In the wake of the literary world’s recent upheaval over That Article (and the comforting, salient-point responses from literary agents and established industry pros like Chuck Wendig and Malinda Lo), I wanted to take a moment and acknowledge a bit of common publishing wisdom, and how ignoring it was surprisingly liberating for me: Never read your reviews. Click to continue reading.
Advice we give debut authors varies wildly, but this is one piece that’s essentially tattooed on an author’s forehead the second they’re handed a contract. DO NOT DO IT, we hang-wring. GOOD OR BAD. IT WILL GET IN YOUR HEAD. YOU WILL BE PARALYZED. YOU CANNOT PLEASE EVERYBODY. (And in small print at the bottom, of course, FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, KEEP WRITING.) (Small print because it’s common knowledge that as a new author, you’re entitled to lose your entire mind for at least the 90 days around your book launch. You’ll want to loop back for this eventually.)
“Don’t read reviews” is objectively great advice for a few reasons. The first and most obvious is that bad reviews can fuck your day, and as it is literally impossible to create a work that will please everybody, you will get bad reviews. (The alternative is that you get no reviews, because nobody beyond close friends and family read your work. Pick your poison.)
But even good reviews can throw you for a creative loop. Yes, it’s clever from a theoretical, hypothetical business sense to think about the market for any project you’re sinking hundreds (or thousands) of hours into. But. Writing a book is an enormous, soul-killing-and-then-rebirthing-like-a-Phoenix-from-the-flames-at-least-seven-times-a-day endeavor. Enormous respect to the writers mighty enough to craft a novel while keeping a shrewd eye on audience expectation; most of us are wrought of weaker stuff, and for we mortals, it’s hard enough just to write a book at all. Getting mentally tangled in what other people think/want/need our next book to be (or what we tell ourselves, in an anxious panic at 2 a.m., they think/want/need our book to be) is a swift route to writer’s block. So, I get it. But also, as a debut author, I ignored it. I read my reviews. And something marvelous happened.
For context: Most reviews of my debut novel HOLE IN THE MIDDLE are perfectly lovely. HITM is a young adult novel about a girl with a magical physical ailment (a hole in the middle of her body) and heaps of realistic body image anxieties, and touches on feminist issues of girls’ friendship and bodily agency. It got nice nods in the New York Times and Kirkus, and its Goodreads score is solid. The kind reviews teach me that everything I hoped the book would be (empowering, funny, slightly transgressive and wonderfully weird) has resonated with readers. And for the most part, the “meh” reviews confirm my own suspicions about story elements I could have executed better. (Which are absolutely present – I drafted this book when I was 26 and was actively learning to write novels; by the time the book came out, I was already aware of plenty I’d love to do differently.)
But this is not about those reviews. This is about The Bad Ones. The absolute pits, bottom of the barrel reviews written by people who seem not only to resent the time they spent reading my novel, but also the fact that I am alive to write it, that the YA genre exists, that there are, perhaps, books in this world at all. Here’s a sampling, paraphrased to protect the critics:
“I do not see the point of this book at all. If you had a hole in the middle of your body, you would die. There are lots of real diseases this author could have written about, why waste your time with a made-up one.”
“I wanted to give this book more stars, but UGH, TEENAGERS.”
“It is clear from this book that this author has never experienced any health problems or difficulty with social anxiety or introversion. I cannot understand why she felt qualified to write on these topics.”
And, like, honestly?
What a relief.
What a relief, after going through such pains to make a book as good as possible, knowing all the time that you’re certainly going to mess up (if the blank page is perfection, and each word carries you exponentially away from perfection, think of the tragedy of errors that is putting 80,000 words on a page), to realize that dude, there are just some things that are outside of your control. There are some readers – who absolutely hate or misunderstand your project, or you, or (one supposes) your entire genre – you’ll never win over.
And you’re free.
The delicious coda that lies on the other side of “some reviews are so bad as to be puzzlingly irrelevant and not at all harmful” – is that once you realize this, the entire house of cards starts to collapse a little. These reviews are so silly! you chortle. (You are allowed to chortle once you become a published author; it’s in the contract.) These are clearly just somebody’s opinion!
But then: so, too, are the good reviews. So are the meh ones. And suddenly, you’re staring down into your hands at these tiny data points, which seemed once like enormous Stars of Judgment clouding your writerly sky. They look so small, now. Interesting, perhaps, but not even enough light to read by.
Maybe you drop them in your pocket, or not. But you’re free to turn and go.