Here are two reviews of the same novel:
The story is unbelievable and the characters seem to make a long series of foolish decisions. The details of the setting are somewhat interesting, but there are way too many of them. I wish the author had spent more time on plot and less on minutiae I don't care about.
What a lovely novel! I was surprised at every turn, and the protagonist is one to identify with for any reader, both for her flaws and her strengths. The setting was beautifully drawn, and made the entire story visual and memorable.
I made these up, of course, but I have plenty of examples to draw from. As writers (and readers, I'm certain) we know that criticism is in the eye of the critiquer. Can we remember that, and feel free, and confident enough, to make our own decisions? It's a decision each creator (or consumer) has to make for herself.
I worked with a singer, back in the day, who never, ever read what he called "notices." He was a very popular opera singer, a special favorite of mine, but he avoided the newspapers because he knew he couldn't handle the negative remarks--and probably felt that his performances were affected even by the positive ones!
I'm made of different stuff, I guess. I do read "notices." I love it when they support me, and sometimes they point out elements I hadn't given much weight to. I hate it when they're negative, naturally, but I understand that the bad reviews go straight to long-term memory, while the good ones come and go like the breezes of spring! I guess that means I have a pretty thick skin. I tend to be practical, though I can't pretend not to care. Maybe decades of living an artistic life have toughened me up. If so, I'm grateful.
If you're a writer--or if you work in any other creative field--you have to decide for yourself if you're thick-skinned enough to dare reading your own reviews.
The crucial thing to remember is the subjective nature of reviews--all reviews, amateur or professional, online or in The New York Times. For example, my book club and I have a pact never, ever to read another Man Booker Prize winner. We've hated every one we've tried. But the Man Booker is a huge prize, and I'm sure everyone associated with one never hesitates to mention it! It's like the pinnacle of great reviews, yet . . . my friends and I hated the books.
I have more examples of this kind of sorting. Oprah selections, for example, don't light my fire at all. A Nebula winner, on the other hand, will grab me every time. I'm invested in finding and reading new authors. Other readers prefer the safe, tried-and-true route of the bestseller lists. (More on those in another post.) The Amazon recommendations often draw me in, and sometimes with happy results. Other recommendations might leave me cold, but be the perfect route for a different reader to find a new writer or a new series.
Reviews do, unfortunately, matter, but not perhaps in the way you think. On Amazon, for example, the number is more important than the quality: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2011/04/21/amazon-recommendation-algorithms/ In the newspapers, lovely reviews give us a nice warm feeling, but as I know to my sorrow, they have a negligible effect on book sales. So what does sell books?
It's been said a bazillion times that the only thing we know for sure that helps book sales is word of mouth. If a buzz gets going, even terrible reviews can't derail it. Fifty Shades, Da Vinci Code, and so forth--we all know the list. That should give us perspective on how meaningful and determinative reviews can be. Word of mouth is far more convincing. Nothing works better to get me to buy a book than a friend telling me how much he loved it.
Unless, of course, it won the Man Booker Prize. Nothing gets past that.