5 Tough Tips for Surviving (and Triumphing Over) Really Rotten Book Reviews

Negative reviews of your work can cut deep. Author Pamela Jane offers five proactive measures you can take to stay strong and move forward when dealing with bad book reviews.
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Negative reviews of your work can cut deep. Author Pamela Jane offers five proactive measures you can take to stay strong and move forward when dealing with bad book reviews.

You know the feeling—the shock, the shattering pain, the sick sensation in the pit of your stomach. A reviewer has just demolished your book and you feel stunned, attacked, and ashamed.

Make no mistake; you have just been very publicly humiliated.

“Newspapers last forever! I will regret this forever!” the famous movie star, Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) cries in Notting Hill when the paparazzi snap photos of her and William Thacker, half-dressed. Thacker (Hugh Grant) responds by asking her for a “normal amount of perspective.”

But those were newspapers. One can imagine them yellowing, burning or, as Thacker suggests, lining waste paper bins.

But the cloud really is forever; the cloud is eternal.

Recently, after a blistering review of his new novel, a friend sent me an email with the subject line “I'm going to Jump off a bridge.” I knew exactly how he felt. (I also knew he was not going to jump off a bridge.) But the incident brought back the pain of a bad review I received years ago, words that seared into me like fire.

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It was my second children’s novel for Houghton Mifflin; my first book with them had sold well and received sterling reviews Now my new book was being destroyed by small, sharp stones hurled by a faceless librarian hiding in a cubby hole (I imagined). She described my main character, who I had imbued with my own heart and soul, as “extreme and poorly characterized.” As far as she was concerned, the book was better suited for – well, lining trash cans.

Over thirty books and dozens of published essays later, I have gained a normal amount of perspective regarding reviews, both good and bad. And, to think, it only took thirty-five years!

Below are five tough tips for surviving the hurt, anger, and humiliation generated by a rotten review.

And I promise it won’t take you thirty-five years to master them.

5 Tough Tips for Making the Most of Bad Book Reviews

Tough Tip #1: Fight back (in positive ways).

The cloud looks ominous when darkened by a negative review, but you too can use the internet to fight back.

I'm not, of course, suggesting that you launch a social media tirade against the reviewer—that will only hurt you. But you can take more proactive measures that focus on the positive qualities of your writing.

Many blogs review books or interview authors, and you can make your own YouTube videos or podcasts describing your book and your writing process. The opportunities are limitless, and more crop up all the time.

Tough Tip #2: Find one thing to laugh about.

I’m not suggesting you break into gales of sunny laughter while witnessing your creation being publicly ripped to shreds. What struck me as funny were the words that hurt most at the time, that line about the main character being “extreme and poorly characterized.” This brought to mind something my mother used to tell me, as a child: “You go from one extreme to another!”

If she’d thought about it, I’m sure she would have added, “Not only that, you’re poorly characterized.” Hey, I was writing about myself. It’s not my fault that I’m poorly characterized!

Tough Tip #3: Write—and don’t obsess—about it.

Madeleine L’Engle, the author of the classic Winkle in Time, considered her 30s a total failure professionally. When she received yet another rejection for The Lost Innocent, L’Engle covered her typewriter, vowed to abandon it forever, and walked around the room, sobbing.

Then, suddenly, she stopped. In her anguish, she realized she was already considering turning this moment into a book about failure.

Write about failure, rejection, or a bad review; find the story, the pathos or even the humor in it.

Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors That Earn 5-Star Book Reviews

Tough Tip #4: Remember this is just one person.

A review is the opinion of one person, albeit one who has a public forum. Maybe his dog just threw up on the new carpet, or the toilet overflowed, or your main character reminds her of her rotten ex. And maybe readers will find and love your book, despite the lousy review. (This happens frequently with films.)

Tough Tip #5: Separate feelings from action.

No matter how awful you feel, keep writing and submitting manuscripts. Don’t let your emotions dictate your actions! This rule is unbreakable.

According to research conducted on the neural circuitry of lobsters (which, surprisingly, resembles ours) the harder you fight back, the more serotonin flows through your brain, and the more likely you are to recover from setbacks, and succeed.

After my friend’s recent bad review, I dug out the rotten review of my own book from 35 years ago. Then I found the reviewer’s photo online. She really does have a face; she’s not just a disembodied knife! What’s more, she is successful; has her own literary agency now.

I’m happy to say that I’m not at all resentful towards this person anymore. That’s all in the past. My perspective now is completely normal.

But, sometimes, secretly, I suspect that she might be just a tiny bit poorly characterized.

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Pamela Jane is an essayist and the author of over thirty books, including An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story, and Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic, which was featured in The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, BBC America, and The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Her essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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