular (we’re all used to seeing one-star reviews at Amazon from people whose book took too long to arrive, or are irate that the book isn’t available in recorded format). I try to review only books I adore – do I really want to drive down someone’s ranking when I’m the only one who isn’t mad about the book? But Goodreads invites people to appoint themselves experts, and after watching one reader trashing my novel as she apparently flipped through it, in ways that made no sense (I mean, there ARE things you could slam about my book, but these were none of them) I stay away, far away, and cross my fingers. And consider myself lucky to have emerged from PW and Booklist reviews without being shredded, and to have had Kirkus criticize only my propensity to describe food in loving detail. I think the reviewer was dieting at the time.

  23. I like to say I’ve been compared to Swift and shit, depending on who’s doing the comparing! At this point, after 19 published books, there are only two types of reviewers who bother me:

    1) the ones who don’t simply hate the book but actively mock it, inviting all their followers to mock as well – invariably, these are people who long to be published writers themselves;

    2) the ones for whom it’s not enough to post their own negative views; instead, they follow the book around the Internet, leaving negative comments anytime anyone else has something positive to say.

  24. Well done – great opinion piece (and if it makes you feel any better, Emily, I loved your first book!!!). As someone who reviews a lot of books, I always struggle when I read a book that I just really dislike or one that I think the writing is not all that good…but, that said, I always try to find some redeeming factor to sandwich around the negative stuff because my heart aches picturing the writer whose work I am reviewing reading a scathing, or unkind review. On the other hand, I feel I owe the readers of my blog an honest review. So I try to be honest and still be kind.

  25. It depends if it’s a review or a smear job. I received the latter. I refused to turn the other cheek. it’s the equivalent of someone taking a crap on your front lawn, while you watch, as if daring you to do something. The reviewer and I had words and left it at that. The publisher of the literary journal that published the review came to his defense, and then announced he would commission another “review” of my work, (hasn’t happened yet) which in my opinion was an admission that the original review was sub par and missed the mark. The funny thing was watching the reviewer’s friends and peers circle the wagons and start slinging insults my way across the internet. Who knew they could be such a sensitive bunch?

  26. I was also a reviewer for PW for about a year. I can’t say if my experience was typical, but it seemed I was assigned reviews more-or-less randomly. I usually had very few preconceptions going in. I mention this because if my experience was typical, then I don’t really think the anonymity of PW reviews matters all that much. I tried my best to be an unbiased, conscientious reviewer, and I have always assumed my fellow reviewers did the same. Also, I didn’t assign the “stars”–the editors did, and I never knew what their criteria was.

    Erika Robuck wrote: “As a book blogger (and writer, myself) I never post negative reviews. No one has ever asked me to tell them the last book I hated. I’m asked all the time what books I’ve read that I’ve loved. My policy is to only review books I would recommend.”

    I understand where you are coming from, but I think it’s important that there be a dialogue in the public sphere about what is good and what is bad. I don’t write book reviews anymore, but I do blog about art. I don’t want to be a cheerleader. I want to engage with work, including work I don’t like. Articulating why I don’t like something sharpens my ability to articulate why I do like something else. And it’s more interesting for my readers.

  27. I would also like to comment on the Kakutani/Mailer “feud” – I mean, there is no comparing her reviews to his work; it’s like comparing apples to oranges. I imagine her as this tiny cartoon figure trying to throw darts at a giant. I’m sure the only reason for this feud was Mailer’s smarting pride.

  28. It’s the so-called critic’s job to try to understand a literary work on its own terms and convey that understanding to the readership of his or her publication with clarity and style. Judgment tends to limit understanding, but it’s easier to judge than it is to engage thoroughly, so that’s what many (lazy) critics do.

  29. “When they trash this book, they’re trashing where I was, not where I am. It’s very good for a writer to always be at work on the next project by the time the flak starts coming in. It has so little to do with where literature happens and where stories are.” — John Barth

    This is a great piece, Emily. Meant to pop in here the other day and convey this to you. I know quite a bit about the author’s struggle to combat needless takedowns and unjustified snark, and recognize that it is vital for every critic or reviewer of any ilk to understand, well before she cocks the venom into her quill, that there is a person behind the book. Not that this should deter anyone from telling the truth But if you must take down a book, there needs to be a very good reason for it. The author, cushioned by wealth or reputation, must be a position to take it. Vengeance or payback is never a good position from which to spring forth venom. Work must be judged on its own merits, irrespective of delivery circumstances or authorial temperament.

    If you are to condemn a book, you must sign it with your real name if it is to mean anything. You must take your lumps and realize that there are always repercussions that you must live with. The balance between being candid and commiserative is difficult, but it is vital for every writer to locate the fine place from which to work from. If it cannot be located, then stay out of book reviewing.

    If you write a negative review, there must be a corresponding set of virtues. If you write negative reviews, be sure to also tell authors you love how much you love their books. These words must be sincere and not sycophantic. As I have learned rather shockingly, few people do this in advance of publication. We are so keen to release the hounds that it never occurs us that unlocking the dovecote is just as helpful.

    To slam a writer without context or reason (Author X sucks), as young reviewers often do, is one of the surest sign that you are less a lover of books and more of a selfish misanthrope.

  30. Emily,
    As a novelist who, like you, has received reviews ranging from ecstatic to toxic, I agree with your essay’s conclusion. The wise writer doesn’t waste time responding to negative reviews; the wise writer stays busy “perfecting the writing.” Thanks for yet another smart – and funny – piece of work.
    Bill Morris

  31. Coming a little late to this party, but just wanted to say Emily that this is one of the more enjoyable and well-written posts I’ve read in recent memory. Balanced, thoughtful, thought-provoking and entertaining. No wonder it’s been picked up so heavily on Twitter, etc. Thanks!

  32. According to Robert Craft, who wrote many books about Igor Stravinksy, the great composer was once asked his opinion of critics. After thinking it over a moment, he replied “Great Christ! What assholes!”
    Terence Clarke
    (author of A Kiss for Señor Guevara)

  33. God, my first ever review, released a staggering six-months before my book was published, was a merciless take-down by PW. It was so mean-spirited that I literally thought that it might have been written by my an enemy of mine. My relations with the marketing/publicity department at my publisher, once that review landed, I could just feel the temperature dim in those interactions.

    Other reviews, from Booklist and others, all of them glowing, have come along, fortunately…but the damage is sort of done.

    Because still, as you note, on Amazon, Powells, and Barnes and Nobel, the PW review stands firmly in place in the center of the page, as if it’s the definitive critical word. There’s not a blip from any of the other critics who loved the book. It’s bizarre that such a silly outlet like PW has, in a way, more power on the market than the NYT Book Section, or The Nation, or whatever. At least a bad review from the NYT won’t be branded on the forehead of your book in the digital marketplace in ten years.

    That’s really a problem. And it needs to be addressed. The current system just gives far too much power to this bunch of anonymous pseudo-critics making $25 a pop to churn out these reviews.

  34. Excellent and consoling essay, one I will save to comfort myself when and if my next book is published. A word about anonymous reviews–I understand that reviewers take considerable flak for offering up a bad review. My experience is that an identified reviewer is likely to review only books he or she likes and avoid the shit-storm of publishing a negative review. The result is positive reviews only. How is the reader to evaluate books under these circumstances? So I see a place for anonymous reviews. That said, still PW shouldn’t rule Amazon.

  35. I found your essay through a link on Nathan Bransford’s blog, and I’m glad I clicked on it. This post was illuminating for me, especially since I occasionally review books on my blog and several other sites.

    When writing a review, I have the reader and potential book buyer in mind more than the author. Even so, I try to point out the aspects of a book I like more than those that bother me. Truth be told, so far I’ve been blessed with good books. I’ll be reviewing one on April 11 that wasn’t my favorite so far, but the review will still be more positive than negative.

    I do these reviews for free (they’re good writing practice), so I’m under no obligation to post a positive one. Still, I think it’s better to exercise courtesy and restraint than to trash a work simply because something about it didn’t sit right with me. Could I be sarcastic, snarky and clever? Of course. Who would it benefit? No one.

  36. Elegantly put and lots to chew on. If I’m ever lucky enough to have a book reviewed at all, I think I’ll take the “ignore the negative” route.

  37. There are a lot of comments here suggesting that either:
    a) Authors should ignore reviews
    b) Reviewers should not review books they didn’t like
    Both attitudes, I feel, are misguided.

    Firstly, reviewers are readers. Your customers are readers (you ARE trying to make a living out of this, aren’t you?). Every other business is falling over itself to get to know its customers better, get their feedback, understand what they want and improve their products. And your customers are offering you their carefully considered opinions without you having to give away an iPad. But your business has a sign up saying: “Customers are welcome to leave comments but we don’t read them because we don’t give a s**t what you think.”

    Are you above that? Are you _so_damned_good_ at what you do that you’ve got nothing to learn? I admire you, Vincent. Sit there in your garret with your metaphorical bandaged ear. (NB, this does sometimes work, but only if you truly are one of the greats.)

    As for positive reviews, I don’t respect any reviewer who only writes nice things. The world isn’t perfect. No book is perfect, not even [insert your favourite book here]. A reviewer who takes the job seriously has a duty to be honest, and that means telling the truth. If you don’t do that, you’re putting your desire to be nice to other authors before the needs of those reading your reviews. Any writer who puts the readers second is either a bad writer, a dishonest one, a salesman or an Artist. And a reviewer is not an artist.

  38. “Those who can, write. Those who can write but who don’t happen to be among the 1% of novelists who manage to subsist on their fiction alone, also review. We’re just trying to pay our rent here.”

    I laughed forever when I read those lines. So true!

    I agree with Patrick; good or bad reviews sbould both be read. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with what the reviewer’s saying; the fact that they took to time to both writing something about you work should be a compliment within itself.

  39. An author puts in a year or more of effort on a book, and signs his/her name. A PW reviewer can skim the book, and is anonymous. When the review is negative, the author must wonder if the reviewer actually read the book, has a personal agenda, or takes any responsibility for the results. A bad review – “just an opinion” – could nonetheless derail a fledgling career, especially for a first time writer, if there weren’t other compensating, positive reviews, or fans of the author’s earlier work. I doubt your average Amazon buyer puts the PW review process in any perspective.

    I do, because I have read a PW review where the reviewer clearly hadn’t read the book, just the book jacket and/or intro chapter, because the beginning had a sort of a “devil’s advocate” stance (and even a modestly careful reader would have understood that). Once into the book, the author challenged the “assumptions” outlined in the beginning. But the review was written from the perspective that the introductory chapter was, indeed, the author’s argument. So how can a careful review process miss that?

    If the reviews were obviously thoughtful, and the reviewers well-compensated (and thus motivated to do a careful reading), the anonymity would be acceptable. But this is a business model that doesn’t do a great job. Amazon shouldn’t feature PW reviews front and center – at least you know if Amazon’s amateur reviewers bought the book. In a way, I’d believe that someone who spent $15 for a book is more likely to have read it than someone who was paid $25 to review it.

    (If that ‘s true – that can’t possibly be true, can it????) How much DO the PW reviewers make? Do they ever make corrections? Has an author ever sued?

  40. Thank you Emily!

    I just received a very bad review today of a play I wrote. Nothing about the actors or the music. Only few words about the director. Everything else is about how the playwright (me) is clumsy, unclair, predictable and not funny.

    Unfair and hurtfull it is.

    But thank you for putting things in perspective in your article. It helped. I might even be able to sleep tonight. Maybe.

    *Sorry for the bad english, it is not my first langage.

  41. I’m currently witnessing an author melt-down over one single negative Amazon review and, while highly entertaining, it is making the author look pretty pathetic.

    The saddest thing about the situation is that the review is pretty accurate and matches the same criticisms other reviewers, both online and in print, have made about the novel.

    This doesn’t bode well for future novels by this author. If you can’t learn from criticism, no matter how much it stings, then you probably should find another job.

  42. It’s been a long, long time since Publishers Weekly and Kirkus moved the needle, positive or negative. Their reviews stopped being honorable years ago. Some reviewers skim; others seem to use the reviews as a written form of Prozac. Some reviewers are biased before they open a galley. Many reviewers are authors. Don’t think that favors can’t be called in. They are. This is one of the reasons the book industry is in a crisis. PW, Kirkus, and LJ were the gatekeepers of the gatekeepers, and their function was to inform bookstores, not the general public. Booksellers knew how to interpret a review. What would read like a mild takedown would be interpreted as “Yes, but it’s a really good read, and it will fly off the shelves.” The average reader doesn’t speak this language. Now, readers go to Amazon or GR to get the dirt on a book. Readers follow book blogs. No one cares about PW. What does it offer? Nothing that can’t be found on Publisher’s Lunch or a thousand other places. PW isn’t watching their reviewers–reviewers who don’t have a dog in this race, reviewers who skim, reviewers who aren’t above using a smackdown to hurt an author’s career (which is easily accomplished). Karma is a bitch. Reviews should be unbiased. Reviewers should have some honor. Some do, but the quality of PW’s reviews has dropped to a frightening level. Kirkus loves to support their pets; everyone else gets shredded (and god help the author who isn’t literary, but is really, really good–he/she will be eviscerted by Kirkus). The time for PW and Kirkus is over. Readers need to be educated. They need to understand that a starred review and a bloodletting isn’t an indication of a good or a bad book. Ignore them. And understand that all businesses, even publishing, can be corrupt. Kirkus was always ridiculous. No one in publishing pays any attention to them. Sadly, unfortunately, the same thing has happened to the once-great PW.

  43. Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus gave starred reviews to Q.R. Markham’s Assassin of Secrets; Library Journal praised it. The book was pulled by Little Brown after an anonymous source tipped the publisher about Markam’s plagiarism. This says a lot about our review system. No, it’s unreasonable to expect every reviewer to recognize plagiarized passages, but this incident chips away at the outdated pre-pub review rags. They were necessary a decade ago; now they need to go off into the good night. In this day of pre-pub orders, what is the point of a review in PW? No point.

  44. Thank you so much for this article.

    I’m a writer about to publish my book in early December and my editor all of sudden decides (based off some beta readers she collected and forced to read my book) that it needs a complete rewrite.

    There’s so much more to my ordeal, but I’ll leave the ‘information dump’ out.

    Our argument had me wondering if I wanted to publish…if I want to deal with negative reviews. Before reading your article, I literally made up my mind that I didn’t want to. My heart just can’t handle it.

    But now….maybe I can by keeping in mind that everyone receives bad reviews. They sting even the most popular writers.

    Thanks again.

  45. About a year ago I published one of my novels on Amazon for free. It remained near the top ten, had 42 four or five star reviews, 9 one star. The most recent reader reviews get top billing with Amazon. In this book, a minor character had an accent in three or four lines of dialogue. The accent could have been interpreted several ways. One reader was offended by this and wrote a scathing review that implied between the lines that I was a racist and bigot, and for that reason readers should bypass the book and author. Amazon does not have an appeals process. I wrote to them, and they were sympathetic but not willing to make any changes. I could not leave this book posted on a web page with a review note below it suggesting such terrible accusations. I felt I had no choice but to unpublish from Amazon, although this book continues to do very well with many other distributors.

  46. Great Article..
    Im not a writer, But Im a musician..

    most critics are ‘blocked’ artists, one the reasons they can’t create is in fact because they critique themselves so much, we as artists have to be strong enough and love ourselves enough to keep doing the work. And maybe do it for reasons other then what ‘they’ think ..good or bad.
    I find myself less concerned with reviews, even when someone says ‘amazing’ or ‘the best ive heard’ I kind of feel like..ok thanks..but i feel if i’m open to that then i’m open to the negative..so rather than have my sense of self worth be a puppet on a string I create just out of the joy and my personal mission in life..people who are really harsh with criticisms are really miserable people, they usually want to create but live in the shadows..I don’t think bad reviews do anything other then give parasites a job..but whatcha gonna do? like you said..comes with the territory..keep on writing!!:)
    my 2 cents..

  47. Why do people think that being entitled to your opinion means entitled to air it publicly in a way that harms someone else without possibility of your words being challenged?

    A book is out there for the world to read, including reviewers. Granted. But a persons opinion of the review itself is at least as valid as the original review.

    All reviewers should expect to be called on what they say, good or bad, and be ready to back it up with more than “It’s my Opinion!”.

    Otherwise every bad review on the net is eventually going to be answered with a string of harsh comments ending with that as a tag. It’s already starting to happen.

    You can say almost everything you want to without using bad language, insulting an author or saying untrue things about a book. If you can’t manage that, chances are the problem isn’t with the text, but with you, and stepping back, perhaps waiting for a while before attacking might be a good idea.

  48. Thank you, thank you for this article. Having just received my first review from PW on my debut novel, my first response was to google, “what to do when your book receives a bad review” and this article popped up. I appreciate all the wonderful comments by readers, too, and in full disclosure, must state that I am a financially struggling author who also writes book reviews for Kirkus and Shelf Awareness to pay the bills and because I truly love to read just about any and all genres. I attempt to write reviews that give an honest opinion of the book, while bearing in mind that reviews can be such an emotional roller coaster for new writers in particular. I will take my snarky review with a grain of salt or perhaps a shot of tequila and go on writing the many novels and memoirs waiting in my head. Thanks for helping make the sting a little less painful.

  49. This is the first time I’ve seen this nice piece, re-posted by the Millions today, but on the off chance that you still see the comments…

    Something from a frequent reviewer’s POV: I almost never write a negative review, not because I’m concerned about the response or my reputation but because, if I’m assigned or offered a book I don’t think is good, I turn it down. Why waste the little space that books are afforded?

    That said, when I was much younger and snottier, far too in love with the sound of my own voice and my opinions, I did write a quite negative review of Sigrid Nunez’s book “Naked Sleeper”–not gratuitous; I did think it was not very good, though I haven’t revisited it to reevaluate my judgment–for the Los Angeles Times. Leap ahead many years to my more recent, much chastened self, and Sigrid Nunez was a visiting writer at a residency where I was working, and I fervently hoped that she’d forgotten. When we were introduced, she said, in her soft, lovely voice, “Ellen Akins, yes, of course I remember that review you wrote, because just recently I was supposed to present something especially embarrassing, so a friend and I were going through my reviews, and he pulled out yours, but I said, ‘No, that’s too painful.'” I of course was mortified, wishing I could slink away, but she went on, “And it was especially painful because I’d so liked your book, and because it came out right before I was on a show with ____ on tv in L.A., and he’d seen the review, and he mentioned it.” “But I did love ‘A Feather on the Breath of God,'” I pitifully offered, and she said, “Yes, that’s thing, that would be the book you’d like.” Then she pulled me down next to her and counseled me on the trouble I was having with a book of my own at the time. It was one of my closest encounters with truly gracious behavior–and one I hope to someday be able to emulate. The rare negative review that actually did some good, you see–but to the reviewer.

  50. I’ll join others in thanking you for this very good article from the point of view of the author. I’ve received positive and negative reviews in Europe in various languages and I read them all if I am aware of them.

    One of the reasons is to improve my writing in various languages. Most of the reviews I have received as an author have been interesting and some have even been helpful. One critic advised me “Kill your darlings”. I’ve taken that seriously ever since that review.

    And that’s the point of my comment here. I fully support the right of critics to write an honest review- positive or negative. Hopefully they’ll even specify the worst or best aspect of a book. I can save their review and look at it when editing a book. At least I’ll know the reasons behind their final evaluation.

    But I do not support or condone reviewers using terms like “trash” or “dribel”, etc. It reflects poorly on their ability to think and communicate. If they cannot elaborate on what is “trash” in a novel then I highly doubt they are doing much of a favor to readers either. In fact, it sounds like what we are all used to from the worst of culture of the Internet. PW should be axing reviews like this or sending them back to more professional reviewers for a more mature and helpful version.

    Here are two examples of what I mean (the case of a really bad novel):

    1) The book is absolutely trash and the author should get a grasp of basic grammar. A total waste of time! Don’t even bother cracking the cover!

    2) The novel has all of the makings of a highly interesting plot with completely unique antagonists. Unfortunately, the characters are not properly developed and the reader cannot identify with them. Grammar and punctuation were also a problem. They shouldn’t be with a published book.

    The first is completely disrespectful- not only to the community and author but also gives the review establishment a very bad reputation. It isn’t helpful to ANYONE.

    The second type of review? I would read it, kick myself in the rear for not taking the time to properly develop the book and make sure I got a better editor in the future!

  51. Just received my less-than-glowing review from PW.

    “Readers who can abide deeply unpleasant characters may be intrigued by the credible technocratic nightmare, but others will be put off.”

    Life goes on !?

  52. Thank you for this article, it was really helpful. My first book just came out and I read the PW review today. It was hard to believe that the reviewer did any more than skim the book, or had much familiarity with the subject. The fact that eminent historians, including a Pulitzer a prize winner have written glowing reviews about it, the PW reviewer panned it. For some reason I had a bad feeling about sparring with them and decided not to on any forum, and your article gave me peace about that decision. It is too bad that they get the lead reviews for the big booksellers. Thank you and the commenters for taking my stress level down. Like you I believe in the quality of my work, and am confident that once it gets out there it will do quite well.

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