The author David B. Coe (also writing as D.B. Jackson) wrote a piece last week on his pet peeves, one of which was reviews – reviews of any sort. Among other things, he made the point that we writers are ultra-sensitive and that one nasty or negative review remains indelibly etched in our minds, to the point that he can quote from such a review, even if it appears amid a host of positive ones. I’m not quite that sensitive, and I can’t quote the reviews I hated word for word, or maybe I’m a bit more able to mostly ignore such reviews – after the initial fuming and muttered, and sometimes not so muttered, words – feeling that those few reviews are the result of a certain lack of understanding. And part of the profession is understanding that certain reviewers and certain editors simply don’t like certain approaches… and never will. Nonetheless, even telling oneself that doesn’t lessen the initial sting.
It’s possible that any writer can write and publish a bad or substandard book. But no writer published for years by an established press is going to write bad book after bad book – because a string of truly bad books won’t generally sell [there are doubtless some very limited exceptions to this observation, because there are exceptions to every generalization]. So if a reviewer continually pans an author’s books, while other reviewers offer favorable observations, all that means is that the reviewer either hates that author [sad to say, it does happen] or that kind of book. And if a writer sells lots of books and lots of reviewers don’t like that writer, then it’s pretty clear that the reviewers don’t want to look at what makes that writer popular… and there are some books that tell a great story in absolutely terrible prose, and others that use brilliant prose to tell what amounts to an unworkable story. [I read one of those earlier this year.]
The problem most writers face is that we want people to like, or at least appreciate, what we write, no matter what we may say in public, and any writer who denies this is either lying or self-deluded (and there are almost NO exceptions to this generalization). We all think we have a story to tell, if not many stories, and that we can tell them in a way that readers will enjoy and appreciate. The problem, of course, is that no writer can appeal to all readers, no matter how much we writers tell ourselves that if readers just tried a little harder, they’d really like us. Nope. It doesn’t work that way.
And that means, like or not, writers have to expect at least an occasional review where the reviewer really doesn’t understand what’s going on or is so tied to his or her preconceptions of how a writer “should” have done it… and that gives the writer license to fume about “idiot reviewers.” There are books, very occasionally, that do deserve scathing reviews, but far fewer than reviewers think there are, and there are a lot of books – most of them – that could be better, but what too many people tend to forget is that writing is a business, and if I, or any other writer, spent the time necessary to assure that a book had absolutely not a single error, both the publisher and I would be broke. Very, very good in technical terms is possible; faultless is not economically practical, something that too many readers don’t seem to get… or just don’t consider. My long-time editor, David Hartwell, has often said, “A published novel is an unfinished book,” or words very much to that effect, also observing that any book could be better.
But the bottom line is that no one likes really nasty criticism, especially criticism that we feel is unjustified… and writers are people, and we don’t like it any better than anyone else. As for the comment that such criticism goes with the job, it does indeed, but keep in mind that comparatively speaking, most writers make far less than professionals in comparable fields, and very few of even the highest paid ones make anything close to what investment bankers, specialty surgeons, senior partners in law firms, or corporate CEOs do, and very few of those individuals face the public scrutiny that writers do. Of course, they should, but that’s another story.