Negativity and Truth

The brilliant and multiple award-winning editor Gardner Dozois once advised a group of aspiring writers including myself to “pay no attention to reviews,” and added that “the first thing a writer needs to do is develop a thick skin.” Now, ten years later, with a moderately successful book (Aegean Dream) under my belt and another one nearing publication, I see just how right he was.

A couple of days ago, googling myself and my book as I periodically do to see if there are any new reviews out, I stumbled on a thread in a forum for expats living in Greece. Curious, I had a look.

The thread began well enough, with the first poster plugging Aegean Dream, saying it was both a good read and should be required reading for those planning to uproot and move to another country. A few posts on, though, another poster, who was currently reading my book, had a harsher take, complaining that my naïveté in moving to Greece on the basis of what he considered minimal research was “grating” on him.

I’d come across a similar opinion—only much less tactfully phrased—some months ago on another expat forum, and for a moment, it stung. I considered a reply, then immediately set that idea aside. The thing is, that once you publish, or offer up any work, artistic or otherwise, for public consumption, you expose yourself. People have opinions. They have axes to grind and—like you—insecurities of their own; sometimes they’re right, and other times  not. In these particular instances, I told myself that (i) it’s always easy to second-guess others, and (ii) I actually agree with the poster, and address his very point openly about halfway through the book

Now, Aegean Dream is a nonfiction work. And—because of the still-present stigma concerning self-publication (I’m technically more ‘Indie’ published, since Panverse, though I own it, had published several volumes by others)—hasn’t had the benefit of a single traditional review despite the fact that it’s already outsold several Booker prize winners. All the reviews I’ve received are on Amazon, Goodreads and a few expat websites, and all are generally good, but not a single pro reviewer has touched it.

But if you’ve written fiction, and/or been traditionally published (as some of my own short stories have), you’re more likely to find yourself traditionally reviewed—and those reviews can be very tough, and will hit home. If you’re already insecure about your writing, you may want to avoid reading reviews altogether, or have someone you trust just pick out the good ones for you. If your skin is a bit thicker, you’ll probably decide that in the end these are just opinions and no more. A copy of that wonderful little volume, Pushcart’s Rotten Reviews and Rejections, can go a very long way to soothing a bruised ego at these times. And, of course, there’s always drink!

Once you’ve licked your wounds and run out of good Anglo-Saxon words to describe your detractors, the professional—and I’m assuming professionalism is what we’re striving for—response is to get on with the next book or story as if none of this had happened.

For me, the only thing that matters is truth. Your truth is the way you see life, your characters, the human condition, and all that matters is getting that on the page. You can’t control what people think or say, and that really needs to be secondary. Making money needs to be secondary. Your business—my business—is to tell the story without timidity or coyness. Timidity never won awards, nor did bland reviews. Some of the most successful works in the canon have been the most controversial and received as much vitriol as they have honey.

My own upcoming novel, Sutherland’s Rules, is one I expect to take a fair bit of flak for, though I hope that an equal or greater number of readers and reviewers will enjoy it. A thriller touching on issues including old age, sex, drugs, freedom, terrorism, and our modern surveillance society, it’s bound to hit some nerves. Should I care? No. I’m writing what I want to write about. I believe I’m writing truth, writing the world and my characters as they are and as it is. I told the truth from start to finish in Aegean Dream, and that truth included being entirely honest (which many reviewers have favourably commented on) about my own failings as well as detailing the appalling, toxic corruption that we encountered among Greek lawyers, bureaucrats, and even police in our attempt to settle in that country. I believe the main reason that Aegean Dream has been, and continues to be, successful is precisely because of that truth.

Negativity also comes at you from people, including friends and family, who don’t believe writing is a real job—and it may well not be for everyone: many will fail, just as they do at acting, accountancy, and the bar. I think the best way to deal with this sort of negativity is to allow it to temper and toughen you to deal with the reviews and criticism you’ll face when you’re published.

So work on that thick skin. If you must read reviews, make sure you have the strength and resilience to shrug them off and not let them sting for more than an instant. Write what you want to, not what you think the market, or your agent, or your publisher wants. In many cases, those things may well align anyway, so no worries—everybody wins. But if your primary concerns are people’s good opinions and making money, well, you’re probably in the wrong business.

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8 Comments

Filed under Material World, Writing

8 responses to “Negativity and Truth

  1. I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for player reviews for games I’ve worked on (they’re pretty hard to find, when most people focus on areas like gameplay or graphics rather than story and dialogue). It’s a different audience, of course, and often they’re thrilled just to find an engaging story at all. Unfortunately, since I’m not writing for myself but for a company, I do have to stop and analyze the bad reviews, even though they often come down to personal taste or are about something that we wanted to change anyway, but couldn’t for technical or other reasons.

    Definitely agree about not replying to reviews, good or bad. A policy where I work (I’m not on the community team, after all), and one I intend to carry through when I have books of my own out.

    • Interesting points you make about game reviews. Yes, I can’t imagine most gamers ever think about the writing that goes on behind the scenes, or that they’d know/be consciously aware of superb from adequate dialogue; OTOH they’re definitely going to tell you about graphics and gameplay. As for personal taste–yup, one can’t (nor should one) argue with that. It’s a big dealmaker or breaker in publishing too, and an imponderable: a lot of editors won’t be able to tell you exactly why they chose one story and rejected another–it’s certainly not just a quality/good v bad writing issue. Same with literary agents. Same with readers.

  2. Hi Dario, another nice post. Thanks for sharing. Personally, I don’t know of any writers who have failed their “bar” test (‘hic’) 🙂 Negative comments are a big downer, but I feel it’s important to stay out of the various forums where readers give feedback, (slanderous, or troll-like behaviour discredits the whole forum, and it’s up to the moderators to take care of that), unless you’ve been invited to the forum, or, of course, it is your own blog/site. I know that there are many writers who feel the opposite and take an active, and often combative, attitude towards facing up to unfavourable feedback. I’d rather — as you and Gardner suggest — work on building a tough outer shell, and not to be distracted. Cheers! Lyn.

    • Lyn, you’re right. I was very tempted to dive into the fora I mentioned, but (for once in my life, LOL) somehow found the good sense not to. People are entitled to their own opinions, and to do so would seem defensive. The only time I have engaged, and strongly, was when a reviewer who appeared to have a strongly PC agenda suggested I should be careful to observe a gender quota of authors in my anthology. That drove me batshit (the reviewer was (i) wrong in that she’d misinterpreted a name in the antho as male when it was female, and (ii) it’s just submissions and the luck of the draw). But in my own writing? Nah, I can take it. Hey–you were there when Gardner told us that! 🙂

      • I was indeed (although I find it difficult to believe it was 10 years ago!) and it is definitely one of those pieces of advice that is easier to hear (or say) than do. Every new writer I’ve come across has ownership issues. I think the immediacy of the internet makes it even harder, particularly for the indie, because of those all-important rating stars. *sigh* It’s a tough path.

      • It takes time, and one has to ‘accentuate the positive’. And most of all, write that next story/book, and the next, and… It’ll build. Just googled SLEEPING DRAGONS on Amazon: I need to give you a review, girl, ’cause that is one awesome story. Here’s a statistic, FWIW: average # of reader-to-review ratio on Amazon? 300:1 (ballpark. Emerging numbers I’d seen quoted around 400:1, my own experience with Aegean Dream right on 300:1). LOL.

  3. Noel Hoffmann

    So glad to read this post! I just saw people’s comments on some youtube video on how to juice your favorite vegetables and couldn’t believe the caustic/cruel remarks. I mean, its vegetables for heaven’s sake! What a bunch of vicious yahoos. Thanks for posting this!

    I guess its true. Those who can’t…criticize.

    • Thanks, Noel! 🙂 Yeah, YouTube is the absolute worst. I try not to look at the comments, and wish they’d just disable them altogether, just have a ‘like’ or ‘unlike’ button. As you say, people will get vicious over the most trivial things, and the racism on there is beyond belief. I’m endlessly dismayed at the anger and rage that’s out there, and sometimes it feels like a fulltime job just keeping it from sticking and dragging me down into the cesspool.

      Better people than I pity these sorts of people. I’m… not that generous 😉

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