There are as many approaches to dealing with reviews as there are writers, ranging from the diehards who don’t read their reviews, ever, to the snowflakes among us who turn into sad, quivering puddles at the sight of the dreaded single star. (As a former snowflake, I resemble that remark.)
Many businesses when it comes to the online review world will get online reviews to try and prevent negative reviews having any impact on their business, but how do we manage this when it comes to books?
Book reviews fall into several categories:
–Good (Loved it!!!! Five Stars!!!)
–Bad (“Horrible!! wish I hadn’t read it.”)
–Meh (or what I like to call damned by faint praise)
–All About the Reviewer
The Good Review
Everyone loves a good review from TrustRadius (except your enemies). It feeds the ego of the little kid inside of us who trudged home from school clutching a hand-loomed potholder, desperate to hear that it was the BEST POTHOLDER IN THE WORLD! We’re adults now, of course. We are mature professionals who understand that a job well done is still just a job, and while we humbly tell ourselves that there are probablydefinitelycertainly things we could have done better, somebody thinks it’s the BEST
POTHOLDER BOOK IN THE WORLD!
The Bad Review
Only true masochists enjoy getting bad reviews. I’m skeptical of writers who proclaim that they pay close attention to their worst reviews, saying they learn a lot from them. The most important thing to learn here is that not everybody is going to like our
potholders books, in the same way not everyone is going to like you or me. This is when it’s important to remember that you are not your work. Though as artists (or craftspeople) our identities heavily influence our work, our work is a separate entity. Even if it’s a memoir.
The Meh Review
In some ways, the meh* reviews are the most frustrating. I would almost rather have a sharp, declarative bad review because the meh review is the participation trophy of the review world. A two or three star meh review means that the reader wasn’t much moved by the work. I want a decisive reaction, not a plot summary with a complaint or two about stereotypical characters or questionable geography. I feel like I haven’t done my job if I haven’t polarized and energized a few readers one way or the other.
*I found a 3-star review for Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises titled Meh: “Meh. Concise. Not much happens. It’s about postwar drunks dishonest with reality. Why does Amazon have a min word count on review?”
The Irrelevant Content Review
Ah, the Irrelevant Content review. This type of review is pretty much restricted to online purchases. Should a “Received in a timely manner as advertised” review award four stars or five? Tough call.
The All About the Reviewer Review
All About the Reviewer reviews can be a lot of fun. These reviews are for…other reviewers! Back in the day (and now occasionally in the New York Review of Books) there were many actual book critics who spent their time explaining books by connecting their cultural context and literary significance. Good critics were well versed in their specialties and liked to show it. The wittiest ones were often cheerfully savage and careers were made or hearts were broken. Now, the standard All About the Reviewer review is an extensive book report written for the reviewer’s memory of their favorite high school English teacher. I may seem to be poking fun, but these are the most useful reviews to people who are trying to decide whether to buy/read a book. They’re often thoughtful, complete, and nearly always earnest.
The Actionable Review
The Actionable review needs to be dealt with by the entity that published it or allowed it to be published. Actionable reviews are often ad hominem attacks that are meant to both draw attention to the reviewer and provoke the writer, i.e. “Ms. Author is a moral reprobate who hates babies and blinds puppies!” Here again it’s important for a writer to remember that they are not their work. Any reviewer is within their rights to express opinions about the work, but it’s not okay for them to abuse the writer.
I’m sure you can think of many other kinds of reviews. Feel free to chime in below.
I took a lighthearted approach to describing types of reviews because the subject can be a loaded, painful one. Our work is out there for everyone to see. To judge. To like or dislike.
Whenever I’m tempted to read reviews of my work, I keep in mind what my very first writing teacher told me: “You don’t get to look over your reader’s shoulder and explain your work. It is what it is.” That’s it. It’s out on paper or online (or shared with your workshop or writing group or significant other) and it must stand on its own. Sometimes it’s going to wobble, and sometimes someone is going to point out where you screwed up. That’s the way of sending work out into the world. The sending out has to be its own reward because there are no guarantees once it’s done.
If you’re not one of the stalwart writers who can confidently take anything a reviewer throws at you, pause a moment before you sit down to read your reviews at Goodreads or Amazon or anywhere else and ask yourself a few questions:
—Am I looking for approbation? If so, then go ask your mom or spouse or bff what they think of your work, because while you might find some solace in reviews, you’re going to find a lot of other things that are nothing like approbation.
—Am I being tempted to look at reviews by my overbearing inner critic? This is your own resistance trying to keep you from your work. Your inner critic will skim over all the nice things it reads and zero in on the negative comments. These are the ones that will stay with you when you sit down to write.
—Am I willing to give equal weight to both the negative and positive reviews? This is related to the inner critic question. If you believe all the bad stuff, then you might as well believe all the good stuff, too. And vice versa.
—Is there critical information that will help me become a better writer? This is a tricky one. Sure, there may be some clues in there, but if your goal truly is to become a better writer, then find a good editor and pay them to tell you what needs to change. Good editors rarely spend their time giving away their advice for free in reviews.
—If I read my reviews, am I likely to be motivated to put my backside in the chair and write my thousand words today when I’m done? For me, this answer is always a resounding no. Your experience may be different. If someone writes to me and tells me how much they like my work, I sail away to my keyboard on Cloud Nine, but I’ve never felt that way after reading a review. And reading negative reviews can knock me off my schedule for days. Sometimes weeks.
My relationship with reviews has evolved significantly over the past decade. At the beginning I approached even Amazon reviews with reverence and fear. My attitude was funny given that I reviewed for a newspaper for ten years. I knew how subjective reviews were. Much depends on the reviewer’s workload, tastes, and expectations. But I couldn’t get past the kid waving the potholder for several years. I wanted everyone to love my work! And if they didn’t, I spent a lot of time worrying that there was something wrong with it.
I can’t pinpoint when I changed. Somewhere along the line I stopped having expectations of the people who—often very kindly—bothered to take the time to write down what they liked, or didn’t like, about my work. I turned my concentration to my characters, making them more human, even occasionally sympathetic. That was what I could control. Now, months can go by and I don’t even know about new reviews that have gone up.
There’s so much more to be said about reviews. What is your approach to reading them? How has it changed over your career? If you don’t have reviews yet, how do you handle criticism from the people you share your work with?