On Criticism

A few weeks ago when People magazine reviewed The Nightmare Thief, Dana Jean asked:

Meg, do you ever giggle with glee about these things, or do you keep a stiff upper lip and do a lot of yawning?

Short answer: I giggle with glee, with relief, with joy, with a momentary abandonment of anxiety, with appreciation, with fists in the air. And the day I yawn at a good review is the day I’ll deserve to be chased into the wilderness by a mob brandishing pitchforks and torches.

Some writers say they they don’t care about reviews. That’s bravado. No writer is indifferent to the opinions of readers. As I wrote a while back:

“Writers hate bad reviews. Loathe them. We may tell people we never read them, or that we don’t care about them, but here’s the truth. We want worship. We want every review to fawn over us, gasp in awe, and basically lie down prostrate in weeping adoration of our work.

“But since that’s not how life works, we’d better learn how to shrug. Anybody who can’t take criticism should stay far, far away from publishing. Every writer faces rejection, red-penciling and ridicule. And no book will ever be to every reader’s taste.”

I’ve also written:

Two remarks I heard this summer have stuck in my mind. The first came from a friend of a friend in Texas, who asked, “Do people ever criticize your novels?” I broke into uncontrollable laughter and said, “Are you frickin’ kidding me?” People criticize authors all the time. I am fortunate in the extreme that my novels have received so many great reviews. But some critics have hated them, or me. Publication does not insulate a writer from complaint. It paints a big red target on your back.

The second remark was from an author whose debut novel has won raves and awards — but who, baffled and stung, asked in all sincerity, “Why do Amazon reviewers get so angry?” That’s harder to answer. The advice, from me and every other writer who’s been in print for a while, was: Do not read online reviews. They’re the digital version of graffiti scrawled in a high school bathroom. Stop reading them. Now.

Then I said: “How should writers deal with criticism? Consider the source, and its authority. Trusted editor = listen carefully. Jealous and angst-ridden creative writing classmate = tread softly and watch for daggers thrown at your back. Reviewer who sneers at your gender or nationality = brush them from your shoulder like dust. Anonymous troll = ignore. That’s often easier said than done. But it’s best to smile and take it and keep writing the best stuff you can. Take pride in your work, and remember: If they criticized you, it means they read your book.”

I stand by all of that. But sometimes it’s hard to ignore the darts. In the past few years:

  • A reader review of The Nightmare Thief accused me of “thieving.” Forensic thrillers, the reader alleged, belong to Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs, so by writing about forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett I was stealing “their” genre.
  • A professional critic commented that if Stephen King likes my work, it must mean he’s back on drugs. Classy.
  • The morning of my daughter’s wedding, I woke to a public message on a social media site telling me the ending to one of my novels was “really shitty.”
  • Ten minutes after I was given a national award, a blogger approached and informed me — plus my family and dozens of other people within earshot — that my writing had gone completely off the rails, lost its original promise, and degenerated into unreadable horror. While I was standing there with an award in my hands.

Recently I’ve also heard from readers who say they hesitate to buy a book if it has any mediocre Amazon customer reviews. That disheartened me. Some Amazon customer reviews are thoughtful, well-considered, and genuinely helpful. Others are pure trollage. And for readers to turn away from a book that’s been trashed by a troll — that is, trashed for pleasure, in bad faith, by somebody who simply wants to cause grief — depresses me. I’m fortunate that my novels have been reviewed by major newspapers and magazines. Other authors depend much more heavily on online customer reviews. Fifty lousy words from a reader with a nasty streak can adversely affect their sales.

Having your book called bad names is, of course, hardly the most stressful thing that can happen to a writer. Not long ago a commenter who disliked one of my blog posts threatened to have me arrested. But even that wasn’t a severe problem — the threat was absurd and baseless.

And if I ever feel tempted to succumb to anxiety or complain about a bad review, I’ll remind myself of what a really bad review can mean. I’m reading The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’s Pulitzer Prize winning history of 20th century music. The chapter on “The Art of Fear” describes what happened after Stalin walked out on a Shostakovich performance:

Two days later, one of the great nightmares of twentieth-century cultural history began riding down on the nervous young composer. Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, printed an editorial with the headline “Muddle Instead of Music,” in which Lady Macbeth was condemned as an artistically obscure and morally obscene work. “From the first moment of the opera,” the anonymous author wrote, “the listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled streams of sounds.” Shostakovich was said to be playing a game that “may end very badly.” The last phrase was chilling. Stalin’s terror was imminent…

Puts “Your book sucks” in perspective.

The “Shostakovich ‘Affair'”… served mainly as the test run for a new mode of cultural control. Creative artists who displayed too much independence would be subject to vilification and reorientation, with the threat of censorship, imprisonment, or death offered as an incentive.

I’m extraordinarily lucky to be living and working where and when I do. And I thank all of you who read my work and who let me know you enjoy it.

2 responses to “On Criticism

  1. This is a great set up for another question I had about reviews. When a new writer debuts, (let;s use Jo Nesbo as an example) usually the press release will say something like “the next Stieg Larsson” or (your example here). I would think this is pretty demeaning to an author who has set out to tell his own tale. I don’t believe any writer wants to be known as the “next” anything. I would also think most writers wouldn’t mind being compared favorably to another writer, especially if that other writer is a favorite of theirs, but simply saying the “next” anyone undercuts confidence. Am I right or too sensitive?

  2. I do little reader reviews for Librarything in exchange for free books. I try very hard to find positive things to say about every book. And I don’t think I’ve ever attacked an author and made it a personal ugly thing about them. I hope. Well, Steinbeck. I didn’t give Grapes of Wrath a good review and I may have bad mouithed Steinbeck. But, I’m at a loss for words that someone came up to you, with your award in hand and in the bosom of your family, to unload all that. There is something called manners and knowing appropriate settings for different types of conversations.

    I missed that whole Mormon thing as I would have had a lot to say about that. I live deep in Mormon country and I could tell you some stories. Read Deborah Laake’s, Secret Ceremonies. It is very interesting. Unfortunately, the Mormon church could write her off as a quack because she did have a mental lbreakdown and was a chronic masturbator (she was caught on the side of the road, in her car, by her in-laws, masturbating. Sigh. I know, she sounds unstable and I guess she was, but it was because of the Church. She was an award winning journalist for a newspaper in Arizona before she committed suicide. Read her book and maybe you’ll understand why she fell apart. ANd the fact that she was so forthcoming about some very embarrassing and personal things makes me believe her on the rest. (And Please, I am not bashing every Mormon–there are many wonderful Mormon families out there. But, it’s like any religion, they all have their dark side and some very creepy aspects.)

    I’m not sticking up for the guy threatening you by no means, and there was a much calmer way to tell his information (which what he claims as far as PR, I would not doubt for one minute–my opinion) but, he went from 0 to a screechy 50 pretty quick there. Too bad he couldn’t have calmly talked to you, but I’m sure the PR was in full swing and he lashed out at the wrong person. I’m sorry he did that.

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