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Dealing with Bad Reviews: Facing Our Fears as Writers

Something for which almost no debut author is prepared is what it feels like to put your ideas out into the world and get a whole torrent of feedback, ranging from, “You’re a genius,” to “You must be on crack,” and everything in between (in far more colorful language).

Bloggers are all too aware of the weirdness and love that can come your way in equal measure when you go public. Yet those bloggers continually invite readers to participate in a conversation with them. Why? Because for most of us, sharing is integral to our urge toward creativity.

Sensitive, vulnerable writers (is there any other kind?) try to protect themselves in a variety of ways. Oftentimes, fear of criticism or dissent blocks the creative process before it’s even had a chance to take flight. Just the thought of someone saying your idea sucks leads to paralysis. I worked with a writer once who decided not to pursue his book idea because it was stressful trying to convince people of his point of view. Given his low pain threshhold, that was probably a good idea.

There are memoir writers who withhold information or soften their stories hoping to avoid ruffling anyone’s feathers. What happens to them? They have trouble getting a book deal. Who really wants to read a “nice” memoir? Engaging stories are always about conflict, one way or another. 

A writer friend and I recently talked for a long time about the hurdles she's encountering researching and writing a book about sexual abuse in colleges--she's preparing herself for the difficult conversations ahead at all levels of the publishing hierarchy, and with future readers. She knows that she can't have her say on this topic in a book and then avoid facing the issues head on. Conflict is unpleasant for many of us, but it often comes with the territory when you’re a published author--especially if you're trying to change the world.

You need nerves of steel to put a book out into the world. People are slow to praise, but quick to complain. When you’ve poured your heart and soul into your work, it’s agonizing when people dismiss or ridicule it… and yet it happens. Just take a peek at your favorite author on Goodreads and you’ll see comments like: “This book contains a staggering amount of cluttered narrative and facile, stereotypical characters. I’m going to forget it in about ten minutes.” 

Ouch. That even hurts my feelings. 

As the successful author (and apparently also normal-human-being-with-emotions) Chris Bohjalian writes: “That snapping sound you hear this summer? It's not the electric bug zapper on the porch; it's novelists everywhere getting stung by the viper-like postings that readers and customers leave in any number of nooks and crannies on the Web.”

The fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan gamely juxtaposed his best and worst feedback here, which makes for great reading and helps put things into perspective.

In Launch Lab (a program designed to help new authors promote themselves without going insane), participants always want to talk about how to handle book reviews, and I don’t blame them. When you’re labored over something only to be shredded publically, it’s hard to know what to do with those feelings. 

One thing not to do? Do not sic your husband on negative reviewers like Emily Giffin did. Makes you seem… let’s just say unhinged. 

Never, never, NEVER do as Alain de Botton once did. He responded to a bad review from the New York Times, by writing to the reviewer: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.” 

Bad idea. Now, instead of writing about how brilliant de Botton’s books are, I’m writing about this kerfuffle.

What should we do when faced with people who disagree with us or are disappointed with our work—and make sure to let us know about it? I like author and Launch Lab coach Lynne Griffin’s advice. She says that in order to steel ourselves for the inevitable hurtful feedback, we should preempt criticism as Georgia O’Keefe used to do. Assess your work and write down where you think its legitimate weaknesses lie. Then, you’re better prepared emotionally for those bleak moments when the zingers hurt.

So how do you deal with criticism or conflict once you're in the public eye? The approach varies depending on genre and what kind of forum you are engaging in, but, in a nutshell:

  • All writers, fiction and nonfiction: DO NOT respond to criticisms via social media like Twitter, Facebook, blog posts. You will invariably come off as defensive. (Feel free to privately heap ridicule on the critic but only to your close and trusted friends.)
  • An exception to the above is for nonfiction writers who feel the criticism is well thought out and has some validity, but is off base in other areas. There may be some rare occasions when you can engage in a rational debate through social media that enhances conversations on your topic and furthers your agenda. This will usually NOT happen via Twitter and Facebook but in forums that allow for more nuanced discussion.
  • In the media (radio, TV, print etc): Nonfiction writers can focus on the positive changes the book is advocating. Acknowledge the controvery and shift quickly to solutions. 
  • For fiction writers in interview situations, briefly acknowledge the question and then steer the answer in another direction. It is rarely in your best interest to get annoyed at the interviewer, though for a ballsy few it works. 

Another option is to give up before you even begin. I vote against that one.

Anyone else have useful tips for these touchy situations? 

*Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson on businessweek.com

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About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

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