Someone wrote to say, “I got a terrible review on Amazon. I hate even going there to look at it. Tell me, what do you do with a bad review?”
You know, one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize is that once you put something into print, it’s there forever. If you say something stupid, you’re stuck with it. You can go to the person and apologize, but the words are still out there, waiting to be discovered by millions of other potential readers who will never get to hear your personal explanation or apology.
Writing is a scary thing.
I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and articles, and at times I’ve hurt people’s feelings. But I never set out to do that. I mean, it’s not like I saw the book, didn’t like the author, and decided to toast them just for fun. When I’ve said something was stupid or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally respected. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice, or to say nothing at all.
So if you’re asked to review a book that’s awful, what are you supposed to do? Lie about it? It seems to me like the best thing to do is to be honest but as gracious as possible, speaking the truth (or at least the truth as you see it) in love. It’s those sorts of jobs that can get you into trouble.
Unfortunately, a bad review like that can hurt an author’s career (to say nothing of the author’s feelings). So I find that when I’m simply asked to review a book for a friend, I tend to simply stay away from reviewing a book I didn’t love. That means the title will get a falsely-positive set of reviews, but I don’t have to deal with any fallout. Maybe that’s why so many of us tend to discount what we read on Amazon — we’ve seen too many reviews from mothers and friends to accept the glowing evaluations as honest. On the other hand, if a magazine or website hires me to do a review, I have to be as honest as possible, even if that means sounding critical.
Now, having said all of that, understand that a reviewer is just offering his or her own, biased, possibly stupid opinion. And so long as they don’t attack you personally, they’re granted the right to say stupid things. So what do you do when your book is attacked? You ignore it. You rarely win anything by attacking someone. And you NEVER win anything by attacking back. A couple of times I’ve worked with authors who wanted to write in a defense to Amazon, or a clarification to a magazine after experiencing a bad review. They wanted to go defend themselves. But offering an explanation for a bad review never works. It makes you look small and defensive. My advice? Forget it. Put the bad review in a box, set it behind you, and move on. We all get bad reviews, we all get some personal attacks, we’re all going to face readers or reviewers who sometimes JUST DON’T LIKE US. That’s life.
That’s especially true with books, where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You might write something you think is deep and thoughtful — but a reader might find it silly and turgid. Guess what? That’s the life of the writer. If you can’t live with it, pick a different career. NOBODY is universally beloved in this business. There were people who hated Mark Twain, and there are people who think The Shack is deep and insightful. So they’re wrong. Different strokes for different folks.
Look, I know this from firsthand experience. A while back, when someone attacked me on a dopey website that nobody reads, I should have brushed it off. Instead, I responded negatively to her. Then SHE should have brushed it off. It turned into a bigger deal than it needed to be, and took way too much energy.
The fact is, none of us can know the minds of others. I don’t really know what she was thinking — maybe I really AM the terrible person she described. Maybe she really doesn’t like me (hard to believe, since I’m so wonderful, but it’s happened to me before). Or maybe, just maybe, hers was an honest response, and I should just shut up about it. There’s something to be said for keeping your mouth shut and not whining. Responding to a bad review probably isn’t going to win people over.
Lots of writers have faced the problem of a bad review. Kurt Vonnegut once talked about the unfairness of personal attacks in bad reviews, claiming rage and loathing for a novel is “preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Vonnegut hated them… but he also let people be wrong. So take that approach. When you get a bad review, recognize the attack for what it is (small-mindedness, misunderstanding, a chance for the attacker to make herself feel better, or, perhaps most commonly, an honest response to something not suited to the reviewer’s tastes). Then forget about it. Go read a positive review to make up for it, forget the bad one, and move on to something else. You’ll be glad you did.