WARNING: This is a no-edit zone. . .
I received an email from a multi-published author whose book reviews have been a hornet’s nest of extreme reactions. “How can one book be great and awful?” he asked, and a few sentences later, went on to express his reaction as being torn between elation and wanting to never again pick up a pen to write.
This same day, I look in my own mailbox and find an email from a reader who considers me the worst American writer who has ever written. This comment on a book that has won multiple prestigious excellence awards, gotten great reviews and a lot of reader mail that has been positive and often heartwarming.
It’s stunning–the difference in ways people react to books–until you think about it. Reading, like writing, is subjective. And every reader (reviewers included) brings their issues and hot buttons and emotional triggers to a book when they read it,
A writer writes to connect and if s/he does so, it stands to reason that some of those connections will be positive and some negative. The same is true of people we meet. Some we know five minutes and know there is and will never been a connection. Others we feel we have known all our lives.
Reading is subjective. Reactions to the work include subjective reactions to all that is in the book and how the reader, who brings everything inside them to the pages, relates. Some will relate in harmony with the book. Some will relate in opposition to it.
You’ll get great and lousy reviews on the same book. You’ll get great and lousy reader feedback on the same book. You’ll get great and lousy reactions within and outside the industry because–surprise–we’re different and we react to different things in different ways for different reasons.
If the reviews and comments get under your skin, then they will impact your writing. If you think you’ve got problems now, wait until then. Taking the feedback in and allowing it to impact your writing can make you a frigid writer. It can alter your characters, the stories you’re sharing. It can alter you.
If comments are constructive and there is good to be gained in them, then great. We can appreciate the value in anything constructive that helps us to grow and be better and stronger than we were. But if the comments are destructive, what is the value of allowing them to impact you and what you’re attempting to accomplish through your work?
Understand that not everyone is going to like what you write. Book or blog post, expect that. Some responders will argue points. Some will send “hate” mail. Some will act as if you’ve committed a horrific crime against them and wounded them deeply.
But are they reacting to the book? Or has the book triggered something inside them that has been hurtful or harmful or difficult for them? You, the writer, can’t know that, and the objective truth could be either one of those things or something in between or something different.
A reader’s reaction is something the writer can’t control. Some writers can read reviews and/or comments and not take in what they say to the point where they impact the writing. Some can’t. Neither reaction is right or wrong, and only the individual writer knows which type person s/he is. Whichever the case might be, honor it.
If positive comments aid you in spending countless hours honing a book, then read them. Let them inspire you.
If negative comments hurt you in spending countless hours honing a book, if they make you less productive or instill doubt that to any degree cripples you in the process, don’t read them. There’s a delete key in your mailbox for a reason. Use it.
The writer is obligated to write the best story s/he can write at that point and time in his/her life. The writer is not obligated to monitor others’ reactions to the story s/he has written. It can be beneficial or harmful or both. The writer knows which it is for him/her.
Many writers–many of them–never look at reviews, never look at comments. Some hire a clipping service and instruct that only positive commentary with cull-able quotes be sent to them. Some hire assistants or virtual assistants to deal with reader mail and never see negative remarks. Other writers read all reviews and all reader mail. The writers typically don’t talk about which they do much, and certainly not in public forums, but they do what they feel is right for them and best for the creative artist in them.
There’s another consideration in this mix. One I’ve written about before, but is worthy of mention in this article because it so deeply relates. Unfortunately, comments can’t always be taken at face value as a reader’s actual response to a book.
Hundreds of writers have experienced the “Revenge Syndrome”–and no one writer is exempt. Regardless of how hard one works to help others, how restrained one remains in heated responses or simple disagreements–which might be about anything and not necessarily writing and/or books–some people feel frustrated by something the writer said or did (a critique suggesting changes in a work; having a different opinion or perspective or belief about anything; an alternate political position or view; a refusal to endorse a book, embrace a project, spearhead a movement) or didn’t do, and that individual, who might not say a word to the writer, runs over to amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com or any of a hundred other sites and posts a “review” slamming the author’s book. Or all of the author’s books–often without ever having read them.
This happens so frequently to so many writers that it’s earned that “Revenge Syndrome” tag. For the writer, these comments are frustrating because they aren’t based on an honest opinion of the work, they’re typically extremely acidic and sometimes downright hateful and they’re made in public forums.
Some of the most annoying of these type comments are those posted on the author’s website: a site the author pays for out of their own funds. It’s like someone putting a sign in your front yard that reads: “A jerk loser lives here.” Of course, the webmaster/mistress typically just deletes them–or they’re never posted but deleted without being approved for posting. What author is going to pay to have someone to trash them or their books? That’s like paying for the “jerk loser” yard sign. Not going to happen. And that typically frustrates the Revenge Syndrome poster, who wouldn’t pay for the sign either, even more.
The saving grace is that these “reviews” or comments are so transparent that they stick out like sore thumbs, so it’s rare that they’re read and the true nature of them isn’t seen immediately by the author and by others who read them. Yet the commenter is blind to that because by blasting the author/book in a back-door post, so to speak, s/he feels more in control and has let off sufficient steam to temporarily reduce his/her anger/anxiety.
The thing the Revenge Syndrome poster does not realize is that while s/he posts anonymously, often his/her identity is revealed or discovered. Hidden motivations do come to light.
And it goes without saying that the more controversial issues an author writes about, the greater the mix of positive and negative commentary, and the higher the odds that s/he will be hit by the Revenge Syndrome poster.
Which is but another reason the author can’t afford to give his/her personal power of self to others or allow others to dictate what s/he writes. If that means you can’t read reviews and comments, then don’t do it. If you can and you can take the good in them and ditch the rest, great. If you can read and not be infused with doubt or fear that paralyses you or makes you become a frigid writer, great. But if you can’t read reviews and/or comments without being negatively impacted, then by all means don’t read them. Use that delete key, and remember what I said earlier in this post:
As an author it is your job to write the best book you can write at that given point in time.
An author is not obligated to monitor others’ reactions to the book. It’s a choice.
In a perfect world, every reviewer and every reader would love every book. There would be no Revenge Syndrome, no Revenge Syndrome posters. There would be no negative feedback that is hurtful or that causes challenges to authors, only that which is constructive and positive and inspiring.
That perfect world doesn’t exist–at least, not today. Until it does, authors have to do what is best for them as people and creative artists in this imperfect world.
Understanding is key. You will not please everyone with anything.
Acceptance is key: Everyone not being pleased is okay. Those who are pleased are enough.
And of course while waiting for this perfect world and working in the imperfect one it doesn’t hurt to hope that those suffering from Revenge Syndrome learn a little more about dealing constructively with their issues and choose not to strike out against others in unfair and unjust ways. For authors’ sakes, and for their own.
On mixed feedback, you’re not alone. I feel your pain.
And so does every other author.
© 2007, Vicki Hinze