Handling praise, handling crap

Recently my friend and writer colleague Jamie Wyman had her first novel published, to rave reviews so far. She then wrote a post on her blog about handling praise – or, more to the point, failing to handle it:

But I have watched people dealing with praise and I think it’s interesting that many of us really don’t know how to deal with it. We’re not used to it. We’re so programmed to expect failure and rejection we don’t stop to think about what happens when we succeed.

She goes on to list various ways that people deflect compliments: dismissal, following a compliment with a putdown of themselves, and so on. It’s an insightful analysis of a common problem, and you should read it. Go on, read it now.

I read it and had the following, half-joking interchange on Twitter:

blog 12-16-13

So here I am, taking this little conversation literally. How to respond to crappy reviews.

I’ve gotten a number of crappy reviews in my day. Regarding my first novel, Confidence Game, my own editor said, “It’s a very dividing book.” Shortly after its publication, when I was still checking Amazon rankings obsessively and reading every review (more on why I no longer do that later) I liked to say that seven people had read it and four of them hated it. Seven reviews was what I had at the time, three fairly positive and the rest pretty lousy. The most entertaining bad review had bullet points listing what I’d done wrong, called me a fantasy writer who knows nothing about writing and nothing about fantasy, and closed by saying “Run fast and far from this very very bad book.” Or something like that. I haven’t gone back and read them lately. (More on that later, too.) Even the review in Locus, essentially a trade magazine for the fantasy/science fiction field, called it “grim fantasy” and said something about how I might be a good writer if I just left the dreary world of my book behind me. (Which I didn’t, of course; I was contracted to write two more in the series.)

This was before Goodreads came on board, and when I log into my Goodreads account I’m regularly greeted by an even lower average rating than I had on Amazon. So what’s a writer to do, when faced with consistent and career-long bad reviews? Rant and rave, annoying everyone within earshot? Take it to a more public level and fling vitriol at reviewers on social media? Embrace the writerly cliche’, start drinking and hole up in a garret? Throw in the towel and quit writing altogether?

Assuming you want to behave more sensibly, there a few other things you can do:

1. Quit reading the damned reviews. There are a few good reasons to read your own reviews, and many bad reasons. At first, it’s a good idea to get a sense of how your book is being received. This can help you decide whether to continue in a series, for example, or switch to a new project that might be more successful. Once in a while you get constructive feedback and you can use it to improve your writing. The book reviewer for the Contra Costa Times complained of my second book that he couldn’t remember who was a bad guy and who was a good guy. Unsurprising, since most of my characters had a certain moral ambiguity, but as I was working on the third book in the series, I was more conscious of how I introduced arc characters so that a reader would be better reminded of who they were.

These constructive reviews, however, are few and far between. Your most helpful feedback will come from your editor and/or good beta readers. The general reader brings his or her personal preferences and prejudices to a book, most of which have little to do with you. At some point, reading reviews becomes less about monitoring reader reception and more about sheer obsession. Re-reading reviews is definitely obsessive, which is why I only quote the bullet-points guy from memory, with the caveat that it’s not an exact quote. Writers can start fanning the flames of their own insecurity by dwelling on reviews, especially the bad ones, and can forget why they were writing in the first place.

2. Take a lesson from library science. Yes, I’m putting my librarian hat back on for a moment. Every library degree program will at some time make reference to Ranganathan’s Five Laws, a system developed in the early 20th century by a librarian in India. Numbers 2 and 3 are the important ones here: “Every reader his book” and “Every book its reader.” No one will like every book. No book will be liked by everyone. It’s that simple. Now, library science is field that strives for objectivity, and my first job interview at a library included a question about what I would do if I saw a book on the shelf that offended me. (Hint: the correct answer is “Nothing. Leave it there.”) The general public tends not to be so objective, which is why I was utterly floored by the number of reviewers who seemed angry at me for writing a book they didn’t like. But that’s what people do, and writers need to have the objectivity that some readers lack.

3. Get inspired by the positive reviews. You have to be careful when applying this advice. I do like to remind myself of the blogger who listed me among her favorite authors, of the copyeditor who called Confidence Game a masterpiece, of the letter my agent sent telling me she read The Sea Between the Worlds and couldn’t put it down. But I also remember a panel I was once on at a local SF convention, discussing whether things like Dungeons & Dragons really do cause teenagers to shoot up their schools. Local author and frequent panelist Michael A. Stackpole pointed out that if you’re going to deny that creators have the power to influence people negatively, you can’t turn around and say they can influence people positively. He said he’d love to believe, when he receives letters from young people who say his books changed their lives, that he really did have something to do with it, but he can’t have it both ways. So take the positive feedback as further proof of what Ranganathan was talking about, and try not to turn it into an obsession, either.

4. Remember why you’re writing, as I mentioned before. This can help if you do fall into a trap like being tempted to throw in the towel. In that seven-year gap when my agent was unable to sell anything, I decided to quit writing at least a half dozen times. None of them stuck. There are reasons that I write and they don’t go away because I’m in a bad mood or because bullet-points guy thinks I suck. There are reasons I wrote each of my books. When I wrote the Gbahn and Archipelago novels, I wanted tell a story of people struggling to hold on to their humanity while faced with inhuman circumstances. I’m sure I’ll get negative feedback from people who don’t like reading about inhuman circumstances, but it was essential for me to write those books that way, to tell the story I was trying to tell. If you don’t like that story, I’m sure you can find another one that you do like. Maybe try your library – they probably have this philosophy of “Every book its reader.”

That’s my best advice, and it boils down to not taking it personally. It really is analogous to Jamie’s remarks about handing praise without turning it around and making it an insult to yourself, which is also a matter of taking things too personally, where the “person” in that case is your own most negative self-image. You have to take your book very, very personally while you’re writing it, but once it’s out in the world, you need to create some distance. You produced this. You did the best job you could and you did it for your own reasons. Some people will like it and some people won’t. That’s all there is to it.

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