Even for the most successful writers, criticism can hurt. A teacher, a colleague, a friend, or — most importantly — a book reviewer’s thoughts on your writing can be a verbal torpedo. One can only imagine what Richard Ford thought when he read Alice Hoffman’s reaction to his book, The Sportswriter, in The New York Times: “it suffers from a lack of compelling action and an emphasis on Bascombe’s dry meditations that obscures and minimizes the complex domestic structure the author initially presents.”
In fact, Ford got so angry about the review that he famously took one of Hoffman’s books and shot it full of bullets. At the time, two tepidly received novels plus Hoffman’s negative review, Ford’s career looked to be in the toilet.
Of course, that’s not how it turned out. The Sportswriter is today considered a classic, and Ford is a well-known author. And although Flavorwire doesn’t endorse shooting up books as a way to deal with somebody disliking your work, every writer has a different way of dealing with criticism — and, in many cases, using it to their advantage. We asked 11 of our favorite authors to tell us how they cope with bad reviews and other negative feedback.
I try really hard to consider the source before I let myself feel insulted or get defensive, but if it seems like a legitimate critique, I try to take it in and be informed by it. That’s often easier said than done, of course. I realize that no one book or essay is for everyone. I can allow for that, in my mind. There are the snarky writers who hate everything, whom I don’t even bother to pay attention to. There are several whom I already know hate my next book, and my next book isn’t even done. Zie Gezunt; live and be well. I do my best to resist responding when people are really harsh, but there are times when they have mis-read, or even not read what they’re commenting on, and then their misinterpretations are out there for everyone else to be misled by. For instance, a lot of people assumed, without getting a copy and reading Goodbye to All That , that it was a collection of 28 anti-NYC screeds. I was glad I spoke up and disabused several writers of that misconception. It led to a major correction on Jezebel, and to a follow-up interview on Brooklyn Magazine’s site.
— Sari Botton, editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York
I’m the obsessive type. I’ll read every single review, every single email, every single rejection, every single damn Goodreads/Amazon review. I’ll read between the lines, looking for something that’s probably not there. I’ll take it personal. I’m aware of this character flaw so I steel myself and take a step back. I take it as objectively as possible. I look for a cue, something that pulls out the valuable nuggets from even the most negative criticism. I look for something constructive. If it’s not there, because it can’t always be there, I’ve got those friends and allies, those maniacs that remain at a writer’s side throughout good and bad. But ultimately, I don’t think anyone ever gets used to negative criticism. Either you grow numb or the negative undercurrent is always somewhat visible, audible, poking out from every batch of good reviews. The best anyone can do is steel up and remain objective. If not, a stiff drink and a night of friendly conversation never hurts to remind you that we’re all human and, in some way, hurting.
— Michael Seidlinger’s most recent book is The Laughter of Strangers
I think when you’re in, let’s say, the workshop environment, it’s an altogether different ballgame. I remember being desperate for tough criticism of my work. I felt like if no one had any real criticism, that meant it was such a mess that they weren’t engaged enough to say anything. Now, though, with a novel out, the stakes are different. It’s finished–last draft there!–and there’s nothing I can do but listen to the criticism–good and bad. And I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t had much negative criticism of my novel at all. But before I even got the very first review of the novel, I found myself falling back on the idea that this is just a job, and one can’t be too invested in one’s successes or failures. The flip side is the part that a lot of writers disagree with. But I don’t–I really do not get too invested in my success. The day I sold my novel, my editor called me up to tell me and I had a four month old in my arms, and she had a dirty diaper, and I spent the whole phone call just praying she wouldn’t wake up. I sold the novel, got off the phone, and changed the diaper. There was no 50-yard-line dance or anything like that–the fortunate thing is that since I’m a single mom, I just don’t have the emotional space to get either very happy about success or very dejected about failure. And so I think of this as a job and nothing more. I look at it this way–a stockbroker doesn’t crow about how many shares he turned over in a day, and when the Dow drops 500 points in a day, he doesn’t take it personally. Why should I? This is a job. Writing’s a job. you go to work and sometimes you have a hard day, and sometimes the heavens open up and shower you with acclaim. But there’s nothing mystical about either thing. It’s just another day at work.
I don’t know that I do bounce back from negative criticism. I absorb it and move on.
— Cari Luna, author of The Revolution of Every Day
I don’t take negative criticism well. I don’t know any writer who does, except maybe Bret Easton Ellis, who told me once he didn’t mind being criticized at all, that it’s rejection he finds intolerable, which seems to me a very elegant and humane distinction. In large part, I deal with negative criticism (and positive criticism, which isn’t all that helpful either) by ignoring it. I don’t read reviews, I don’t look at Amazon, I don’t look at Goodreads. Why would I? There’s a stage in my writing where I’m very active in hunting down criticism, and interpolating that criticism into my process of revision, but after the book is done? No. Yet negative criticism often reaches me anyway, and at that point I deal with it by . . . shrugging it off. I tell myself, and this is certainly true, that anything good isn’t “good” for everybody, and that the world is full of intelligent people who don’t actually like Breaking Bad or Thomas Pynchon or Maggie Nelson or George Eliot (no, there must exist such a person somewhere — one who doesn’t like George Eliot and yet isn’t a fool). It’s not a catastrophe if someone doesn’t like my work, for me or for them. It’s just an incongruity, and God knows, the world is full of those. I can live with one more. Eventually, that bee-stung feeling recedes, and the unpleasantness becomes just another memory of just another bruise. I can live with that too. I already live with enough of them, alas. Just like everybody else.
— Matthew Specktor, author of American Dream Machine
For me it’s important to acknowledge the inevitability of negative criticism. If I continue to write and to publish, it is going to happen. It has happened. It is a fact of any writer’s existence. And when we get negative criticism, we are in excellent company, since it has probably happened at some point, if not at multiple points, to every writer we have ever admired. Anyway! When faced with negative criticism, I first try to keep things in perspective. I remind myself that no one ever died from getting a 1 star-er on Goodreads or a shitty review. It sucks, but it’s not a national tragedy. Who said that thing about letting a bad review ruin one’s breakfast but not their lunch? I try to do that, or to use negative criticism as an excuse to have a cathartic dance party in the middle of the day or to do the boxing workout I am too busy/lazy to do 50% of the time. A bad review hurts, no doubt, but I try to remember that even though negative criticism can, at times, make me feel small and wounded and afraid, it will only paralyze me if I let it. I try to consider the source, which sometimes makes it better and sometimes makes it worse. I remind myself that nothing can be for everyone. More than anything, though, I try to funnel whatever hurt I might be feeling back into my work. I tell myself that one day I am going to write something so fucking amazing it will melt the eyeballs of whoever hated on my stuff in the past. I watch the Honey Badger video. Over and over. WHAT WOULD THE HONEY BADGER DO? I think we know! I remind myself that what matters most (always, always, always) is my ability to dig in and write through it.
First of all, you have no choice but to bounce back. What else can you do? You are in an audience-based industry. To think everyone will love you or your work or try to go for that is a really delusional empty enterprise.
Of course, it can hurt, sure. But in my case it was a pretty okay thing in the end. The one VERY negative review that I received for my last novel is a somewhat well-known case. It appeared in the Washington Post on the morning after my first book tour stop in DC in 2007.
It was a crazy review. So there was that. My negative review was an open letter–yes, addressed “Dear Ms. Khakpour” to a totally unknown debut novelist. In the first paragraph it poked at my internet presence, the blurbs and the blurbers.It was full of sentences like “and I’m pretty sure they’ll be good enough reason for you to wave this review around to your friends as proof positive that your novel is as pearls before swine” It also featured this paragraph:
“A trip to Iran is in the offing. But Darius hasn’t left America in more than 20 years; his son has never left the country. And yet there they are, post-9/11, up in the air in transatlantic planes that they’ve taken virtually on the spur of the moment. Where did they get their passports? Where was your editor? (I thought about calling the Iranian consulate to find out their policy about issuing visas to citizens who fled during the revolution, now that the “war on terrorism” is going on, but then I thought, it isn’t my job. It was your job.)”
It became the new gold standard of the absurd, unfair, and lunatically offensive book review. Forget the tone even! But the content: shock over Iranians in the sky post-9/11? Where did they get their passports?! Calling the Iranian consulate, an entity that has not existed for almost as long as my years on this earth, to fact-check me?
She did count the number of times I used the word “snapped.” That was pretty fair. I’ve learned to use that word in moderation now, thank you, Ms. See.
I of course reacted as a human and not a media-trained polite-lady writerbot. I took to my crappy Blogspot. I was upset. I wrote something about “granny panties in a bunch.” I probably offended a lot more people than this respected critic and author. In some ways, sure, I did a bad thing.
But I was in the first hotel room that I had not paid for in my life, ordering a modest room service, all on my publishers–a dream for me–in the happiest time of my life after a positive Sunday NYTBR full-page that was positive and NPR and all that good stuff–and then opening the Washington Post, knowing there was a review in there …and boom: THAT!–so I was upset, yes.
But it was a good thing for many reasons. First of all, a bunch of amazing bloggers defended me–and defended me violating that unspoken (but actually pretty spoken) rule that you don’t respond to a negative review. It was an open letter! It was batshit crazy! Etc. I actually made some new writer friends, a few of which turned out to be very important serious friendships (like Alexander Chee).
But most importantly it allowed me to be myself. A human who has seen a lot of shit and can push back and carry on–and now a writer who has seen a lot of shit and can push back and carry on.A not-perfect person! A rough-around-the-edges person even! It allowed my “real self” and my “writer persona” to merge. I’ve never looked back. I feel lucky that the situation thrust me into that, because before it, I was so worried about how to act; I felt so many writers put on this kind of manufactured perfect-person only-nice face that was hard to relate to.
People either like this or not, but I’ve been pleased that it appears that mostly people like it. Not because it’s so cute to get all thug-life on a reviewer! But because people respect real people. Sometimes people are raw. Sometimes people respond. Sometimes the high road is not the silent one. Sometimes in the face of wrongdoing you unfold your hands and uncross your legs and get a little unpretty.
What is the moral? A negative review is not always right. But getting one can sometimes make you stronger. I’m lucky that mine was such a caricature of a bad review, I guess. But I got more. And it doesn’t mean I don’t take them in when they are, you know, sane. Sometimes they can be very helpful. I believe the Village Voice hated my first novel for good reasons and I’ve certainly gotten years and years of negative feedback from my journalism and essay-work so I’m ready for anything. It’s good to hear what people have to say–I never buy it and I never respect it when writers say they don’t read reviews–but it’s up to you what you do with it. Take the stuff that resonates, that clicks with you deep inside, and walk away from the crazy and the hater shit. It’s easy enough to figure out which is which with time–but perhaps also only with some experience in this area. You have to be willing to go through the ugly stuff to understand what to do with it.
But mostly I think as I get older I have real problems–really big ones that have to do with survival at a very intense level–and I can’t spend time on the petty. If a negative review is a serious problem for me, then, wow, I must be in a very luxurious place.
I think negative criticism mostly stings early on. But if a book has been out a while and gets a bad review after a bunch of decent reviews, it doesn’t bother me as much. In fact, sometimes it’s kind of fun to read a bad review of your work. It’s a different perspective and often times a critic’s gripes are actually the things you like about your writing.
— Kevin Sampsell’s most recent book is This Is Between Us.
1. Get upset. 2. Tell a friend who will be unconditionally supportive and say things like “That idiot” and will find a flaw in the criticism they can exaggerate to make you feel better. 3. Read it again and see if there is anything at all helpful in there, even the smallest point. 4. Decide that it is pointless for me to write anything ever again because I am obviously a hack and this person has found me out. 5. Read something nice that someone said about something I wrote once. 6. Tell myself that it’s just one opinion and might be right but also might be wrong or somewhere in between. 7. Write another thing. 8. And another. 9. Just show up and keep writing. 10. Repeat 7-9.
Well, I’m one of those people who hears criticism and immediately gets defensive and thinks, But that’s not what I meant! Part of learning to take criticism well is the understanding that to be a writer is to be in the business of communication, and if something doesn’t come across the way you meant it to, you have two options. One is to decide that the critic is an idiot, which is sometimes true but is an inert lesson. The other is to do decide that you obviously haven’t done what you needed to do to communicate clearly, and with any luck you can draw a lesson from that to help you write differently in the future. The main thing is probably always having something to work on. That way, you can accept any criticism as part of the effort to do better each time. If you don’t have something new to work on, criticism of older things just spirals blackly.
— Gideon Lewis Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction
I am not sure I do bounce back, exactly, but I have coping methods. I have a range of reactions, like steps of dealing with grief or a trauma: denial, anger, rationalization, sorrow at being misunderstood and/or the state of criticism today (especially online), a kind of acceptance (with a glass or two of wine), surrounding myself with people who do love me and telling them about said negative criticism until they forcibly change the subject, taking myself out of my head and into the world. Remembering that I exist in a big world in which the majority of people do not read negative criticisms of me, and might not even know what I do for a living, is freeing. I’ve also realized that if anything (a blog post, a magazine article, a book) does well enough to attract attention and praise, it will also attract a share of people saying they don’t like it, and maybe also that they don’t like me, the creator of that work, especially if it’s personal essay or memoir. In putting that work out into the world, which is what a writer so wants to do, we lose any ability to control other people’s reactions to it; if all goes well, it’s going to be read by plenty of people who don’t know us and don’t really care about our little writerly feelings or us as actual humans. It’s kind of like a yin-yang, a keeping us in balance. We get to do this awesome thing that we have always wanted to do (be paid to write a book!), but in return, there will be responses that hurt. If I’m feeling zen, I think maybe negative reactions are meant to keep me real and give me perspective, and maybe this is a good balancing in the world. Then I’m like, do they have to be so mean, though? I recently read a review of a book (not mine) in which the commenter basically said, “I know others loved this but it just didn’t work for me,” and I thought, What a great way to put that! It is totally fair that what a writer has to say might not work for someone else, and it is totally fair that a commenter or reviewer should say that. It’s when it’s overtly nasty, ad hominem attacks and seeming attempts to take the writer down that it blows my mind. That’s when I say things to my computer like, “I’d like to announce to your boss and everyone you know, how much you sucked on the job today, you person who is obviously going by a fake name!” A lot of writers I respect have talked to me about dealing with negative criticism. Like, remember that it’s your full body of work, not the one piece that counts. If you believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones, so maybe don’t believe any, or don’t read any. And as long as you’re still writing, you’re winning. Also, this too shall pass. I am trying to stop reading comments on websites, just to be a little more emotionally healthy (because I am stung by them even when I know I shouldn’t be), but to some extent, there’s no way to escape reactions to your work. I worked on something, I want to know what people think, how it made them feel, if we connected in the transmission of my thoughts into their brain. I’m trying to reach out and connect, and I hope people will try to connect back in a manner that feels good, but not everyone is going to do that; some people are going to hate you for trying, or not get what you’re trying to say, or think you should have said something different. And some will even try to tell other people that you are the worst thing imaginable: A jerk who can’t write. Then, every once in a while, there is a negative review that is so special because in its negativity it might even seem like a compliment. I’ve gotten “Jen ruined the Village Voice. Jen ruined Brooklyn,” and I think, wow, they must think a lot of me, that I could do all that. Little old me ruined a whole borough! Those negative reviews are my favorites. I prize them like collectible figurines.
— Jen Doll is the author of Save the Date