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January 27, 2005

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Ray

Well, being a real newbie with regards the whole review thing, anything that's not been a rave, I've obsessed over. A recent review calling the book "diverting" had me puzzling over whether "diverting" is a good or bad thing. In the same review, I blinked plenty of times when I was compared unfavourably to Cornell Woolrich (an author, I'm ashamed to say, I've never read).

The good part about having a mediocre review? Those friends of yours who bitch and moan enough for you. Or someone pointing out the good stuff.

Graham

For what it's worth, Sarah, I thought your story was very bold and honest in the depiction of the main character. I thought the end felt a bit truncated, but that may have to do with the length limits. I dealt with that by cheating - my story is 3500 words long. I also thought your recent story in Crime Spree was very well done.

This was my favorite part of the review:

"Bonnie and Clyde's Last Ride is Graham Powell's story, and it reads like a polished piece of writing that deserves more of an audience than it can get in the blogsphere."

Get that man an agent!

Tod Goldberg

Welcome to the club, Sarah. Reviews come in different shapes and sizes, of course, and the ones that were most stinging were typically the ones I received before I was published when teachers or other students told me my work was crap. Sometimes they were right, no doubt, and other times I really thought they were completely wrong. I remember one in particular that has a nice O. Henry ending: I'd written a story in a workshop and one of the students was also an editor at a now-defunct publishing house in LA. She eviscerated my story, tore in two, and then, after class, pulled me aside and said, look, you really have no aptitude for this, sorry, you have lots of energy but you're not a very good writer. I took it in stride -- as in, I didn't punch her -- and continued plugging along at the fruitless endeavor. Cut to five years later and I've published a novel and a slew of short stories, including the one she hated, and I'm asked by a small publishing company in LA to contribute to a book. I walk in to the meeting an am greeted by a very happy looking woman who shakes my hand vigorously, tells me how thrilled they are that I'm taking part and what a fan she is of my writing. I say to her, "You don't remember me, do you?" and she says, "No." and I say, "You told me about five years ago that I just didn't have the aptitude to be a writer."

The worst review I ever received was from PW, however, which called my first book "smarmy and self-congratulatory" and that actually made me very, very angry...to the point that i actually wrote a good book the second time around.

Steve Hockensmith

My first experience along these lines wasn't a review per se. Waaaaaaay back in my college days, a couple of my friends happened to meet someone who hated my guts based on the stuff I'd had published in the campus literary magazine. Apparently, this guy was frothing at the mouth about me to an almost scary degree -- my little stories and poems just drove him crazy with rage. I was emblematic of all that was wrong with...well, something...and I needed to be squashed like the insect I was, etc. My friends were actually the ones who got pissed about it. I was just sort of puzzled and depressed. "Somebody *hates* little ol' me?" It felt very strange.

I eventually accepted that such a thing wasn't only inevitable, it was fair. After all, I'm a guy with some strong opinions myself. (Don't get me started on Ethan Hawke or Joel Schumacher, for instance.) So I can understand how someone can have a virulent response to something they read/watch/hear/whatever. And if you put yourself out there with something you've created, someone *is* going to have that reaction to you. There's no way around it.

Which isn't to say I won't crawl into a closet and cry for a week when I read my first genuine bad reviews. I probably will. If I'm lucky, I'll just never see the damn things!

-Steve

Gerald

"Still, the first lesson is always the hardest to learn, even if it may well be the likeliest to stick."

My lesson didn't come on any one day. I used to believe a story could be dashed off, that if readers didn't get one part of a story or another it was their fault. That attitude didn't survive college, thank goodness.

Since embracing revision, I've never been confident (cocky?) enough to blow off criticism. In fact, if I look at any work after a long enough time, I see flaws left and right, things I could have done better.

I manage not to tear my hair out by remembering any submission is my best effort at the time. It's natural, necessary even, that my skills improve with more time and practice.

The more you write in any one field, the more natural it becomes. The vulnerable feeling of putting a story out there and the prickly feeling of a bad review are both soothed by the knowledge that--whatever happens--you'll be back to work tomorrow. Because writing is what you do.

Bryon

My first review came when I was 19 and a play I wrote was produced by the city theater company as part of an emerging artists series. Now this was a rotten play. It was a shameless rip-off of The Maltese Falcon, had rotten dialogue and less character development than a beer commercial. But the lighting guy was a genius and he did things to that set that made the play look sooooooo cool. I loved them. Well, when opening night comes the other two plays on the bill get savaged by the theater critic and the only bad things she had to say about mine were that the ending seemed rushed (she had no idea how right she was) and that the lighting sucked. I completely missed the good things she said and went into a rage for days over her comments on the lighting. Like Sarah, my immediate response is indignation and it wasn't until a few days later when my mom made me read the whole review did I feel better. Now almost 10 years later I look back and wonder what the hell that lady was thinking. The play was utter shit and the lighting was still the best part.

Steve Hockensmith

A quick aside inspired by Bryon's anecdote. A few years back I went to see a play in a little Chicago indie theater because some acquaintances of mine were tangentially involved. The play, in a word, sucked. In more words, it was pretentious, unoriginal and self-indulgent. In a final group of words, it was a total waste of my time or anyone else's. (To give you the flavor of it, picture this: A long-haired poet guy literally on a cross onstage screaming about the evils of capitalism and the despicable self-absorption of the idiot middle class. Subtle, eh?) Wouldn't you know it, the day after I subjected myself to this travesty, I bumped into the writer/director and he asked me what I thought of his work of art. My response: [short pause] "The lighting was really cool." Which was true. The lighting *was* the only good thing about it. I could tell from the look on the poor guy's face, however, that he wasn't fooled: He knew I hated it. But whatcha gonna do? His play blew. Or maybe I'm just a self-absorbed middle class idiot.

The moral of the story: Be wary of anyone who critiques something you've written by saying "It was typed really neatly. The margins looked great."

-Steve

SD

I don't know many writers who can take a bad or a lukewarm review completely in stride, Sarah. Maybe there are some, but I don't know any, and if I met one I probably wouldn't believe them. If you care about what you're doing, it always digs at least a little bit, no matter how thick your hide.

Like Tod said: welcome to the club. Anybody who's never gotten a bad review isn't being read by enough people :)

Naomi

Nerve-racking, isn't it? The thing is, your book/short story can't be all things to all people. I'm so neurotic that when I first read some grumbling about my first book from a potential reviewer on a listserv, I starting freaking out. After imagining my characters beating the crap out of the reviewer during my kick-boxing class, I had to calm myself down. I asked for this, right? To put my stuff out there. A book is and should be fair game.

Reviews are hard but the first ones are the hardest. After a while, you will know which reviewers "get" your work and which ones do not. I have taken some criticism to heart and let it guide me in writing Book #2.

John Schramm

Since I have yet to publish (or finish) a work of fiction, I haven't gotten my first bad review (or any review). But I wanted to say that knowing that first bad review is waiting is very likely what keeps me from finishing anything.

It's getting worse as I get to know more people who read and do reviews.

I thought about this when I was trying to write the "trunk" story. Just for fun, I thought I'd give it a shot. Four-hundred words in I felt a panic. My God, what if all these bloggers hate this?

And I know that's unjustified. Even if all of you hated it, I am sure you wouldn't be mean about it. But, I don't know what scares me more -- if someone tells me my story sucks, or if nobody tells me my story sucks.

The few people I have showed my writing to (Steve is one of them, and I am in a Writer's Group) told me what was good and told me what I needed to work on.

And that truly helped.

Megan

One reviewer didn't like my use of dialect in a story. That didn't bother me much because a) I don't like the use of dialect in stories and b) adding the dialect to a flimsy story was something I did as a lark. Most of my lukewarm reviews have felt more positive than negative. Generally speaking, most of my reviews have been of the lite & fluffy variety (unsurprising, given the general tenor of reviewers who look at small press stuff). That sort of bugs me. It'll probably bug me a lot less when I get a really bad review.

The worst comments about my work weren't a review per se, they were from the first or alternate reader (never was clear on that) at a small press. The first third or so of the comments were standard feedback: the reader liked this, didn't like that, thought the pacing could be tightened up here or there, etc.

Then it became clear that the reader was a fairly devout Christian who wasn't familiar or comfortable with non-Christian characters. Shortly after that it became clear that the reader was a psycho fundie Christian who didn't approve of non-Christians in fiction or, presumably, real life.

Then it became clear that the reader and I don't inhabit precisely the same reality, because the reader began critiquing my magical system. Not in the sense of "This is inconsistent" or "This kicks me out of the story," but in the sense of "No, I've done this before, and what you describe doesn't work."

Smile. Nod. Back away slowly.

Victor Gischler

When GUN MONKEYS came out, it was on a small press and reviews were hard to come by. Why interview a new author when Sue Grafton's latest needs attention? Anyway, when THE PISTOL POETS was published I thought okay here we go, I'll finally get some reviews. I did. The very first one I saw was from KIRKUS. I'd say they were luke-cool (as opposed to lukewarm) about the novel. They didn't *hate* it, but it was obviously a negative review. I figured I was screwed. But then PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, BOOKLIST and others came out with very positive reviews and I quickly forgot about KIRKUS.

The review that really sticks in my craw was from this jerkoff at the BUFFALO NEWS. He seemed more interested in scoring laughs at my expense than he was in doing a professional review. He speculated what kind of person would write such a book .. . again, to get laughs and make himself look like a stud.

The difference: I don't hold anything against KIRKUS. They didn't care for the novel. I can respect that. But the guy from the BUFFALO NEWS jusr came off as a complete snarky ass.

Victor

John Rickards

My first bad review spent longer having a go at MWF than it did on the actual book, which was mildly annoying.

A lot of the time, a bad review is fair comment and fair enough (IIRC, Kevin Burton Smith's review of WE, frex), and most of it's a case of not being able to please all the people all the time. I pay attention to it, but it doesn't bother me in the slightest, by and large.

Steven

In college I passed around a chapter of a novel I've never finished to my creative writing class. They raved about it, but the professor tried to convince them that if they were in an airport bookstore and read that first chapter in a paperback, they would not buy the book. All the students said they would most certainly buy it. He was adament however. I stayed out of the discussion, but it went on for twenty minutes. It now turns out I've published three novels and he just the one that got him the job. "Talk about coasting," he says without bitterness.

The most bothersome reviews so far have been the ones that want the book to be something other than what I had in mind -- J. Kingston Pierce, for instance, wanted to know why my first book wasn't a better political thriller.

BTW, Sarah, the story reminded me of my years working at Yeshiva University in NYC. When fiction reminds me of real people, I think the writer is on to something, no?

Dave Zeltserman

Sarah, I hope Tania writes any future bad reviews that I receive. I don't think it's possible to write a criticism more gently and more constructively than she did.

Bad reviews are all part of the game, but what goes beyond that are reviewers who don't have the wit or skill to tear apart a book legitimately, so they try to crush the book by giving the ending away (or other critical plot elements and surprises). When I was getting set to self-publish In His Shadow I read postings from people complaining about this on MWA's usergroup and thought, eh, never happen to me. Famous last words. I ended up having two of these cretins give away the plot for IHS. Dante should build a special circle in hell for these a-holes.

I did get a negative review for FAST LANE recently, but thought the reviewer was within her rights. It was simply that, as she said, she was expecting Marlowe and ended up with Manson. She just didn't like where the book took her, and I can appreciate that. But for a negative review she did try to be even-handed, even ending it by saying that anyone who likes noir would like this book. I felt bad that I ruined a few hours for her, but other than that, respected her for trying to be fair.

Kevin Wignall

I'm mildly irritated by lazy or sloppy reviewing, but if someone simply doesn't like a book, not a problem at all. What really stings is when they make a criticism and you suspect they might be right. But it's still about the book, not you - which is good in a way, because my personality's rotten to the core.

Jenny D

I was pained recently by an absolutely horrible Amazon review of my novel, by someone posting under a made-up name who I swear hasn't read the book & makes what I am convinced is a false claim to have been my student at Columbia in New York--an unlikely tale for someone who in her other posted Amazon review identifies herself as a mature film studies student in Adelaide, Australia. It was more funny than agonizing, to tell the truth, but it was not pleasant...

I dabble in reviewing, but I often feel it's frustrating because I'd much rather spend the time reading a manuscript & offering constructive criticism than making observations about weaknesses after the fact. We all really do have to learn how to take tough criticism and suggestions for improvement from our readers, but it is nicer when it happens in private.

Jennifer Jordan

When I review, with one exception, I don't flat out pan a book. I find something I think was great and explain what I had a problem with - knowing very well that it's only my opinion.

And there are times I read a book that I know everyone will love and it does nothing for me. Not a review I like to write.

I want criticism, to a degree. I know my work isn't perfect when I put it out there and I'd like to know what I missed. And I know the way I write doesn't sit that well with everyone.

Curious about this...

My more comedic pieces, fun to write, are never as well received. Is it humor itself that attracts less praise or, more than a little probable, just my humor?

Emily

I was physically ill after my first bad review, (in the only national Saturday paper in Australia) but I can read it now, less than a year later, and laugh. It was a really, really, really bad review that more or less recommended I be jailed for crimes against Australian literature. The woman even criticised my author bio (boring) and my photo (book content did not match her expectations due to my nice photo)! Easy to laugh.

What hurts still is the milder and more intelligent negative review by a writer I respect. I can't laugh about this one, but I can learn from it. And since my positive reviews raved about the same things that the good-negative reviewer saw as saving graces I can feel comfortable that those who liked it were not delusional or drunk.

Otis

You know, Sara, I read both... and now, a day later, I really can't remember a thing abouth the "review," but I recall the story vividly. Interesting.

gwenda

The cure to worrying too much about it is to go to Amazon and read the reader reviews of your favorite books. Opinions are like... (Which doesn't mean they are always wrong, it just means that's all they are -- and we can all agree that the things many readers say about Jane Austen on her Amazon page probably aren't anywhere near the mark.)

David Montgomery

When writing reviews, I always remind myself that there is a person behind the work that I'm reviewing and that they deserve to be treated with respect.

Granted, sometimes it can be tough, but I try.

Lee Goldberg

Maybe it's because I come from TV...so I'm used to getting unwanted "notes" (ie criticsm) on my writing from everyone (actors, agents, managers, directors, psychic colorists, craft services etc.) and everywhere (studio, network, talent agency, viewers, the press, my pool man, my mother, etc.). I don't ever take it personally. When it comes to reviews, I read them with a smile, whether they like my book or not. Everyone is allowed their opinion...I'm certainly not shy about expressing mine.

My favorite review ever was from Rolling Stone, calling an episode of BAYWATCH that I wrote the worst hour of television in the history of the medium. And they were being gentle. I loved the review... probably because they were right.

But reviewers...well, at least the publications they work for... can be truly schizo. For instance, Publishers Weekly gave MY GUN HAS BULLETS a bad review... and then, a year later, praised that same book as "riotously funny" in the midst of a rave review for the sequel, BEYOND THE BEYOND. Go figure.

Karen Palmer

My first bad review was in Kirkus, and it stung like hell. More worrying, it was the book's initial notice, so it sat out there all by its lonesome for several weeks. All I could think was: Fuck, I spent years pouring my heart into this thing, and now I'm going to get slapped around in public. But then other reviews started coming in and they were good and that helped. With my second book, there was an awful notice in the San Antonio paper. The reviewer even quoted some of the text as an example of poor writing. These were lines that I particularly liked, so I had to laugh. It's hard to take when the criticism echoes your own misgivings about the work (and you've been hoping no one else would notice), but if they're clearly off base (it can take time to come to this conclusion), you can dismiss it. Which feels just fine.

Harry Shannon

My first thrasing was for the lyric to a title song for the God-awful film "The Domino Principle," back in the late 1970's. I worked my ass off trying to make something fit and got dismissed as "banal." Over the years, I've learned to tune things out reasonably well (I've also been lucky enough to get decent reviews) but oddly enough, those trolls who cruise Amazon.com bashing everyone can get to me. I don't know why. Maybe because it's just such random cruelty.

Peter Craig

Sarah, the hardest reviews to stomach are the very short ones that, in an effort to save space, juxtapose trite advertiser's adjectives with ill-defined, almost subliminal criticisms, as in, "a seductive if routine thriller" or "a harrowing yet formulaic debut." This is what makes PW and Kirkus read like fortune cookies, and why they can make any writer lose his mind. As condensed as they are, I start reading them like cryptograms, looking for meaning in the unusual use of an appositive or a dash. God forbid there should be a typo. My first Kirkus was so bad, however, that I'm surprised they didn't have to bleep any of it out. For my second book, Kirkus was equally bad; but PW took me in, comforted me, made me feel worthy again. Now, for my third, PW isn't so sure anymore, but Kirkus LOVED me all along. I'm so confused. Why are the pre-pubs beginning to seem like my parents?

James C. Hess

My first bad review produced good: It made me realize how determined I was to write.

Jon

I try not to do any negative reviews in Crime Spree. We might at some point if someone really deserves it and we are saving people from wasting money on a bad book.

On line I've only done a few.

I've told a few authors that for the most part I don't think people remember reviews except authors. Joe Average is going to see a book title and all he will remember is that People Magazine (or whoever) reviewed it, not whether or not they liked it.

So even bad reviews will sell books. Which is why I won't review books I didn't enjoy.

I do have a real problem with reviewers who need to attack the author or write a review that is more about making the reviewer look smart. Lazy.

Cara

Sarah, my mentor always tells me, if you don't go up to the plate, how will you know if you can hit a home run?You did good!

Ingrid

The review (an unimportant one on a web site) which infuriated me most happened after the novel had received a starred review on PW and praise elsewhere. Mind you, the final words of a review are the most important, and in this instance they destroyed the protagonist of my series. Very damaging! I was shocked to the core and went into attack mode. Not recommended. I withdrew severely wounded from that contest. To this day, I'm convinced it was personal, but I learned my lesson and intend to ignore all future bad reviews. And yes, I still get sick to my stomach when I think about it.

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