When Bad Reviews Happen to Good Writers
"...curious how incest, impotence, nymphomania...can be so dull."
–Time and Tide review of Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic
The book review is a strange, wonderful, sometimes frightening, and hopefully exhilarating experience for writers. We dream of having our books reviewed, and then pray that the review will be positive. I'm struggling to come up with a good metaphor, but everything crossing my mind—motherhood, relationships, careers, pole dancing—lacks that elements of the large-scale accolade or the humiliation.
"A lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda"
–New York Herald Tribune review of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
When my first novel, The Bone Weaver, came out in 2001, I knew little about reviews and their impact on sales, and nothing about their effect on the author being reviewed. I was warned, certainly, but I was so excited about being in print that I forgot. Which is why, when my first reviews were excellent, I thought, "Hey, what's the big drama?"
"Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer."
–Le Figaro review of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary
And then someone posted a less flattering review of my book online. It said something like "Has she never heard of an editor?"
"...tragic-comic bubble and squeak."
–New Monthly Magazine review of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick
My two anthologies have been blessed with excellent reviews-not a mediocre one in the lot—which I attribute to the gifted authors who contributed to them. Nevertheless, I am painfully aware of The Dark Side. And no matter how we try to explain, rationalize, or project, it comes down to this: Whether it's a New York Times review read by millions or a review in the Family Market flyer, a bad review is a bad review.
So how does a writer deal with a bad review? Survival calls into play a variety of body parts: stiff upper lip, thick skin, tough hide. Walt Whitman had to be tough to withstand this:
"...as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics."
–London Critic review of Whitman's Leaves of Grass
Did Emily Brontë take to her bed when she opened up the pages of the North British Review and read about Wuthering Heights:
"The only consolation...it will never be read."
Writing a book takes time, heart, energy, and courage. When the reviews begin to appear is a good time to solicit support from anyone and everyone prepared to circle the wagons around what could become a damaged ego. Did I say damaged? How about "ravaged?"
–Odessa Courier review of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina
I sincerely hope that Tolstoy's friends rushed to his side to give comfort. I pray that Joseph Heller's support system was steadfast when a publisher rejected Catch-22, calling it "...a continual and unmitigated bore..."
What do these maligned authors have in common? While they may have locked their study doors and refused to come out, they went on writing, often brilliantly.
"We do not believe in the permanence of his reputation..."
–Saturday Review, 1858, on Charles Dickens
How seriously should we take a bad review? It might be helpful to remember that, while all of the above books continue to be read and loved by millions and remain in print, of all of the publications with reviews cited in this piece, only Le Figaro still exists.
Causes Victoria Zackheim Supports
Delancey Street Foundation Move-on Emily's List Susan G. Komen for the Cure Heifer International