A recent interview that I completed asked a question that has come up a few times of late. Also, a forum of authors in which I participated contemplated the same thing. When another reader asked me the identical question, I decided to spend a little time on it. What is this mysterious inquiry? People want to know how I respond to reviews of my novels, both positive and negative, both from professional reviewers and from normal readers. So, here goes!
It all begins with one of the best pieces of advice that I received in graduate school. A professor emphasized to us: never, ever – never – respond to reviews. She talked in the context of being a professional historian, but I think the idea applies more broadly. Her point, with which I agree, is that you cannot win such an argument. Even if the reviewer made a mistake, was malicious, or ignorant, they can respond to you and make you look petty. Plus, a response from the writer only calls additional attention to the negative review. In very few cases have I ever seen a hardcore, important reason to respond to a reviewer. Otherwise, I take the advice to let it go. Don’t dwell on it, don’t personalize it too deeply.
Next, my analogy for a novel is to think of it as a piece of art. Once the artist finishes and hangs it on the wall or puts it out into the world, people will interpret it as they may. Some will love it. Some hate it. Some just kind of like it. As the artist, you lose control of those opinions. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, and the same goes for a novel. While it feels personal, because as a writer you poor months, years, and tons of sweat and tears into your creation, into something deeply emotional and personal, at some point you release it into the world. Opening up to that vulnerability is a little scary, but you have to brace yourself and allow it to flow. Allow people their opinions, and open yourself to the reality that you no longer control it.
In particular, that attitude helps me to deal with negative reviews. One person, or a few people, disliked what I created. Does that make it shit? Only in their eyes, I don’t have to own that. Sometimes, I may even get a helpful hint or advice from a negative review to think about in my future writing. Otherwise I just dismiss it as one individual’s reaction. Whether or not I agree, you have to go with the flow.
Sometimes, my favorite reviews are mediocre reviews. Where they liked something, but also disliked another aspect. You can really think about your writing and the process from something thoughtful like that. You see where you reached someone, but also what failed to connect with them. A lot of times it boils down to the reader’s connection with your characters. As in life, some people like a person, some don’t. The same is true here – where a reader likes the story, maybe likes one main character, but never connects with a second character. It mirrors life in that regard. I see that as part of the dance with your audience.
And, it seems rather obvious, positive reviews are exhilarating and warm my heart. When I really touch someone with something I wrote, or thoroughly entertain them for the time they spend with my novel, then it motivates to write more, and to keep at it. It feels good, warm and fuzzy. It reminds you that writing only becomes a complete process after you let readers embrace it, which feels stronger when someone liked what you created. One glowing review, if you really focus on it, can negate three or four negative responses.
Bottom line – professional reviews, goodreads reviews, wherever and from whomever reviews appear, it all goes into what makes a novel live beyond the moment it comes off the presses. And I love that part of the living document, even when it stings.