Yesterday on the Big Bus of Fun the talk turned to reviews, and specifically the reading of same by the writers under discussion. Long, long ago, when publishers were dependent upon a clippings bureau, or the actions of its regional representatives, to keep track of reviews, writers would have to wait quite some time to read reviews if, in fact, they ever got to read them at all. A bad review might be like a sighting of some mythical creature by 19th century explorers: rumors would eventually reach home concerning the nature of the beast, but specifics would be thin on the ground, and the whole thing could even be discounted as the ravings of a fevered mind. Even when reviews assumed solid form, the wise publisher would probably do some minor pruning of the files before passing them on in order to ensure that the worst offenders were quietly lost, thereby allowing the finely-honed equilibrium of the writer remained undisturbed.
Now, of course, a quick Internet search will bring up everything anyone has ever said about you, good or bad, which, for the writer, is a dismal state of affairs. By and large, writers shouldn’t concern themselves unduly with reviews, just as they shouldn’t go seeking weekly blow-by-blow accounts of their sales figures, which Amazon and some publishers offer as a matter of course. It’s like worrying about meteor strikes, or when the sun might die: there’s not a lot you can do about it either way, so you’re better off just getting along with what you’re supposed to be doing.
Mind you, this was hard-learned behavior on my part. Like most writers, I can recall the specifics of bad reviews from early in my career. My first novel, Every Dead Thing, received a couple of real stinkers, most in the UK, I think. One was from a British Labour party politician, now deceased, who used a quote from the book itself to help drive in the dagger. At one point, someone says to Parker, the private detective at the heart of the book, that he hopes never to see him again. “My sentiments exactly,” wrote our political friend, and that was the end of that.
Two of the worst reviews came from fellow writers, because writers-turned-reviewers have an instinctive understanding of just how to hurt another writer with high-impact criticism. It’s a bit like being mugged by surgeons: their boots naturally find the soft spots. One of those reviews, I now realize, was a hatchet-job designed solely to scupper the career of a young writer who was perceived to be getting too much attention, and remains an example of gracelessness that should be handed to anyone who is considering sharpening a reviewer’s pencil before plunging it mercilessly into the soft, fleshy pulp of a first novel. The other wasn’t as bad, and went for a tone of limp-wristed disdain over outright hostility.
I met the writer of the latter review at a festival in the northwest of England some years later. We were on a panel together, and he circled me in the wary manner of a locust that’s just been dropped into a terrarium with a spider. After the event, once he’d calmed himself with a drink or two, he confessed that he’d been very nervous of meeting me, as he’d written the review based upon the belief that our paths would never cross. (That was an unwise assumption to make since, had he examined the book a little more closely, he’d have noticed that we shared a publisher.) In fact, he went on, the prospect of our meeting had rather spoiled the month preceding the festival, and he’d been unable to enjoy much of anything. I nodded sympathetically, and then pointed out that we’d actually already met once before since the publication of the review in question, although he’d clearly been too drunk to remember.
Something similar happened last year, when I met a writer who immediately confessed to having given The Book of Lost Things – a book that managed to survive the reviewing process almost entirely unscathed by very adverse criticism - a bad notice. He looked a bit sheepish, admitted that he’d been wrong about the book, and hoped that it was all water under the bridge. I had to tell him that I didn’t even know that he had written a bad review and, had he kept his mouth shut, he’d probably have managed to get away with it.
The younger me, I suspect, might well have Googled the review in question at the first available opportunity, just to have something to be annoyed about. Now I know that it doesn’t really matter. I’ll always be curious about the general critical response when I publish a new book, but I’ve become very careful about what I read, and I avoid bad reviews entirely, unless I stumble across one by accident and find myself scanning it before I’m even entirely sure of what I’m doing. Nevertheless, even then my instinct is to turn away before damage can be done.
Look, here’s the thing: writers are plagued by self-doubt, and the ones that are not probably aren’t very good writers. Our tendency is to believe the bad reviews because they are our own self-doubt made manifest, and to ignore or immediately forget the good reviews because we secretly believe that they’re wrong. James Lee Burke once told me that you have to learn to ignore the catcalls and the applause, and he’s right. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that you won’t occasionally lapse, but as a general rule for writers, or anyone who presents creative work for public consumption, it’s a good rule by which to abide.
Time to go. Someone on the bus might be talking about me, and I’ll want to listen in. I’ll bet they’re saying something horrible…