The first bad review I ever received was the first review I ever received. It was from Publisher's Weekly and it said, basically, that not only did Fake Liar Cheat suck but that I sucked as well. It wasn't a real pleasant experience. My agent, Jennie Dunham, called me late one Friday and said, "I'm going to fax over your book review from Publisher's Weekly. You probably shouldn't read it."
"Why?" I said.
"Well, it's pretty bad. I'll fax it and if you want to read it, fine, but you don't have to. And if you want to call me afterward, I'll wait here at my office and we can talk about it."
A few moments later, the fax came curling out and Wendy picked it up and read it. "You don't want to read this," she said.
"Yes I do," I said. "I've been workshopped before, I know what it can say."
"Trust me," she said, "you don't need to read this. It's only going to make you mad."
"Let me see it," I said and Wendy handed it to me. Well, she was right. It made me mad. It wasn't a bad review, it was a terrible review. The kind of review that would make a lesser man burst into tears and call his literary agent late on a Friday night to ponder aloud if his career was already over before it even began. Fortunately, for the sake of the story, I'm a lesser man.
"People will still buy your book," Jennie assured me. "It's just one person's opinion and, really, PW doesn't carry much weight."
"Who reads it?"
"Well," Jennie said. "Librarians. Bookstore owners. Booksellers."
"So, basically, the people who order all the books?"
The problem wasn't that the book received a scathing review (and I have to believe, by the way, that someone knows who wrote it and if they told me I'd be ever grateful so that I could, you know, uh, egg their house or make up some shit in a slam book about them, or, like, totally talk about them on MySpace...), but that I didn't know how to take it. In the years I spent in writing workshops, my work typically was rather roundly praised, which isn't to say that it was uniformly great work, only that it was often better than the other work in class (there's a difference between good workshop stories and fiction that is publishable, I learned that clearly enough, and it's something I try to impart as well), so while my work was often critiqued for inadequacies in this or that or the other, it was usually accompanied by a fair level of solid praise. Here, for the first time, I was really being called out and I didn't know how to take it. Was there nothing good? No, PW said, there was nothing good.
So why do I bring this up today? Well, my sisters received their first negative review and, it appears, aren't exactly sure what to make of it, either. Of course, their reviewer is someone with a LiveJournal, which perhaps carries more weight now than PW does in some circles, but the experience looks to be the same. Just wait, I told my sister Linda, until you get an online arch nemesis, one who even anoints you with a title!
In the intervening years I've become less affected by bad reviews, which might be the result of getting less bad reviews in general and writing better books in particular, but I've also learned to value them when they critique the craft. For Simplify, the only review I received that was less than sterling came this weekend in the Washington Post, and even still it was a largely positive review...and even still, I had to tell myself not to obsess over it. An email came this afternoon from one of my favorite writers (a small thrill I hope I never get used to) telling me that he thought the review made the book sound like something he'd like to read, actually, and that he was off to get a copy. I walked around the house for the rest of the day feeling like I'd written a bestseller.