Saturday, April 6, 2013

Don't Read Your Reviews

Papa poised to kick a critic's ass...

There's a great scene in the recently broadcast HBO movie, Hemingway and Gellhorn in which a drunk Papa spots a book reviewer from across a crowded bar, and taunts the man into a fist fight.
"Hey you...Critic!" Hemingway belligerently shouts at the smartly dressed man. "Critic, come here!"
The critic in question is supposed to be Max Eastman who, in the early 1930s accused the macho Hemingway of being a sissy with no real hair on his chest. Whether Eastman was trying to be literal or just tooling with Hemingway is still up for conjecture eighty years after the fact. But I can bet that if the great Papa were still alive today, the nasty review would still be fresh in his mind and just as hurtful. So it went in make-believe-movie land that, when confronted face to face with his less than favorable reviewer, Papa not only tore his shirt open to reveal real chest hair, but he attempted to knock Eastman's teeth down his throat (In real life this altercation occurred in NYC in Max Perkin's Scribner's office. Eastman and Hemingway wrestled around a bit with the critic supposedly gaining the upper hand in the fight, prompting Papa to start laughing and suggesting they share a drink.).

The point here is not critics or macho stances or even boys being boys. The point is that, man or woman, we all loath reviews. Rather, we loath the bad ones. But as writers in the digital age, we not only have to sweat out the professional reviews, we now are forced to put up with the amateur reviewers. I recall a lecture given once by John Irving when I attended the Breadloaf Writer's Conference back in 1991 in which he explicitly stated that he would not review a single book by an author without having read his entire library first. That's the kind of care a professional reviewer puts into his reviews.

Today however, we place a whole lot of importance on reviews that come from amateurs who know as much about writing a proper review as they might flying a 747. That said however, their reviews are not taken lightly. They are considered a crucial component in the sales, or lack their of, of any given author's books. In other words, the more bad reviews an author receives the better the likelihood that his sales will stink up the joint. The converse is also true.

As authors, we don't have a whole lot of power when it comes to who reviews our work, be it other jealous authors cowardly hiding behind a clock of anonymity, or a spiteful ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, or simply someone who doesn't know their ass from a hole in the ground. But then, in many ways, it's a Godsend that so many non-professionals will take the time to lend their opinion about our novels and therefore help spread the good word.

Thank you!

But all too often, these same reviewers will go out of their way to say nasty things about a book, and this mean-spiritedness translates into one star reviews that inevitably hurt authors who are trying to make a living.

Imagine if you a will a world in which the reviewer must state his or her occupation and we, the writer, in turn, get to observe their performance for the day and write our own review.

1 Star ...  "This Lawyer Really Sucks"
"When I sat down in court to observe this lawyer in action today, I expected great things. After all, everyone is talking about how great he is. But his opening argument bored the hell out of me. It was full of cliches and the whole thing was slow moving. I won't be attending anymore opening arguments by this lawyer." 

Ok, you get the point.

So, what to do then in a world in which the amateur rules?
Don't read the reviews. Good or bad, just don't read them. Instead spend your time writing the best books you can. Then, in the end, you will know that no matter what anyone says, your book is as good as your could make it. A book that will stand the test of time. A book that will put hair on your chest.


  1. "That opening argument couldn't hold a candle to what you can see every week on Law and Order. One star, and only because I HAVE to give a star.

    Good post, although a tough one to put into practice...

  2. Good point Allan...Definitely tough to practice indeed....

  3. Excellent advice that makes this post self-fulfilling. Keep writing and publishing the best books you can.

    When you only have a handful of reviews for one or two books, it's hard to ignore those few "bad" ones. It will be much easier to ignore what individual reviewers have to say once you have hundreds of reviews across dozens of books.

    So keep writing!

  4. thank you for this. those 1-star reviews sting.

  5. In novelist James Scott Bell’s book, titled “The Art of War for Writers”, he recounted a response to critics by novelist Mickey Spilane during an interview:

    “I don’t pay any attention to them. Those guys, they get free books and then they try to tear you down. Critics themselves, they used to tear me up … At one point, I was the fifth most translated writer in the world. Ahead of me was Lenin, Gory, Tolstoy, and Jules Verne. It doesn’t mean anything, but it’s a funny thing to bring up. One day … I’m at a tea party , if you can picture me at a tea party, and this guy comes up to me and says, ‘What a horrible commentary on the reading habits on Americans to think that you have seven of the top ten bestsellers of all time,” and I looked at him and I said, ‘You’re lucky I don’t write three more books.’”

    Jim Bell used this to illustrate his point: “To survive over any length of time, you must turn any criticism into a strength.” He goes on to make 4 points on how to benefit from criticism. Now, with the expanded way authors get reviews. we have even more opportunities to benefit from criticism. And then, get back to writing.

  6. Reading is so subjective that one man's cup of tea may be another's poison, evidenced by the smattering of painfully negative reviews of my latest, which was nominated by ITW for a Thriller Award. So your point is well-taken, Vince. The one-star reviews, though, can dissuade other readers from taking a look at an author's work. All we can do is tune out the naysayers and hope people are influenced by positive reviews over bad ones.

  7. I review books for free because there are thousands of new authors trying their hand at writing and publishing e-books. Amazingly enough I have received some really good stories. However, I understand that anything under three stars can really hurt an author so if I can't give at least three stars, I don't post but send the author an email explaining why. It is not that I consider myself a professional reviewer, but I try to be as objective and fair as I can but when a book is not professionally edited for typos, misspellings, wrong words, I can't pass that as professional and say so in my email. Also some books are just plain boring and when I can't get interested by the time I am 30% into the book, I notify the author I am not reading further and will not review it and say why. That is as honest I feel I can be under the circumstances.

  8. I give this blogpost... five stars. 'Nuff said...