The Good, The Bad, and the Completely Off the Wall: Thinking about Reviews

If you’re a writer, you’re going to get bad reviews.  That’s just the way it is.  Bad reviews come with the life.  If ten people read your book and nine of them like it, you’ll be lucky if one of the nine bothers to say as much in public.  The tenth guy, though, the one who found your book so little to his liking that it made his eyes cross and steam come out of his ears . . . that guy will tell all of his friends.  And write about it in his blog.  And quite possibly send you a personal letter.

To which you, if you are wise, will not respond, because arguing in public with critics and reviewers seldom makes a writer look good.  But while you’re sitting there biting down on your typing fingers to keep from posting a reply, you can distract yourself by figuring out exactly which kind of bad review you’ve got.

The simplest kind of bad review is the one where the reader just plain didn’t like your book.  There’s no point in resenting this one; chalk it up to payback for all the books out there — some of them entirely worthy, some of them vouched for by readers whose taste you respect — that you just plain didn’t like, either.

Then there’s the reader who’s mad at your book because it wasn’t the book he or she wanted to read.  It had romance elements, and your reader doesn’t like having a gratuitous love interest interfering with the plot.  Or it didn’t have any romance elements, and your reader thinks that a story without any romantic or sexual interest in it leaves out a major part of the human experience.  Or your story had not enough politics in it, or it had too much.  Or you wrote an entire book about Subject X without ever mentioning Other Subject Y.  It’s harder not to resent this one, because you worked damned hard on that book, including making the tough choices about which things, out of a near-infinity of things, you could put in, and which ones you would have to leave out, and it’s never any fun to be told that you’ve done it all wrong.

From there, you move on to the reader who seems to have read, and disliked, a completely different book from the one you know that you wrote.  There’s not much you can do about that kind of bad review, except to  conclude that your reader must have put on the wrong set of spectacles before turning to Chapter One.

Worst of all, though, is the completely wrongheaded good review, the one where the reviewer likes your book for all the wrong reasons, or for virtues that you could have sworn it never exhibited.   Complaining about this one feels like kicking puppies.

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