Dealing with the Bad Review Blues
As my friends know, I am Josh Ritter is my celebrity soul mate. In my humble opinion, he is the best lyricist of my generation. He’s amazing and if you’ve never heard of him, definitely check him out.
A few years ago, when his album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter was released, I read an interview in which the interviewer asked him if he worried about upsetting his fans by departing so drastically from his previous efforts. His response was something to the effect of this: If you’re an artist, you should be upsetting people.
I think what he meant was that artists aren’t trying to please everyone. They are trying to express their vision. If you try to please everyone, you end up in a Fahrenheit 451 world where everything is sanitized and simplified and boring. But if you stay true to your vision, you might inspire strong emotions in people, which is what art is supposed to do. When some people feel strongly that a work of art is amazing, others will undoubtedly dislike it.
Or at least, this is what I tell myself when Watch Me Disappear gets a bad review.
Novels, like any other art form, are subjective and personal. What one person likes will be off-putting to another. All you have to do to see objective proof of this is to look up your favorite book on GoodReads.
For instance, one of the best books I’ve read in a long time is Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, Flight Behavior. I loved it from page one and have recommended it to all my book-loving friends. It has gotten 491 four- or five-star reviews. Obviously a lot of people agree with me. It has also gotten 52 one- or two-star reviews. 7% of people who read it didn’t like it. It is possible that some of the people I recommended it to will read it and wonder what the heck I liked so much.
In a more dramatic example, consider The Great Gatsby, one of the most beautiful novels of all time. Over 550,000 people gave it four- or five-star reviews, but over 120,000 gave it one- or two-star reviews.
Knowing all of this only makes it a marginally easier for a writer to read a bad review. It’s like overhearing someone bad-mouthing you. You go through life well aware that not everyone is going to like you, but it shakes your confidence when you actually hear someone put you down. Or course, in life, most people have the good grace not to be confrontational about their dislikes, but online, in the world of books, everyone is a critic and manners are nonexistent.
That my first novel has a very respectable average 3.56 rating out of 45 reviews on Goodreads should not be a source of such distress (consider that it got four-stars on much respected IndieReader.com and was a Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book Award finalist in 2013), but in the indie book world, 3.56 doesn’t sell books. If you want to sell books, you need five stars. That’s how you get noticed Amazon’s algorithms, that’s how you become discoverable.
The pressure to get five-star reviews has led some indie authors, among them a number of the best-selling darlings of the self-pub movement, to the odious decision to pay for reviews. I don’t mean paying someone to read and review his or her book. I mean paying a “book promotion” company a certain dollar amount for a certain number of top reviews. The “reviewers” had no obligation to read or actually like the book. As if self-publishing didn’t already raise suspicions about quality.
Some indie authors have also taken the childish approach of scolding and verbally attacking people who gave them bad reviews. Another great way to gain respect for self publishing.
I think the solution is by taking the long view. Are you in it for big sales or are you in it to tell great stories? Do you want to be a rising star in world of self-publishing or do you want to be a writer? If you want to tell great stories and be a writer, be a professional about it. Do your best writing, put it out there, and when you get a bad review, give yourself a few seconds for a pity-party and then get back to your writing.
To my fellow authors, I leave you with a word from Nathaniel Hawthorne (no stranger to the bad review):
“When [the author] casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates.”
To amateur book reviewers, I leave you with a word from Yeats (also no stranger to criticism):
“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
What is it about guys with guitars in their hands that makes them so irresistible, even when they are obviously self-centered jerks? If Abby and Maggie could answer that question, maybe they could finally get over Nathaniel. There's just something about him when he picks up his guitar and gets behind the microphone, something that makes sensible women act like teenyboppers instead of rational, self-respecting adults.
Abby was first sucked in by Nathaniel's rock 'n roll swagger four years ago when a drunken fling turned into a series of drunken hook-ups that became something like a relationship. Now, as New Year's Eve promises a fresh start, she wants to believe he's finally going to grow up and take their relationship seriously.
What does Nathaniel hope the New Year will bring? An escape from the disappointing realities of his life. He's thirty-four years old and he's barely making ends meet as an adjunct philosophy professor, which was always only a backup plan anyway. Nathaniel's real goal was always to make his living as a musician, but his band, The Latecomers, broke up a couple of years ago, and he hasn't picked up his guitar in months.
When he decides to spend the holiday with some high school friends instead of hanging out at the bar where Abby works, he gets the happy surprise of reuniting with his long-lost friend Maggie. Newly divorced, Maggie has just moved back to her mother's house to regroup. Nathaniel and Maggie were supposed to be the ones who left Worcester forever to conquer the world. He was going to be a rock star. She was going to take the world of art by storm. He's never gotten farther than Boston, and her best efforts only left her broke and heartbroken.
As they ring in the New Year together, Nathaniel decides it's time to take control of his life and to start making his dreams come true. He thinks the first step will be easy. All he needs to do is break up with Abby and finally admit his feelings for Maggie. But the New Year has more surprises in store, and nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
Genre – Women's Literature
Rating – PG-13
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