Authors may well be justified in feeling angry and hateful when their hard work is slighted by a critic, but it is rarely a good idea to react impulsively on those emotions. Instead, follow these suggestions on how writers should respond to book critics.

“Writers are like prize fighters,” said Norman Mailer. “You wake up, sit down at your desk, put yourself through your paces – and wait for the critical blows to fall.”

And Mailer knew what he was talking about. Gore Vidal once likened his book The Prisoner of Sex to “three days of menstrual flow.” Some years later, Mailer saw Vidal at a party, threw a drink over him and punched him. As Vidal got up from the floor, he is said to have replied, “As usual, words fail him.”

As an independent author, working on your own, you can feel particularly vulnerable to those harsh critical blows. That’s especially true these days as critical reviews can appear not only in the established media but on book forums or even your own social network pages.

Unlike traditionally published authors, you don’t have an agent or publisher to turn to for objective advice. Instead, you can get angry, consider hitting back, worry about your writing, start thinking about changing your new book to suit the critics, or worse, consider giving up writing altogether.

So what can you do when confronted by a bad book review? Change your whole writing style because of some negative feedback, or persist in believing you know better?

The answer is a bit of both

You should always be open to feedback (providing it’s constructive), accepting that the novel you worked so hard on for the last three years might have some flaws, but you can still write the kinds of novels you really care about.

Easily said, but how do you go about it?

When writers respond

Whenever you get caught up in those thoughts of revenge, working out witty or angry retorts, or dwelling on the negative aspects of all the criticism, you use up a lot of time and energy that you could be putting into other things, such as your writing.

By going over and over the issue in your mind, you start to give the criticism more attention than it deserves, which leads to further anger and resentment. These emotions and thoughts can start to cloud your mind. You can think of little else. You then disconnect from the people around you, the people you care about, and you can become reactive.

You start acting impulsively, and that’s rarely a good idea.

The Internet is full of reports of authors who have hit back at critics, usually on Twitter these days (and often involving Brett Easton Ellis). Very few are successful in bringing public opinion back on their side, as Alice Hoffman found out, for example.

These articles bring even more publicity and the risk of even more harsh comments, and it’s easy to see how a vicious circle can start.

Also, that carefully constructed takedown might not be as perfect as you think. Few people write well when angry. “Rage impairs style,” said Zoë Heller of such matters.

Don’t give the critics a chance to think they were right. Instead, and admittedly this can be difficult, you could try to see how you can benefit from a negative book review. Try to see this as a learning opportunity. Maybe you could improve some aspects of your writing from the feedback you’ve had.

Take a moment to reflect and ask yourself if you will really benefit in the long run if you react impulsively. Do you want to let this criticism dictate your behavior? Will it help if you allow all those thoughts and emotions to consume you? Or would it be better to see it for what it is, someone else’s opinion, and get on with your writing, the one thing you really want to do?

It certainly won’t help to criticize someone who has criticized you. Don’t get defensive or demeaning. Don’t start arguing or disagreeing.

Feel the pain

You might think that sending off an angry reply will relieve you of those uncomfortable feelings, but that relief is often temporary. You’ll more than likely start checking for a reply to your reply, looking for that apology, or some sign you’ve been vindicated, taking up even more of your precious time.

That’s not to say you should ignore those painful emotions. It’s very natural to be upset or even angry when you feel harshly judged. Acknowledge those feelings and your suffering. You’ve worked hard, put in a lot of time and effort, and a book is often a very personal work. You had expectations and it might look like those will never materialize now. It’s natural to feel the way you do.

But don’t give up. You can still use your talents to write about those feelings. What thoughts and emotions are you struggling with? Anger, frustration, resentment, sadness, fear, and rejection? Try to dig deep and work out why you feel that way. Why is this causing so much pain and anger? And write about it.

For once, don’t try to make it perfect prose, write what comes to mind, stream of consciousness style. Remember, this is not for publication! It’s for yourself, and you never know, you might find some inspiration or a few lines you can use in your next book. And then, you could take the opportunity to get even.

Take Tom Wolfe, for example. He hit back at not one but three critics, and big names too. After receiving poor reviews of his novel, A Man in Full, from John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer (who really should’ve known better), Wolfe took his time and two years later published an essay in reply. Its title pretty much says it all: “My Three Stooges.”

Image via ShutterStock.com.

 

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Read More
Confronting Bad Book Reviews
Identify Your Barriers And Achieve Your Writing Goals
Book Reviews For Self-Published Authors: What You Need To Know
Famous Writers’ Insults [Infographic]
How Writers Can Benefit From A Negative Book Review

 

Jim Dempsey

About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey has written 9 posts in this blog.

Jim Dempsey is an associate editor at Novel Gazing. Novel Gazing offers professional editing services to authors and publishers. Quote the exclusive BookBaby discount code BOOKBABY10 to receive a 10% discount on all of Novel Gazing's proof-reading, copy editing and substantive editing services.

13 thoughts on “How Writers Can Respond To Book Critics

  1. SueAnn says:

    I was just thinking about this topic today. Once I finally get the book done, it’s bound to be hated by *someone*. I need to take a few steps back, accept that it’s part of life, and write a response in a notebook, where it will not show up online. 🙂 Anger is such a scary emotion (for me) — but I’m learning how to deal with it in a healthy way.

    I *liked* this article. 🙂

  2. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    Just as you let your manuscript “percolate” in a closet or bottom drawer for weeks or months before revising and sending out, so should you let your angry response letter percolate for some time before sending it off into the public eye. A second look a week or two later may reveal that 1) you should consider the source before responding, 2) the critic’s comments don’t merit a response, 3) maybe they do and you should revisit them, or 4) you’ve moved on and it doesn’t matter anymore.

    I once lived in a area where the arts critic for the regional newspaper was famous, or infamous, for his scathing reviews of everything, from the most recently released movie to the local fourth-grade production of The Nativity Story. He even laced every review with the biggest words he could find, whether or not they made any sense in his story. People came to look forward to these reviews. The more scathing the review, the more the public wanted to go to the event or show, and the more they enjoyed it. Kind of a backfire on the critic, who was far too big for his britches.

    Agreed! Never change your style or genre or whatever to suit someone else. Learn your craft, yes, but be true to your story, to your voice, and to yourself.

  3. Jake Devlin says:

    I don’t get at all upset with bad reviews that are constructive. I did get one from a person I know that was just one word: “Boring,” in the midst of several 5-star reviews. So I’m killing her off (with a different name) in my upcoming novel, in a definitely NOT boring way. Easy-peasy.

  4. Carmen Estevez says:

    As a child at school I had to read on almost all my report cards “Does not take correction well…” and things have not gotten better with age. As a writer it is difficult to accept criticism but I know it is necessary. This article has been very helpful letting me know that a cooling down time is always helpful before taking any action. Thank you very much.

  5. Jan Benschop says:

    I like the article, especially Tom Wolfe’s delayed strike back.

  6. I’ve had a number of books published, and here’s how I respond to reviews:
    When the review is great, I agree, and think the critic is brilliant.
    When it’s bad, I think the reviewer is an idiot.

    Okay, that’s pretty simple, but it works for me.

    best — Meredith Blevins
    PS: The one thing a writer must not do is take the review to heart and let it put a damper on their writing. Don’t go there!

  7. Tricia says:

    Re: Your “The answer is a bit of both”–So true! As Rudyard Kipling put it in his poem “If”:

    “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too…”

    I think that’s the essence of how to take criticism, in writing and in other areas of our lives, too.

  8. A.J. says:

    Personally, I feel there is a little too much “political correctness” when it comes to the taboo nature of responding to a reader’s review. Note I say “reader” and not “professional critic”, because there is a distinct difference between the two. A professional critic can take a book that’s not their particular genre and critique/rate it based on its merits while a typical reader cannot do so without interjecting their own prejudices. I always find myself amazed by readers who pick up a book that’s not their choice genre and then after a chapter or two they give up, toss it in their trash file, and then purposely make a point to leave a one-star review stating the usual, “Could not finish, not my kind of book or I don’t read books in this genre”…and that’s it. How can you not respond to such blind & brazen stupidity? Just for the sake of them justifying their failure in attempting to read something they knew going in that the odds were in favor of them not liking it? If everyone rated books that way, there would be no five or four-star books, only ones and twos, with the rare possibility of a three somewhere in the mix. Plain and simple, it’s just rude. Freedom of speech allows them to say whatever they want, but that same freedom doesn’t protect them from being called out on it…which in my opinion, they should be. After all, how would they feel if they were going to a job interview and were judged solely on a handshake or the color of their shirt?

  9. Evelyn says:

    I love this article and I’m glad I never responded to some of the negative reviews I’ve gotten. I’m all up for hearing what someone didn’t like, and why. But the reviewers who attack authors work and call it crap and garbage are to be ignored. They want authors to respond so they can further spread their hate. I remember reading a review of a book I really enjoyed. And one reviewer stated, that while he didn’t like the book, he wasn’t going to bash the authors work. And leave a paragraph of (this is the lousiest piece of crap, I’ve ever read in my life. The author never made it past the fifth grade. No, just no.) You know how some reviewers do, going so far as to attack the author as well. He went on to say that he can only imagine that someone’s book is like their baby. And he wouldn’t call someone’s baby ugly.

  10. I have been given this topic thought as of late as my book enters market. I am sure while my intent may be to stay calm and collected, my feelings may run away with me at times. A book is everyone’s work of art…their baby! It is one thing to be constructively critical, but some will go way beyond with their own judgments and prejudices.

  11. Wendy says:

    Everybody’s got their opinion, but what about the reviewer whose reason for a bad review stems from completely misinterpreting the intention of the book due to their own ignorance about the subject? I published a book about potholder looms–said so in the title–and the first review I got complained it wasn’t helpful because the reviewer had bought it looking for patterns appropriate to triangle weaving–a type of weaving that most potholder looms aren’t capable of. (That would be like buying a book about driving go karts and complaining it didn’t explain stick-shifting)

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