Arielle K Harris
I recently received the worst review I have ever gotten in my, admittedly short, published writing career. And when I say it was a bad review, oh holy moly was it a bad review. In the first paragraph alone (of which there were several) this individual writes: “A sadly colossal mess of a novel […] Seriously, I can't find something to praise here as hard as I'm trying to!” They helpfully list every facet of my book which leads them to this judgement, from my novel’s very premise, to my writing skill, to even including what they felt I should have done to make it a half-decent story.
I didn’t want this to affect me as strongly as it did, because clearly people have their own opinions which shouldn’t matter. But they do matter. I know that there are worse things in the world than a bad review, and quite frankly in the last couple of days I have experienced a tragedy which struck close to home, so I get it. It’s just words on a screen.
But words are important. You and I both know this, or else we wouldn’t be here.
It bears mentioning that I’m not seeking sympathy, or fishing for more positive reviews by writing about this. Quite frankly I almost decided against writing about this situation at all for fear of seeming petty, but I realized that every one of us who has writing and publishing as our goal will be inevitably visited by the bad review fairy. We need to talk about it, because it affects us all.
So having realized that, I then began to wonder about the authors who I idolize and could only dream of becoming. How many of them get ripped to shreds in anonymous reviews?
All of them, clearly.
I took to Amazon to find 1-star reviews of some of my favorite books by some of my favorite authors. It makes both amusing and dreadful reading, but ultimately I feel it helps to know that we are all among good company.
Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens
“Kindle Customer” writes:
The "book" made no sense. Just random snippets of unrelated subject matter. Suggests the possibility of the use of recreational drugs. Complete waste of time.
Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea
Very slow, dull, predictable, and wholly uninteresting. At no point does anything that happens come as even the slightest surprise. The battle sequences are very slow moving and would not interest anyone. It is a small book but it still took me over 3 weeks to drudge my way through this garbage. Afterwords (sic) I used it to start my fireplace, a task I am not sure its (sic) even worthy of.
Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind
This user decided to title his review: “Gary Sue wrote an autobiography and called it porn.”
I would use this as a form of torture or punishment. Doing chores or taking a nap is more interesting than the struggle of getting through a single chapter. […] This is just the life story of the arrogant long sided douche bag that catches you at the coffee shop each morning, and because everyone else likes him, you have to pretend to enjoy it too. But this book for people who have no taste, identity, or you flat out hate. They will love it, and you will seem like a really chill dude.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight
“Elmyr” informs us:
I wasn't able to get to the second chapter, because her writing-style was too stilted, and didn't have any flow to it. It was like she wrote down a basic idea, then went to a thesaurus to pepper the passages with adjectives.
David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks
Someone whose username includes the information that they are a writer themselves tells us:
This author had more imagination than ability. This book plodded along for more than 600 pages. You never quite grasp what is going on until the very end. The only reason I finished reading itbwas (sic) I kept waiting to read the good part Stephen King read. Easily the worst book I read in the last year. Waste of paper.
So there it is.
We all suck in someone’s eyes. I guess the trick is to either accept that this will always be the case, or to simply refrain from reading reviews of your own work at all. Honestly the latter tactic is my usual one, because I know my thin skin and easily obsessive 3am-litany-of-all-my-faults nature when it comes to these kinds of things. For this reason I didn’t actually see this review until months had passed, but the sting remained new and fresh.
So what do you do when someone tells you that you don’t know how to write? Well, you write. But it’s not them you’re trying to convince, it’s you.
There’s some aspect of our brains which is unnaturally quick at believing the worst in ourselves. We will wave aside every compliment we’re ever given as “oh, they’re just being polite” but even the slightest hint of criticism has us instantly convinced. Do we want to believe we’re terrible? Or is it just easier to accept that we might be awful rather than perform the mental gymnastics required to allow ourselves to believe we’re pretty damned awesome?
There are certainly those who have no problem accepting their fabulousness. They are fabulous, and they deserve to know it. I’m happy for them. But for whatever reason it seems that the majority of creative types are not this kind of person. Our path to creativity was perhaps driven by traumatic life experiences, a history of over-thinking and self-doubt, and various dark, angsty thoughts. Many of us were shunned by the social norm and pushed to the fringes, and often literally told throughout our formative years how wrong we were for simply existing.
Is it any wonder how easily we believe criticism as adults?
Our minds are wrong, but we can’t escape them. It’s even harder when mental illness preys on our thoughts, helping to drive these ideas into our minds like nails through flesh. The fight against these dark forces is one of the hardest things we can put ourselves through.
I lost a friend two days ago who lost that battle.
Please listen to me, anyone who needs to hear it: don’t listen to the bad reviews, don’t even read them if you struggle to separate another’s words with your own feeling of worth. Most importantly, don’t listen to yourself when you fall into the cycle of self-recrimination. It’s hardest of all to ignore those little voices, but they’re wrong.