Thick Skin and Bad Reviews


I get prickly when I run across an author who whines about the awful, nasty, undeserved bad review he has received from some illiterate, jealous wannabe who obviously can’t write his own Magnum Opus. Why, this book has so far received only 4 and 5 star reviews, so it is plain that this is a spiteful, hate-inspired attack from the sock puppet of an insecure competitor.

Spare me.

I touched upon the subject of thick skin some time ago, a full year before Diary of a Small Fish went live. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to avoid too many bad reviews, which is something, I suppose. But the ones I have garnered, I’m rather fond of.

There was the 1 star review from the Christian lady who didn’t appreciate the profanity, and subsequently deleted her review despite my plea to leave it.

There is the one remaining 1 star review that complained that “the author rambled on and on with too many characters and too many irrelevant details, eventually I lost interest and prayed for the book to end, seemed like 2000 pages which I had to skim through for the ending.”

And my all-time favorite, from a prolific reviewer with a real resume, who characterized my hero, Paul Forte, as a “sneaky, petty, subsumed-guilt Bush-loving Michael-Scott frat-boy douchebag” and described the novel as a “sometimes ugly book that often wallows in casual stereotyping and the mocking of others for its small-moment humor, and loaded with the kinds of mistakes that almost every attorney who tries fiction seems to be guilty of…”

Now that’s some first-class criticism right there! The only thing wrong with it is it was accompanied by 3 stars – when clearly the reviewer ought to have given it 2 at most. I feel cheated.

Let’s get this straight.

Diary of a Small Fish is not my child. Even if it was (in a strictly anthropomorphic sense), I’d probably be inclined to let it figure out how to defend itself. Teach a man to fish and all that. (Did you know the origin of that proverb? See what blogging does?)

It is also a first novel. Of course it’s far from perfect. I’d only been writing fiction for 3 years, for crissakes. What kind of fool would take this criticism personally?

It is said that writers, engaged in a form of the cultural arts, are sensitive types, as though that is some sort of license to rant over a bad review. It isn’t. It simply compels one to work harder at being professional about the pitfalls of putting your work out there. As Nathan Bransford said, steel yourself.

While researching this piece, I found a fine opinion from Kimberly Vargas at the Wordserve Water Cooler (“A community of agented authors, encouraging, engaging and enriching others throughout their writing journey”). The title of the piece says it all: Sticks and Stones: The Highly Sensitive Writer Toughens Up. Kimberly recounts her experience at a writers’ workshop with a defensive, thin skinned novice, and reminds us that literature’s greatest stars have received some blistering rejections:

1. Sylvia Plath: “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”

2. Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

3. J. G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”

4. Emily Dickinson: “[Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”

5. Ernest Hemingway (regarding The Torrents of Spring): “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.”

Then she recounts her own war story as a painter:

At one of my showings, I overheard a man telling his friend that my art might be best displayed at a fast food restaurant. “It’s convenience store art,” he said as I looked on, trying not to have any sort of facial expression. The critic didn’t know I was the artist or that I was in earshot. It stung, but feedback is still feedback and should be regarded as just that. It proved to be a valuable lesson – you can’t win them all. If you will accept nothing less than 100% acceptance, you will be plagued by disappointment. But here is the silver lining: You don’t need to win them all. You just need a percentage, and as long as you keep putting your work out there, the correct audience that appreciates you will find your work. It’s all about maintaining perspective.

(Emphasis mine)

So, what is the value of a bad review?

Well, even if it is one that lacks common courtesy, is crude, insulting or downright slanderous (very tough to pull off since it is merely an opinion), it teaches us how to grow thicker skin.

That in itself is worthwhile.

Remember, we all make our work available in a commercial transaction, the terms of which we, ourselves, dictate. If we give it away for free, that’s our decision, and there is no refuge in the lame defense, “what do you want for nothing?” The buyer does not waive his right to express his opinion.

If anyone wants to insist that he be spared bad reviews, then let him put a disclaimer on his buy page that insists no buyer shall have the right to post a bad review. See how well that goes down.

Whatever he does, he ought not emulate Wink Wordless.



7 Responses to “Thick Skin and Bad Reviews”

  1. If you can’t take the criticism then you shouldn’t be an author.
    I’ve gotten good and bad reviews, so what. I’ve found the bad ones sometimes even help my sales of the book. I can only guess that people want to find out what’s so bad about the book.

  2. Once you publish something, it is fair game, good or bad. Some reviews are certainly bogus though and you can tell the reviewer did not even read the book. Like you mentioned, need to have thick skin. Nice post!

  3. 4 Peter Robbins

    A review means someone was interested enough to read it, then at least thought enough of it to leave one. Good, bad or otherwise. Kinda like good or bad press to a pol ! It’s still press…………

  4. An excellent piece, Pete. It can be frustrating if a low rating isn’t coupled with any criticism whatsoever, but on the other hand a glowing five stars with sycophantic praise isn’t much use either to potential readers or the author.
    It’s worth noting that the biggest selling books usually polarise the reading public. I much prefer a love hate response than ‘nice’.

    • 7 Pete

      Ruby, having read your novel, it seems ridiculous to me that anyone with a brain could rate it poorly, but then some readers are a tad short on brains. It comes with the territory. One thing about life – someone’s always bitchin’ about something.

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