how to deal with bad reviews

A Love Letter to (Some) Critics

For maximum effect, be sure to read this entire post with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” blaring in the background.

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Few people understand how difficult it is to write a novel, let alone edit it to an acceptable degree. To iron out the awkward phrases, the misspellings, the dangling clauses. An abnormally low amount of people are capable of doing so without professional editing help. The amount of people who can successfully hook an agent is even lower. At this point we’re getting into the split-hairs category of percentages. Most people either drop out here or decide to self-publish their book. (This is not to say I look down upon self-published authors, seeing as I’ve self-published a book or two in the past). But the point stands—most people will, statistically, NEVER land an agent, let alone get that agent to hook a publisher’s attention and make them read your work and send an offer and pay you for words that you’ve plopped onto the virtual page. There’s a rush of ecstasy associated with each stage of the process, and a sense of fear greater than anything you’ve ever known. Feel free to Google the odds of (traditionally) publishing a novel sometime, if you ever want to go insane.

For most people, landing that traditional publishing deal and putting out a novel is the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of work. A lifetime of slaving over a keyboard, waiting with bated breath for every email that invariably takes 6-8 months to arrive, working until the early hours of dawn, giving up, starting over, losing faith, gaining it. All so you can hold a paperback copy of your book or an advance check, knowing that SOMEBODY thought it was good enough to mass produce it and share it with the world.

I know I wanted that. I wanted it so badly that I gave up everything else to get it. And guess what? I did. I landed a trilogy deal with Kensington and sold the audio rights, the foreign rights, the whole shebang. I put in the work, and I succeeded. I hope to God my next series will sell. In fact, I’m confident it will.

But somewhere along the way, a handful of Goodreads e-critics decided to enter an ARC giveaway (seemingly without reading what the book was about) and snag a copy of my book. What they got was a slow, literary exploration of a young girl’s struggle to exist and grow up in a barbaric world. It’s not Game of Thrones, nor is it the Hunger Games. Judging by the critics’ past reads, however, they were into urban fantasy, werewolf romance, YA fantasy, and maybe a dash of sci-fi lite here and there. All good and well. What is not good and well, however, is how lazy and narrow-minded most of these people were in their critiques. Some of their reviews deserve to be in a hall of shame for the mind-boggling nonsense they include. Questions about what happened to the dog from the first chapter (pro tip: there is no dog in the entire book). Complaints about a lack of justice (pro tip: justice is seldom served in life). Babbling about the dark tone of the writing (pro tip: grimdark is dark).

This is not to say that there weren’t GOOD “bad” reviews, of course. This post is not about reviewers with genuinely insightful reviews (Carol Chu’s two-and-a-half-star review, if you’re so inclined to look it up, is a perfect example of this). In fact, I was aided tremendously by the constructive feedback embedded in several of the negative reviews. I don’t think any writer works to get ONLY five-star reviews, as this would go against the spirit of self-improvement and suggest that humans have a hive mind. What set these quality reviews apart from the riff-raff was their emphasis on identifying what DID work for them alongside what didn’t. They wrote a review that told fellow readers what aspects might appeal to a different set of eyes.

Now, compare that to the Hallowed Haters club. Many of these reviewers (as stated by themselves) only read a chapter or two before awarding the book a one-star rating. Others read the entire thing and felt genuine emotions, such as sorrow, frustration, or a pit in their stomach, but they still felt it barely scraped past two stars for one reason or another, usually related to not having a fun time. Most of the five-star Goodreads reviews the book received never carried over to Amazon, but fear not, for the one-star ranting crowd (which received the book for free, mind you) was sure to take the time to leave their drivel on the sales page.

The majority of these shame-listed e-critics read books to have “fun,” not to think or feel any sort of unpleasant emotion (in contrast, tragedies are some of my favorite novels—go figure). They like popcorn books, not literature. And that’s fine. Nobody is entitled to like or love a book. They probably didn’t even think much of their reviews. To them it was a chance to express an opinion and feel worthwhile, seeing as the vast majority of those who gave the book a low rating had never written anything in their lives, and had certainly never published a sentence of that nonexistent writing. It’s ironic, then, that those who have published actual books—including Andre Dubus III, my mentor and author of a little-known book called House of Sand and Fog (a goddamn Oprah’s Book Club choice with a film adaptation)—had high praise for what they read.

I’m not dismayed with the fact that every human has an internet connection and the ability to rant about what they like and dislike. What I take umbrage with, fundamentally, is the cavalier, ignorant nature of critics who cast lightning bolts down from their great Mountain of Unachieving. The critics who disparage books simply because they can, because they know that somebody will read their words and maybe think they have thoughts worth listening to.

I have my own critiques of my work, but the one thing nobody can take away from the novels is that they were PUBLISHED. A team of people, including agents, editors, marketing assistants, publishers, and promoters, believed in the books and put them into the world on good faith. Because of them, people will be able to read, enjoy, hate, and puzzle over my words for the foreseeable future, long after my death. And that’s ten times—no, perhaps a trillion times—more valuable than any word that a critic can muster against my work, or the work of any other published author. But I get it. It’s a simple thing to sit behind a keyboard and tear apart somebody’s work when you’re unwilling or unable to create something yourself, and it’s a herculean task to identify what you enjoy about the work of somebody who has ripped out their mind and heart and set it on a plate for you to destroy.

It’s fortunate, then, that us authors have minds and hearts that will survive World War 3. Cockroaches have nothing on us, baby. The masses can say what they like about our work, but an undeniable truth will ring through eternity. A truth that few are privileged enough to say, and a truth that will never be known by those who get their kicks from tearing down others:

I’ve published a novel.