Confronting bad book reviews

confronting bad book reviews

Moby Dick was declared “dull, dreary, and ridiculous” and Orwell’s 1984 “a failure.” In literature, bad book reviews and effusive praise come with the territory. Just celebrate you are being noticed, and be sure your name is spelled right.

Every serious novelist worth their salt believes in their soul that they have written a brilliant novel – or multiple novels – in which the reader will find compelling characters engaged in deeply imagined stories that profoundly illustrate the human condition.

What every novelist yearns for is for others to be moved by their work, to be praised, acclaimed, recognized and celebrated for what they truly believe is their masterful artistic performance.

Of course, we might deny such a characterization and offer the explanation that it is the only the work itself that matters to the true artist. And while such a conviction does have the ring of truth, human vanity and the power of the ego is too deeply embedded in the psyche to be denied.

With that thought in mind, how does a novelist whose work is presented to the scrutiny of allegedly influential reviewers react to those who trash their book?

Think of the horror of being on the receiving end of such book reviews after perhaps years of composition and effort. What must this do to the author’s aspirations, vanity, self-worth and, in a practical sense, sales, career hopes and legacy?

The serious novelist believes in their gut that their work is deserving of acceptance and hopefully adulation, commendation, prizes, awards, perhaps immortality and, of course, sales.

I am reminded of the raw horror of such disdain by the experience of the novelist Theodore Weesner, who died recently and whose first novel The Car Thief, was excerpted and acclaimed by The New Yorker, Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly and cited by reviewers as brilliant and original. It was published in 1972.

He enjoyed years of prestige and received decent reviews for his other novels and years of teaching at various prestigious universities. Admittedly, he did not achieve the continued adulation and respect he had wished for, often acknowledged, after his brief spurt of literary celebrity, as a fine but largely unsung novelist.

But it was the letter he wrote to the New York Times book review after a tepid review of his novel The True Detective that illustrates the real agony of the disappointed artist and a cautionary tale of the dangers of putting too much faith in the opinion of others.

The Times Book Review, in its inimitable arrogance, published Mr. Weesner’s letter, which I will quote in full:

          “The book in question is one I worked on for more than five years and it came alive and does work—it is relevant and it is compelling … and the responses I’ve received from others have been genuine, extravagant, even passionate. Yet you chose to give it a short inconspicuously placed and—I just cannot deal with this—your reviewer did not even understand what he read. I repeat—your reviewer did not even understand what he read. And he printed it. You break my heart. You owe me much more than an apology.”

In essence, Mr. Weesner spoke for most novelists. It is the agonizing cry of all artists who present themselves naked and alone to a most indifferent and dismissive public.

There is a lesson here for all of us novelists who pursue our writing endeavors. Firstly, understand that all novelists had their share of bruises.

Here are some examples from an age where books were pervasive and did not have the technological abstractions they do today:

The Saturday Review, London cited Charles Dickens this way. “We do not believe in the permanence of his reputation.”

Le Figaro’s reviewer said of Gustave Flaubert, author of the immortal Madame Bovary, “Monsieur is not a writer.”

The eminent critic Clifton Fadiman in one of his reviews of William Faulkner’s novel called it, “The final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor talent.

The literary goddess Virginia Woolf wrote of James Joyce, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a misfire.”

The Southern Quarterly declared that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is “sad stuff, dull and dreary and ridiculous.”

And a legendary German critic cited Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks as a “worthless story of worthless people in worthless chatter.”

And this one by one of the great British literary critics about George Orwell: “1984 is a failure.”

I cannot fail to mention the opinion of the works of two of America’s greatest literary icons. The editor of Bookman said this about Mark Twain: “A hundred years from now it is very likely that of Twain’s works: The Jumping Frog alone will be remembered.” And a London critic said of Walt Whitman: “Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.”

I cite here a few examples gleaned from The Experts Speak by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky.

The lesson to be learned by anyone who chooses any artistic endeavor in today’s world where criticism is ubiquitous and mostly indiscriminate: It is a great achievement just to be noticed.

Everybody has opinions. Consensus has become a major miracle. Technology has given everyone a voice. No one can predict the future. Bad book reviews, bad opinions, insults, verbal abuse, diminishment, jealousy, frustration, along with effusive praise come with the territory. In today’s environment celebrate you’re being noticed and, whatever is said about you and your work, be sure your name is spelled right.

Besides, good reviews are not necessarily a harbinger of future success. In our contemporary world everything passes at warp speed. Here today, forgotten in a wink. I’ll go with the folks who say that investing passion and creative energy into the work is everything. The real trick is to just keep at it. Do your best and stop complaining.

Mr. Weesner had his say. Good for him.

I read it in his obituary in the New York Times, of all places.

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  1. This list reminds me of Clarke’s First Law about science and prediction – When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

    Theater and movies are not better. Fred Astaire was considered not worthy of the movies because a movie executive said “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Skinny. Balding. Dances a little.”

  2. I had quite a sticky problem with a review of my e-book, FALLING OFF THE FAMILY TREE. One reviewer on Amazon heaped praise upon my book, then proceeded to give it one star! I checked that person’s other reviews and realized that she obviously did not understand the star rating system. That one star affected my rating. I contacted Amazon and they agreed that she most likely did not understand the rating system. However, they do not contact reviewers, so I was stuck with that one star!

    That was my first novel. The lesson I learned from all the blood, sweat, and tears of writing it has led me to promise myself that I will never give an author had bad review. That old saying, “If you can’t say something nice…” is now my motto.

    • Amazon does allow you to comment on reviews. Although it’s usually not a good idea to comment, in this case it might be warranted. You might just ask her if she liked the book (as it sounds like she did) and let her know that 5 stars is good and 1 star is bad. Reviewers can change their reviews–I’ve done it myself, so I know it can be done. Maybe she won’t change it, but at least you gave it a shot.
      Good luck!

    • She may have done you a favor. It’s not unusual for readers to check out the one star reviews to see why the other reader didn’t like the book, so in this case they would see a positive review.

  3. Yep. I’ve received one really bad review and it was because the person didn’t agree with what I said in my book. It was just an opinion I had. They called me Hitler lol and said a bunch of insults using Hitler’s name. At first I was really pissed off and hurt and after a few months I just got over it. It’s unfortunate that Amazon won’t delete reviews like that (they wouldn’t delete that one, even after numerous thumbs downs). Oh well.

  4. Irving Welsh wrote Trainspotting. Someone must have read it in England and then it became a successful film. Many of us saw this hard hitting film. Objections might have come from the language or the images but not the dialogue. As a Scottish author if I write anything other than ‘Aye’ I get definite NOs. So the onomatopoeic word WHEESHT meaning ‘Be Quiet’ or ‘hud yer tongue’ meaning the same thing is strictly not allowed. Yet we allow Americanisms and biensur Mais Oui without a squeak.

    The answer is not to give bad reviews to Scottish-isms; the answer is to educate readers into the world of the authors prose.

  5. I received a 1-star rating on my most recent novel from a person I do not know. What bothered me most was that there was no clear reason given for it…only “interesting story but writing leaves much to be desired.” I commented that I appreciated the review, but would like a more specific critique so that I could work on improving the particular weaknesses she had observed. Shortly after posting my response, I mentioned it to my daughter. She checked out the negative review and recognized the person’s name as belonging to one of her patients with whom she shares some common interests. My daughter is a dental hygienist. She sent a friendly FB message to her patient concerning one of those common interests and then casually asked, “By the way, did you happen to write a review on my mother’s book?” The reviewer did not respond to the message, but within five minutes, the review disappeared! LOL!!! I suppose the reviewer decided it might be dangerous to have my daughter probing in her mouth with sharp instruments if that review remained. I checked out other reviews by the woman and found that most of her reviews were of that nature. She seldom had a positive comment for anyone, and her negative reviews were without substance…certainly not helpful criticism. There are negative people out there who enjoy keeping writers, and others, humble…as though we needed that! I appreciate helpful negative comments, but not those that seem to be random drive-by shootings. One good result they perhaps accomplish is to help us writers grow thicker skin which, I suppose, is something! :)

  6. There is a very interesting article called WHY EVEN BAD REVIEWS ARE GOOD FOR YOUR BOOK at

    I think it speaks volumes in helping authors understand that bad reviews are not always bad news and how they can add credibility to your book reviews. It also gives the impression of your book being more widely read if it has a good range of reviews from 5 stars(great) to 1 star (poor). I encourage others to read the article

  7. Lovely article, thank you. Critics could learn a lot from the old saying, ‘Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary?’ But then again, they’re critics. Some sit in the audience and others dance on stage!
    I read an inspiring quote on Anne Rice’s website recently and I think this snippet from it is worth sharing here. She says, “Ignore critics. Critics are a dime a dozen. Anybody can be a critic. Writers are priceless.” Yes, writers are priceless. Thank you, Anne.

  8. My favorite bad review included this bit about this very serious reviewer’s conversation with a dragon:

    I do not like its description of what it calls “dragons”. About halfway through this book one figures out by inference and reference to dragon body parts with which the writer seems to assume we are familiar, that these are not dragons but feathered pterodactyls with a few scales. I prefer Oriental or European classical dragons, not rocks (giant feathered birds). I love dragons, (especially the ones with which I conversed in Japan) but I did not like this book with unrecognizable feathered lizards who behaved as badly as people.

    I imagine I would not like his description of his personal dragon any better than he did mine. BTW, he was gifted a free copy.

  9. Although they sting, I am not overly offend by a one star rewiew. One, I believe they add credibility to the other reviews – see I’m not paying folks to post good reviews; and two, I am not delusional enough to think what I write is for everyone. However, what does fry my cookies is that popular site, which I deem a necessary evil for all authors, allows people who have obviously not read your books to give ratings. Let’s face it, we all know there are mean spirited troll on the site, who feel threatened by others’ success, and will launch an unprovoked attack. Although I have received just as many good ratings as bad on the site, I consider them all worthless. A rating without a genuine review attached should not be allowed.

  10. I made similar points just yesterday to a discouraged author who blogged about the lack of good and honest reviews out there with an emphasis on ‘good’. Her solution was to offer to start a review website that readers could contribute reviews to that she would then vet to “keep out the trolls” and so forth. Besides the obvious hurdles of gaining people to write reviews and gaining reader traction to such an endeavor, the idea smacked to me of something no more truthful than the opinion and conjecture that are already out there. If we delete everything that seems mean spirited and leave only the good, what do we have?

    My point to her, similar to what you’ve said here (“be sure your name is spelled right”) is that all publicity is good publicity. People are going to hate our work. We’re not being honest with ourselves as artists and with the public, our readers, if we only present them with praise for it.

    It IS a great achievement just to be noticed and that’s what I live by. I just keep writing.

  11. Since any publicity is good publicity, I’m trying to find a way to get Donald Trump to insult me. I will then demand an apology and add a snide remark about that thing growing out of his head. Trump will then demand that I apologize both to him and that thing growing out of his head. I will refuse, but each of my public statements will include a plug for my book, Cat Lady. I feel there is a great deal of free publicity to be had here.

  12. A great reminder to take reviews with a grain of salt. Although it’s tempting to think of the movie “Theater of Blood,” where Vincent Price’s character takes revenge on critics who gave him a bad review.

  13. Today I woke up feeling poorly. The morning unraveled from there. Had a few business setbacks. Then found I had received a 3 star review of my most recent book. Not terribly bad, and the reviewer made some good points…but, damn it, for most of the review, the reviewer had spelled my name wrong. Sometimes I wonder why I do this.


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