Dealing with it. The bad review.

The sky learns to write

So, it’s happened. The bad review. There are many platitudes that spring to mind about dealing with it. Peter Goldsworthy apparently said that you’re not a real writer until you receive one. Personally, I take great comfort in Isaac Asimov’s take on it.

“From my close observation of writers… they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.” Isaac Asimov

I was determined to fall into the second category since to not bleed copiously was out of the question. Looking back, I was lucky in how the review came to light as I was forced to deal with it swiftly, then push it aside and get on with my other responsibilities that day. I went to work in the bookshop Saturday morning and was greeted by my lovely co-worker Molly.  Immediately, she asked if I’d seen it. Reading the Weekend Review in the national paper The Australian is part of our Saturday morning bookshop routine. We flip to the book reviews, read them, then work out which of the reviewed texts we have on the shelves so we can swiftly find them for customers who come in wanting to buy them as a result of reading the reviews.

Molly handed it over. I skimmed it. It was devastating. It was also 10 o’clock and I had the whole shift in front of me. Molly was lovely and knew just what to say. Gavin, one of the owners of the shop showed up soon after. He’d also read it and asked if I was fine with him congratulating me on the shop’s facebook page for the achievement of having been reviewed in The Australian. My reply was along the lines of “Are you f@#king kidding me?” I certainly wasn’t seeing the upside, which was that I’d been reviewed by a national media outlet. I’m well aware of the saying any publicity is good publicity but, at this point, the review felt like a public shaming. Despite the copious internal bleeding, I kept it together, didn’t cry and managed to be the soul of book-related customer service for the rest of the shift. After work, I slunk into the newsagent and bought a copy of the paper, convinced that anyone who met my eyes already knew that I was a laughing stock.

Once home, I reread it several times and allowed myself a good cry. It was a truly terrible review, one that confirmed all my deepest suspicions about my lack of talent and fraudulent status as a writer and poet.  I’m not being overly dramatic. If you are a writer, admit it, you’ve entertained at least one of these fears at some stage in your career (I’m guessing at 3am the night after a rejection letter).

So there I was at 3am, lying in bed, trying to cry silently so I didn’t wake my husband and it struck me that I really didn’t have any choice about how to deal with it. Well, I did have a choice but one of the two options was completely unacceptable. I could let one person’s opinion of my book convince me that I shouldn’t be a writer and give up. Or I could keep writing.

To be honest, I did consider giving up. 3am is perhaps not the perfect time for weighing major life decisions. You can go head-first down the rabbit hole, entertain at length the most outlandish alternatives and there are hours before your partner wakes up, takes one look at you and forces you to admit to whatever crazy schemes you’ve been hatching in the depths of the night.

Luckily there was no alcohol in the house so I got up, made myself a stiff green tea and thought seriously about how I should deal with this bad review business.

  • Yes, I could give up. However, this would mean being that person – the one who gave up because of a single bad review. Sounds petulant, doesn’t it? Sounds like a person who has no backbone or self-respect. In fact, being that spineless, petulant person would actually be worse than getting the bad review in the first place.
  • The poet who wrote the bad review is entitled to his opinion. (Damn it.)
  • No one is universally liked and applauded for their work, so why should I expect to be? Plus, I’ve read some of the reviewer’s poetry and he writes a very different kind of experimental language poetry to my orthodox ecopoetry. So, I shouldn’t be at all surprised that he found my work clichéd and conventional. Yes, it sucked that his opinion appeared in The Australian but I’ve lead a pretty charmed life so far poetry-wise so a bit of balance will hopefully keep my feet on the ground.
  • Just because it hurt doesn’t mean it’s wrong. (Again, damn it!) In fact, I think there are several important things I can learn from that review. Some are poetry related and some are personal. Don’t get me wrong – the wound is still seeping – but I think that often as writers we only hear positive feedback from friends and colleagues. The people who don’t like our work usually just don’t buy our books and avoid our readings, so it’s extremely useful to finally hear the reasons why. This is not to say we should necessarily reinvent ourselves to suit them.  We can’t please everybody. But a little analysis of our own work from a different perspective can’t be a bad thing. You might find they have a point and your work improves as a result. I think the reviewer made some points I should seriously consider and hopefully my future work will improve as a result.
  • Fuck it. I’m just not giving up. Plus, every time I think about that damned review I can feel my skin incrementally thickening and for a writer, that’s got to be a positive thing. Let’s face it, the next literary event I attend I’m sure most of the writers there, if they even saw the review, are less likely to be thinking “I always suspected she was a terrible poet” than “thank god it wasn’t me”.

If you want to read the Bad Review (I know I’d be curious) – click here.


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