I wrote the below ages ago – years ago, actually, and because I am a) a coward and b) the world’s worst blogger, it’s been languishing in my ‘stories and other stuff’ folder. The point of it was to try to articulate, as honestly as possible, what it feels like when you’ve been the recipient of a particularly scathing review (which is bloody hard to do without sounding like a self-pitying whinge-monger).
Since I wrote it, I’ve had many many more bad reviews (none as hatchety as the one mentioned below, but several best termed "Chestbursters", as they tend to arrive when you least expect them and totally fuck up your day). Still, my skin is far thicker these days, and I absolutely admit that this is because I have been extremely lucky and I am now able to make a living from writing (i.e. I can now afford Valium).
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Please note that I do not mean to imply here that reviewers should pull their critical punches to spare writers’ delicate egos – clearly this would be counter-productive for a healthy reviewing culture and no one wants that. But, that said, I’m not focusing on critical or simply negative reviews (again, I’ve had lots of those – they hurt, sure – but like it or not the intelligent ones can be extremely helpful in pointing out flaws that need to be addressed), I’m talking about the hatchet job.
In an article on the 2011 Hatchet Job of the Year award, The Independent’s literary editor Boyd Tonkin commented that "the defining characteristic of the hatchet-job is not that it aims to scold errors, challenge opinions or castigate artistic flaws. It seeks to wound, to wreck, to do lasting mischief to the reputation of either a work or else a whole career."
Tonkin also points out that hatchet-jobs also tend to be great fun to write and even more entertaining to read (tapping, as they do, into the schadenfreude that lurks inside everyone), but, in his opinion, their victims should, on the whole, be restricted to ‘... the influential, powerful, famous; those authors acclaimed by conformists and encircled by flatterers.
I am neither famous nor influential, but for what it’s worth, here’s my take on being on the receiving end of the hatchet (cue violin music):
This is how it starts.
I’m trip-trapping along to the Book Lounge, looking forward to a Modjaji book launch I know will be lovely. A good and generous friend is going to treat me to a meal afterwards and the world is a cool place to be in.
I bump into an acquaintance and the first thing she says to me is: "I wanted to write to you."
I’m thrown. "You did? Why?"
"About that terrible review."
"That terrible one. The reviewer really had her claws out for you."
I’m processing her words, but I’m actually feeling like someone has just punched me in the stomach. (I’ve been punched in the stomach before so I know what I’m talking about). I’m thinking, maybe the negative one in the Sunday Independent has been syndicated. That’s not so bad. I secretly liked that one.
It isn’t. It’s another one.
It’s one that’s so vituperative and personal that I’m forced to leave it up to your imagination, in case the bile eats through your wifi connection and melts Google.
Here’s what I want to do immediately after reading the review: get the chainsaw out of the shed and go all Winters Bone with it. Maybe a slightly over-the-top reaction, but I only feel like this for five minutes. Then the cloud of self-doubt wafts in. Maybe the book is actually shit. Look, you always said it wasn’t your best, so what are you complaining about? You’re getting what you deserve. This morphs quickly into: Maybe you should just give it all up and go back to painting backdrops. You’re rubbish, you’re crap, you’ve been found out.
Then perspective hits: Big deal, it’s just one person’s opinion. This lasts for another five minutes, because then comes: It’s just one opinion that everyone has read – the whole world will have seen it. Everyone you have ever met. Even your friends in Buenos Aires who don’t read English.
Then comes the obsessive hunt to find how deeply embedded in the Twittersphere and interwebs it is.
I am aware how self-indulgent, paranoid and ridiculous this sounds.
For the next two days – and this is the only word I can come up with – I feel sad. Not depressed exactly, just... sad.
You’re probably thinking, big deal. What does she expect? If she chooses to publish something she should know by now to take the bad with the good. You’d be right, one hundred percent right, in fact. And you’d also be right to think: well, she should bloody well think herself lucky she’s getting reviewed (or published) at all. This is just another case of an over-sensitive writer who’s well and truly up her own arse and who should know better. But knowing this and getting it through to my brain are two different things.
The closest analogy I can come up with is that it feels like someone’s taken out an advert in a newspaper claiming that my child is ugly or stupid. If you care about your writing (and really, there’s no point otherwise) it’s bloody hard not to take it personally.
Author Jean Hannah Edelstein neatly sums up how writers feel about reviews: "Bad reviews mean far more to writers than good ones. It’s not the least bit counter-intuitive: good ones confirm the belief that we’re gifted, which is what makes us put our writing out there in the first place... In contrast, bad reviews confirm our darkest fears: that we are rubbish at writing." I think anyone can learn to deal with critical reviews – especially after you’ve had a few (sure, they always sting – that first one especially, but they don’t make you feel like your guts have been ripped out). A critical review is not the same as an ad hominem attack.
Still, everyone knows that you can’t be in this game unless you grow a thick skin – which is easier said than done. In my experience, most writers have egos like open sores – easily bruised and slow to heal. After spending months – or years – writing, editing and nervously waiting to see how a novel will be received, it’s easy to obsess about cutting words. (I know a much-admired writer who can still quote, word for word, a hatchet-job he received back in the eighties).
So how to deal with the gut-wrenching, self-obsessed angst that results after a hatchet-job?
First, the don’ts. After reading a negative review it’s tempting to lash out a la Anne Rice (and trolls all over the world will love you for it), but this is generally considered to be reputation suicide. The best course of action is to smile serenely, keep schtum and pretend you haven’t seen it. Revenge fantasies can be cathartic, although it’s ill-advised to act on them (one of the reasons why it’s possibly not a good idea for writers to review their peers’ novels – writers never forget). That said, I know a marvellous writer who sends "get well soon" cards to reviewers when she doesn’t agree with their hatchet-attacks on other authors.
A good start is to treat Bad Review Syndrome as if it’s a tequila hangover: some quality whisky, a marathon session in bed and a Sausage McMuffin can help in the short term. You can also round up some good friends who will listen while you bitch and moan and vent (they have to be understanding, writerly friends, everyone else will rightly get bored after five minutes and say: "Jesus, woman, get over yourself, who cares?").
Sometimes re-reading the good reviews can help ease the self-doubt. And it’s helpful to remember that, in the time it takes for the scathing words to tattoo themselves in your brain, most of the people who have bothered to read the review will have moved on to trawl for porn and won’t give it a second thought.
Sure, you may see it popping up every time you Google your name (another excellent reason not to do this), but the best response is not to give up or let it damage your confidence and write something else, something more challenging, something better. As Edelstein says, "If you want to be a writer but are not prepared to accept that some people will not appreciate your work, then I daresay you do not really want to be a writer. Or at least you don’t want to be a writer who has readers. It’s part of the job, and it can even be used as inspiration: to do better next time."
I’m well aware that internalising my (dubious) advice is easier said than done, especially after you’ve been flayed by the hatchet. So to my fellow – past and future – Bad Review Syndrome sufferers, if the whisky, bed rest, junk food, new writing projects and kind words from friends aren’t working, feel free to pop over and give my chainsaw a good rev. Trust me, it helps.
If you’re a writer, at some point (possibly at 3 a.m, probably after drinking some vodka, and definitely when you’re feeling masochistic), you’ll click onto Goodreads to check out your book’s rating. Don’t do this. Is Goodreads brilliant for spreading the word about upcoming novels? Yes. Is it a wonderful forum for readers? Undoubtedly. But there is not a writer in the world who has not felt the jellyfish sting of the One Star review. As @dontgoodreads puts it: Not everyone will like your book. And that’s fine. If you put your stuff out there, it has to be fine.
Sarah Lotz is, amongst other things, the author of The Three and Pompidou Posse. She's also part of S.L. Grey, Lily Herne and Helena Page. Her short fiction has appeared in End of the Road, AfroSF, Solaris Rising 1.5 and Something Wicked.