9780307477477I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel in stories about an aging record executive and the young woman who works as his assistant. I hesitate to read books that have collected as many awards as this one has, because I always feel I’ve failed somehow if I don’t like them. But no fear this time. I loved the wry-edged ennui, the leaping structure, the warmth and complexity of the characters—and the language. Gorgeous language.

After I’d finished, I rated it on Goodreads and browsed through to see what everyone else thought. So many one-star reviews, which leave me baffled. I understand we all have differing opinions. We each come to a novel with a unique and personal set of expectations. But one star? One star to me means the book is unreadable. Fifty Shades of silly. I don’t understand a reader screaming Garbage! at a novel that, whatever else it might be, is clearly not garbage.

There’s a big question here, related to the psychology of internet behavior and the unsettling things it reveals about us. Honestly, I don’t have the energy for that one—it’s 5am for god’s sake—though you’re welcome to bat it around. I only wonder what sort of coping mechanisms you have developed.

How do you deal with hostile forms of criticism? Do you read reviews of your work?

32 responses

  1. I don’t recall her name (it’s 6 am for me), but a few years ago I read an article by a well-known writer who hadn’t published a book, or even an article, for some years. She said she was completely unprepared for the volume of vitriol in the comment sections on the internet.

    There’s a blogger who doesn’t allow comments on her blog because, as she so aptly writes, comment sections are the back alleys of the internet. I still remember the first time I read that statement and it has stuck with me. Bullies wait in the back alleys, and bullies often pounce for no reasonable reason. That’s how I feel when I see one-star reviews, or when I see that someone has written 5 long paragraphs of how much they hated a book. If you hated it that much, I think, why did you finish it, and why are you wasting more time on it here??

    • Exactly, paragraphs or even pages of description about every single thing the reader didn’t like about the book. I think those are usually written by people who don’t read much, so they feel robbed of their time and want to invest some more as payback.

  2. This is what I’ve learned in workshops, forums, and groups:

    If criticism isn’t constructive, it’s not worth absorbing. If it’s hostile or geared for maximum damage, the reader has some major projection or transference issues that have nothing to do with the writer, who is just a shiny, accessible target. If it’s destructive, insulting, and anonymous, it’s cowardly and a waste of the alphabet. All who would have written it completely differently should be gently encouraged to write their own books.

    But don’t even get me started on the blistering, rank-killing reviews posted by people who can’t work their eReaders and decide the author is to blame. There are no printable words.

    • Agreed!

      1 star reviews on Goodreads with no comment attached are almost as bad – they come across as even more dismissive and thoughtless than misspelled entries.

    • Oh, that last paragraph. Somebody gets pissed off at Amazon or whoever and they take it out on the book? That is high-tier assholery as far as I’m concerned.

  3. I think some people use 1-star reviews to indicate that the book didn’t work for them – they’re not arguing that it’s literally unreadable, but rather that it annoyed them, or made them feel inadequate, or wasn’t what they expected it to be. It’s a knee-jerk response from the safety of the anonymous armchair, a vindictive slap at the author for aggravating them.

    Such reviews can serve a purpose though. They remind us that you can’t please everybody, nor should you attempt to. You need to find your voice, write as if nobody were going to read your book, and then appreciate the five star reviews that indicate somebody else tuned into your wavelength.

    At least, that’s what I tell myself 😛

    • You have a great attitude, Phil. And you’re probably right about the star system. It means something different to every reader, which is something to bear in mind.

  4. “How do you deal with hostile forms of criticism? Do you read reviews of your work?”

    My work is rarely reviewed. What little there has been has been positive, with at least one exception I can recall. That one seemed to say more about the writer who wrote it and the editor who published it than I could say in response to it.

  5. “it’s not up to you how people read what you write, you can only guide them so far, it’s up to them to put all the pieces together.” —–What my son emailed me this morning after reading an excerpt of my novel published online last Friday and hearing how much I take criticism to heart. He is so right.

  6. How do you deal with hostile forms of criticism? Do you read reviews of your work?”

    Well, of course I’m not in the position to have reviews, but I think Sarah said it best. What I would add is it’s hard to determine what’s valid and what isn’t. If I’m ever in the position to have work reviewed, I’m not sure I’d read anything other than what is sent to me by my agent, or the publisher. I think I’d only be interested in reading what they think is worthwhile. Maybe that’s being a chicken shit, but so be it. You know how delicate we writers are…all sensitive and whatnot. 🙂

    • Yes we are. I would imagine the Pulitzer has girded Jennifer Egan pretty well against man-on-the-street criticism, but maybe not. Maybe the one-stars suck just hard as ever.

  7. I have to remind myself from time to time that sites like Goodreads and Amazon are not about posting legitimate reviews, but about driving up numbers so they can charge more for advertising. They offer a channel for people who are rarely listened to in real life. Mixed among the sincere reviewers are all manner of people with issues who feel validated by putting others down. Of course if someone reviewed my work I’d read it, but I have to wait for that to happen before I decide whether to take it seriously.

    • I actually post reviews on Goodreads if I’m really inspired in one direction or the other. I’ve actually posted a one star review of the book, WHAT HAPPENED TO MY SISTER.” It really was that bad. I guess I could be wasting my time… it’s a shame though, b/c I do think some reviewers, like you said, intend to be honest. (like me.)

  8. This just in, from an interview with Maggie O’Farrell in the latest number of Guernica:

    “You need a lot of energy to get a novel finished. You need an ability to ignore everyone around you. It’s why I don’t read my reviews any more. I know a lot of people say that, but I really don’t read them. Will [her husband and first reader] gives me a general feeling of whether they’re good or bad but that’s it. I don’t want to be influenced as to what I write in the next book, to hear those voices in my head when I’m writing. The idea of second-guessing your reader is dangerous, trying to please some notional reader looking over your shoulder, instead of just yourself.”

  9. i dream of a day where i get to ignore bad reviews.

    until then, i’ll resort to my theory that most critics are talking about themselves more than whatever they are criticizing.

  10. When I review books I always find something good. Always. Although I don’t think I would be drawn to read a book I was bound to dislike. Harsh, hostile reviews tend to show up the reviewer, more than anything else. And a rotten, foot-stamping review can even draw valuable attention to the work. But you’re right, the secretive, troll-ridden nature of the Internet can mean that some reviews are just smug and nasty. Where does this come from? What part of us?
    Yes I do read reviews and use snippets. Bad ones I never let myself read twice.

    • I wouldn’t read the bad ones twice, either. I have a feeling they’d be like rejection letters, instantly seared in my memory.

      I hadn’t thought of the attention generated by a real stinker of a review, but of course you’re right. I’ve read books in spite and even because of a nasty review, if it’s interesting in some way or if it seems that the reader is coming at the work from an opposing point of view. (If this asshole thinks it sucks, I will surely love it!)

  11. Years ago my essays were primarily published as op-eds. It was my aim at the time to stir up bees. Not one to shy away from controversy I often stepped into the fray and took the licks regarding my opinions, rather than technique.

    I can’t even count how many people differed with what I had to say, that’s what op-eds are all about. My feeling regarding criticism became a, no problem, whatever, fuck you and the horse you rode to town on, kind of thing. When I gave up that kind of dodge-ball writing I decided that humor owns temperament. I’d rather their faces be red from laughter instead of anger.

    With what I write now I’ve learned the importance of culling through what is purposeful comment and answerable; the papers always let me answer if I want to, I seldom do. The few I rebut are respectful. Anonymous is just another name for someone that’s an asshole with no balls.

    • This is similar to the advice I gave my oldest when he was in school, dealing with homophobes and other awful human beings: find a way to be amused by them. By yourself, by the oddities of human psychology. It might not be honest, but it will get you past the moment and back to the arms of your mother and friends who love you unreservedly. Not a perfect piece of advice, but he made it through the rocky years and into the “it gets better” stage.

  12. Pre-internet, I was mailed a bad review. I read it before I knew what it was. And then I sobbed. My husband asked to see it, saying that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I thought. Short silence while he read it, then he said something like, “Wow, that’s pretty bad.”

    These days, I’d like to think I wouldn’t read reviews at all, but I doubt I could resist taking a peek if I had something reviewable out there. And then I’d probably find out (again) that I’m not as resilient about some things as I’d like to be.

    Also, it’s not like I cry all the time, but the Power Point chapter in A Visit From the Goon Squad made me tear up. I thought that book built steadily, piece by piece, and was pretty great by the end.

    • Oh Jesus, the sneak attack! The PR lady from my previous (now defunct) e-publisher never had a word for me except an email saying my book had gotten a review. And it was awful! Like, she knew it was bad and pointed me to it anyway, which, if that’s all you have to say…

      I didn’t click the link and I never emailed her back. Bite me, PR lady. (On the other hand, the man I’ve been working with at MIRA is wonderful and his emails are a pleasure. I almost feel I deserve him, having eaten my peas and carrots the first time around.)

  13. Hello. I just wanted to pop in to see how things are. It’s obviously been too long since I didn’t know about your Alice Close Your Eyes book! I’m so excited! I can’t wait to read it!
    I hope that Oregon is all you dreamed it would be. I’m still here in the desert, dreaming of Oregon…
    So glad I popped in.

    • You’d love it here, Rey. We’re actually creeping gradually north and have landed for the time being in Lacey, WA. (My oldest is living in Seattle, so we moved in order to see more of him.)

      I’m at my desk in front of a big window, watching the fog drift by. It’s so thick I can hardly see the pine-tops.

      Love to all of you.


  14. The reality is that far too many unhappy people try to compensate by making others miserable too. The good news is that the majority of the meanest, most antagonistic people I know are not avid readers. I guess we writers can at least be thankful for that. Better that they simply keep their nose out of joint rather than in a book.

  15. I haven’t had much hostile criticism. Many people have disliked my writing, but I haven’t met much overt hostility (knock on wood). My experience online has been extremely positive. Good Squad was great, wasn’t it? I really must read something else by her.