Criticism is something one can avoid by saying nothing and doing nothing.” — Aristotle
Seven years after its publication, my collection of essays on home and family topics scored its first negative review on Amazon.
The reviewer, who identified herself as a copywriter and was brave enough to include her full name and city of residence, found my writing style “rather bland” and my topics “so-so” or uninteresting. Ouch.
Making its abrupt appearance in my “Most Recent Reviews” column, the two-star review splashed a small but indelible stain on my Amazon page. Never mind that the other reviews, many of which were written by fans of my long-running newspaper columns, were five-star praise fests. Never mind that the book had already won several press awards.
And never mind than I’ve been writing professionally since 1984 and should be accustomed to criticism (not to mention rejection letters) by now.
That one crummy review from a copywriter in Atlanta threw me into a ridiculous dark-blue funk that lasted a couple of days. In a fit of self-doubt, I even grabbed a copy of my book and scanned several pages for incriminating evidence of “blandness” and boring topics.
In any event, the review provided a much-needed lesson in humility. But before I could cool off — and yes, I did cool off — I had to Google the reviewer’s name. I had to figure out how she’d managed to stumble on my seven-year-old book — and why she felt compelled to knock it down a few stars. I was half tempted to email her after discovering we had a loose connection through a professional writing group.
Instead, I did what most writers do when they realize they’ve been spending too much time alone with their computers: I turned to a few trusted colleagues who always know how to set me straight.
“Bad reviews are part of the risk of getting our work published,” one of my editor-pals reminded me. “And that’s why we all need to keep growing thicker skin.” In other words, if we’re going to put our stuff out there, we must learn to accept a few hurled tomatoes along with the roses and the press awards. Furthermore, if we’re willing to listen up, one piece of honest criticism can do more to improve our game than a dozen accolades.
Mean-spirited criticism is more about the critic and less about the work under fire.”
The crappy review also led to an online discussion about how to take (and give) criticism — an invaluable skill, no matter what your profession. To master this skill, you must know the difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited criticism.
For starters, constructive criticism is always very specific. It includes concrete examples of what didn’t work along with reasons why the reviewer thinks your writing fell short. Even if it’s unsolicited and painful, constructive criticism can be a terrific learning tool.
On the other hand, mean-spirited criticism (or “sniping”) is more about the critic and less about the work under fire. Dead giveaway: The word “I” appears too often throughout the review or critique. “I don’t like Hemingway’s writing,” for example, isn’t nearly as specific and informative as “Hemingway overplays the declarative sentence.”
Mean-spirited criticism might be the product of a foul mood or professional envy. Or maybe the critic doesn’t share your passion, in which case your work doesn’t necessarily fall short, or stink.
The reviewer who dissed my book didn’t cite examples of what irked her, nor did she suggest what I could have done to meet her standards. But she got me thinking about why I failed to engage or entertain her.
And that’s why a bad review can be an unexpected gift or a wake-up call. If we’ve been writing and publishing for a while, especially, a negative review challenges us to keep improving and refining our craft. Or, at the very least, to stop being so complacent.
William Faulkner once said that real writers and artists “don’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, and the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.” And I suppose there’s some truth in that.
Still, it’s perfectly normal to feel bruised after getting hit with a rotten review. Scores of authors who are far more prolific than I am still wince when they get negative press. Or, as Danielle Steel once put it, “A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”
All said and done, serious writers get over it, then gather their new “ingredients” and get back to work. — Cindy La Ferle
— Detail from an altered book collage by Cindy La Ferle —
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