As many of you may know, there was recently a massive level kerfuffle on GoodReads. I mean massive, as in, questioning if it was real or some strange performance art piece. It’s been covered all over, though I think it is most succinctly summarized by Brenna Clarke Gray at BookRiot. The short, short version is someone posted a one star review, the author replied asking the reviewer to remove the review lest they singlehandedly be responsible for destroying said writer’s career. It only gets worse from there. The writer, Dylan Saccoccio, was thusly banned from GoodReads, though his banning was likely also a result of him offering signed copies in exchange for 5 star reviews. I wasn’t going to add my voice to the massive choir of authors who are screaming “DON’T EVER DO THAT!” but as I read the various posts and blog pieces about it, I feel something was left out. For my part, I agree completely that a writer should never respond to a review, good or bad. They aren’t for the writer, they’re for other readers. Yes, bad reviews suck, and no matter how much the advice is given not to read bad reviews, just about every author I know does. This case was particularly nasty as the author accused anyone of leaving one or two star reviews as being moral bankrupt and the worst humanity has to offer. I can only assume the author has never read any history book, ever, or watched any news broadcast, ever.
But I digress. It should be obvious to everyone at this point that responding to reviews is bad for a myriad of reasons. One though that hasn’t come up and I think is worth noting is this: it isn’t your book anymore. Sure, as the author, you get royalties from sales, you get to hold and covet the beautiful, beautiful book in the quiet hours of the night when no one else is around…you get the idea. Yes, you’re the creator, but as soon as the book is published, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. And by published, I mean released to the public by any means: blog post, e book, paperback, hardcover, audio book, sky writing, text message, Twitter stream, Facebook post, etc. If you’ve put it out there, you’ve given it away. One of the few things Mr. Saccoccio says that I actually agree with is that art is important, it should be encouraged because it can change the world and impact people, sometimes powerfully. He’s right. It should be, because it can. But this is the underpants gnome business model of art. Namely, it’s missing a keep step. Part of producing art is releasing it to the world. That doesn’t mean you’re giving it away for free. But when someone experiences art, regardless of its form or format, it’s a deeply personal thing. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with me on this, but I firmly believe there is no wrong interpretation of art, or response to it. We, each one of us, brings our collective experiences, biases, values, judgments, tastes, etc. No two people will experience something the exact same way, because no two people have come the exact same path to that experience. I’ve received some very negative reviews of my book (and it’s key to note they are reviews of my book, not me as a person). Yes, reading them sucked. But the reviewer was absolutely correct in their review. Just like the people who’ve written glowing reviews are absolutely right. You, as the author, painter, poet, actor, musician, whathaveyou, only get to present the art to the world, and then your job is done. Step away, and let the world have it. As soon as you step back in to comment, even just to say thank you for a positive review, you’re trying to take it back. I’m not saying letting go is easy, in fact I wrote about it and how hard it is back in 2013.
So, here are some hard truths you need to accept when you delve into the world of artistic endeavors.
- Some people will not only dislike your work, they will despise it. They will loathe it as the worst thing to ever be belched up from the wretched, festering pits of hell.
- Some of those people will tell others via reviews, blog posts, interviews, or while standing on a soap box and shouting through a megaphone.
- Some will be laced with harsh, mean-spirited, brutal language.
- They are 100% correct in their opinion.
- You don’t get to say anything about. Not one word to contradict their claims, no matter how vicious or vitriolic.
- Side note: You can and should complain private to trusted friends and colleagues, but nothing whatsoever in public.
- No one, anywhere, owes you anything for your art, in whatever form it takes, beyond the monetary payment you ask for; paying for the book, print, song, etc.
- You are not owed good reviews, kind words, silence, or even constructive criticism.
Now, all that being said, it doesn’t mean someone is entitled to attack you personally, and some people might. However, you shouldn’t respond to that either. Despite how much it burns inside, you need to let it go. The simple truth is, people who attack the artist because they don’t like the art, aren’t worth the time an energy it would take to respond. Likewise, YOU are not entitled to attack someone personally because of their review. Be better than that.
Making art is hard, letting it go is harder. But the fact is, if this is what you want to do with your life, you need to get past it and figure out a way to deal with it. Without criticism, there is no impetus to change. Without change, there is no growth and no improvement. And we should all strive to always be improving our artistic skill. Which is why I look for anything useful in those negative reviews, and I might not find anything I think is valid. I might just disagree with the reviewer, in which case, my books aren’t for them. I’m genuinely sorry they didn’t like the book, but there are a lot of books out there and hopefully they’ll find another they do like.
Yes, you’ll get bad reviews. What you do with them and about is what truly defines you as an artist. Do you take them and see if there is anything in there that you can use to improve? Or do you have a complete meltdown and become a text book example of what not to do? Me? I find comfort in what inspired this series of posts in the first place: on the readers who did enjoy the book. They’re the ones I’m writing for after all. I owe it to them to produce the very best book I can, which means always looking for ways to better myself as a writer and my craft. For that, I need criticism.