If you’re putting your writing out into the world, you’re going to get reviews. Maybe not in newspapers, or even from the woman on Goodreads who’s determined to start every single review with “I wanted so much to like this book,” but from your MFA workshop, your college professor, your brother, the graduate student who came across your short story in a lit mag and decided to pick it to pieces online, and many others. And for almost everyone ever, some of those reviews are going to hurt a bit. Even if they’re “good,” and quotable, and generous. It’s a bit like standing up in front of twelve judges in your bathing suit and being given an A-. You’re still going to care more about the minus than the A. You’re still going to feel weirdly violated by the whole process.
I’ve been through reviews once, and am about to head to the gallows again in July, when my second novel appears. Well, actually—and realizing this was the existential crisis of my week—quite a lot sooner. Pre-publication reviews in places like Booklist or Publishers Weekly could either make or ruin my year at any moment, and online reviews of advance copies, though usually insignificant in the larger scheme of things, are bellwethers of a most terrifying variety.
The key to survival, as in any onslaught, is to build up your defenses first, and to choose your battle plan carefully. You basically have six options, detailed below. (Please note that none of these will defend against your cousin’s wife’s thinly veiled insults in the middle of your dinner party. But they work pretty well against Kirkus Reviews.)
Rent a cabin in the woods. Do not get the internet hooked up. Have someone go through your snail mail with a black marker, redacting all phrases like “Yeesh, so sorry about the Toronto Star.”
Upside: Low carbon footprint.
Downside: Well, now you’re in the woods with no wifi.
Live in denial:
Pay someone to tell you all your reviews are glowing, superlative. Have this person sit on the end of your bed and “read” you the part where Michiko Kakutani wonders what people are going to aim for now that “the title of Great American Novelist has been so decisively claimed.”
Upside: Bliss, contingent on capacity for self-delusion.
Downside: Possible surprise when Pulitzer committee overlooks you. (Jealousy, no doubt.)
Embrace the negative:
Two words: bingo chart. When you complete a row, you get to insist that your friends take you out for a pity party. You can show your chart to the bartender and try to swing a free drink.
Alternately: You get ten points every time your feelings are hurt. When you have three thousand points, it’s time to get a puppy!
Upside: Puppies and free drinks.
Downside: Bathing in cesspool of negativity. Might destroy soul.
Does the review call your book an “occasionally skilled but ultimately tedious story from a once promising writer, one that fails to deliver on its own inventiveness and ambition”? No it doesn’t! It calls it a “skilled… story from a… promising writer. Inventive… and ambitio[us]!” Straight to the back of the paperback with that one!
Upside: Lemons to lemonade! New art form! Fun!
Downside: Kinda douchey.
Spend the next year creating hundreds of fake online personae to argue with opinionated bloggers and vote down people’s Amazon comments. Did ElaineBookloverLady76 call your short story collection “unfocused” on Goodreads? Get on there and out her as a communist! Imply that she’s taking bribes from that girl whose boyfriend you stole in high school! Insult her avatar!
Downside: Spiral of despair; you’ll never write again.
The reviews pass above your head like clouds in a summer sky, unheralded, unfeared, insignificant. Understand that being reviewed means that you’re being read, which was your dream all along. Feel gratitude for the people who took time not only to read your book, but to think about it deeply. Pour yourself some more herbal tea. You feel nothing but love.
Upside: Everlasting peace.
Downside: I mean, who are you kidding? The drugs will run out eventually.
Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?