People sometimes ask me: what’s the toughest thing about being a writer?
It’s not the writing itself. That’s mostly fun. And when it isn’t fun, it’s at least interesting and challenging. Publishing is harder. Writing endless query letters, months of waiting, constant rejections—not great for the self-esteem. Then there’s the marketing, the social media requirements, the blogs, the endorsements, the sales, all that stuff I’m really bad at. But even those things pale in comparsion.
No, the hardest thing, the absolutely worst thing, the thing that makes me want to quit writing and become a plumber, is…
Wait for it…
One star reviews.
I don’t mind the critical reviews. They can be quite thoughtful and helpful. But the one-stars are just plain mean. And I do mean MEAN. The one-stars are the bullies on the playground. The haters. The trolls who prowl the internet searching for someone to destroy just for the fun of it.
Well, maybe I’m over-reacting. I’m being too sensitive. Probably. But still. That’s how it feels. When I get a one-star, my day is ruined. I’m so distraught I need to take a Xanax and go to the mall.
I published an historical novel a few years back called Hammer of God. I worked on that book for over twenty years. It was my heart and soul. It’s gotten only a few reviews, mostly positive or at least kind. But there’s a couple of doozies. One of the one-stars gave the book a one word review: “boring.”
All those years of work, of sweat and tears, of dreaming and hoping. Of countless hours spent in the library (before the internet was invented) researching. Writing at least a dozen drafts. Trying to get it right.
Slayed by a single word.
Yeah. That hurts.
I go through the whole mantra every time: I’m a bad writer. I suck. I need to quit writing and be a plumber. At least then I would serve a useful purpose in the world.
And then I want to write back to the one-stars and say, “You’re wrong! You’re so wrong! Did you even read it?”
We writers are by nature insecure. Because we really never know if we are any good. We are constantly amazed when someone genuinely likes something we’ve written. But thrust into a pit of despair when they don’t.
It helps me to know I’m not alone. Famous authors have gotten plenty of scathing reviews too. Here’s a few examples:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: “Dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion” (New York Times)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: “There is not in the entire dramatis persona, a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible.” (ATLAS)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville “… the book is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. Mr. Melville’s Quakers are the wretchedest dolts and drivellers, and his Mad Captain … is a monstrous bore.” (Charleston Southern Quarterly Review)
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman “… it is impossible to imagine how any man’s fancy could have conceived such a mass of stupid filth, unless he were possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love.” (The Criterion)
O Pioneers by Willa Cather: “Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.” (Vanity Fair)
Book Riot did a piece on imagining famous authors reading their one-star reviews on Jimmy Kimmel. Sounds like good therapy for the rest of us.
So now I feel a little better. But only a little. Here’s the thing: famous and successful authors have been vindicated by massive book sales, big prizes or elevation to “classic” status. But for us unknown authors—struggling to sell a few books—the public pillorying can be devastating. Because what if they’re right? What if the one-stars are the only ones telling the truth? What if those reviews are the only ones people read?
Okay, time to get a grip.
I spent some time reading blog posts on the Insecure Writers Support Group, which defiantly declares, “Let’s rock the neurotic world.” I’m glad these people exist.
There’s another great blog on SurlyMuse, reviewing one-star reviewers. The best defense is a good offense.
Derek Haines from Just Publishing Advice shares some one-stars he’s received, along with this excellent advice: “Just have a laugh, or a quick little cry, and be thankful that someone went to the trouble of writing a review of your book.”
Scott Berkun just lays it out: “So what if it’s bad? So what if no one likes it? So what if you read it and don’t like it yourself? So what so what so what so what. SO WHAT?”
I’m really thankful for my own writers’ group. We get together once a week to whine…I mean write. I’d be lost without these wonderful, wise women. I asked them to give me a metaphor for a one star review.
T: “Like kicking a puppy after getting hissed at by a cat.”
M: “Like dressing your baby up in her fanciest dress for pictures, and then just as you sit down she lets loose an exploding-diaper poop all over it.”
So it’s really all about perspective.
A one-star review is not a knife in the heart. It’s more like a punch in a gut. It really hurts at first, so bad you can’t even breathe. The next morning your stomach is still sore, but you realize you will live. So you carry on. With one hand over your gut, just in case.