First of all I want to say this: I recognize that bipolar disorder is a serious condition that affects many people worldwide. I myself have known bipolar individuals and my heart goes out to any person truly afflicted with this condition. I realize it’s no laughing matter.
I admit it: bad reviews sometimes get to me. Over the years I’ve thickened my skin, and I know you can’t please everyone (in fact, like most writers I want to be read my millions one day and when that happens, look out—no one remains unscathed once they reach a certain level of exposure). So what I’m saying is, I get it. You don’t have to tell me to “take the good with the bad” or “toughen up” or anything else. Not because I don’t agree with you—because I DO. I just can’t always help how the pointy end of the spear makes me feel.
But I am getting better. I am consciously avoiding debate. I’m grateful for people taking the time to review my books (good or bad). I’ve always been fairly adept at listening to critiques in workshops, from my editors, and from beta readers.
I have a lot of writer friends and more than a few have heartburn with what they perceive as “one hit wonders” (reviews by “readers” that seem as if written with the sole purpose of hurting the author—so vague and incorrect sometimes that it seems as if the person never even read the book in question). Honestly, these types of reviews don’t bother me for long. Yes, they sting. But in the end I can reason them into submission. I am my own worst critic most of the time so it’s fairly easy for me to recognize legitimate criticism from that lobbed like a shit sandwich over the wall hoping for the top of the author’s melon.
But I had a review I stomached a while back that has stuck in my intestines like a strand of barbed wire since the day I read it. And here’s the twist:
It’s not because it’s a poor review. It’s not because it’s a one-star review. It’s neither. The review that bewildered me is a three-star review and half of it talks about me like I am actually one hell of a writer. Now I can almost hear what you’re thinking. So it’s a review that combines the good along with the bad?
Yes, it does. The review’s title says it all:
I wish I could consider this one of the most honest reviews in my cadre. The problem is, the “bad” things of which this reviewer accuses me are almost entirely untrue. I can take criticism of my work—I will try to learn from it—but please, be honest. The part that makes this review such an impossible pill to swallow, however, is (ironically) its smooth candy coating.
Here’s the first part of the review:
“RS Guthrie’s Black Beast is a cool, dark, edgy thrillride. It straddles genre lines ably: police procedural/supernatural/thriller, which can’t be easy. The major good guys and baddies are very well drawn – I particularly enjoyed drug kingpin/Obeah-practitioner Calypso. Guthrie treats the subject of grief (and implied survivor guilt) very well, too. Overall, where he sticks to his strengths – dialogue, action, police procedural elements – this is a ripping good yarn.”
Wow, right? What writer wouldn’t appreciate the words above? But wait, the reviewer is softening me up with seemingly harmless body blows. Here comes the right hook:
“BUT: I kept wanting to shake Guthrie’s hand and shake him by his collar simultaneously. The book is riddled with too many technical errors to count. Grammar is sometimes poor, and the book is rife with incorrect usage. Descriptions can be laughably bad. Guthrie often sounds as though he has swallowed a thesaurus and is burping up words at random.
Then there are the nonfactual facts. Samhain is not, and has never been, a celtic “God of Death.” Rather, as most people know and history bears out, it is the day of the year when celts believed the door between the living and the dead swung open. Obeah is not a voodoo priest,as Guthrie states, but is a religious practice common to Jamaica and other areas. Freud did not say that God is dead – that was Nietsche. I could go on. Playing fast and loose with common information is a defect easily prevented by a little research.”
Ouch. And I don’t mean ouch because it’s true, I mean OUCH because it’s as if the reader is suddenly talking about a different book. “Laughably bad”? “Too many technical errors to count”? Poor grammar and “rife with incorrect usage”?
(I have to profess a wicked admiration of “swallowed a thesaurus and is burping up words at random”, the fact that it was undeservedly hooked in my gizzard notwithstanding.)
But seriously, are a few examples too much to ask? I have to say, if I had such salacious examples of a writer burping up random nonsensical phrases you wouldn’t be able to STOP me from quoting! That’s like saying “I heard the most ABSURD thing today…” and then moving on to other subjects.
One twisted irony is that I never stated Obeah correlated to Voodoo — one of my characters did, and then the antagonist corrected him. (And I quote: “The Obeah have nothing to do with voodoo, I assure you,” Calypso said.)
The worst accusation of all, however, is the implication that I said Freud proclaimed “God is dead.” Why you might ask? Because she got me on that one. And it nauseates me to no end because my villain originally had Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” tattooed on his chest (I removed that part, but I typo-ed it BIG TIME when I added it back in using my protagonist’s internal monologue).
I am aghast at what I did, but I would never deny it.
The reviewer then, after flaying me, finishes thusly, kindly:
“It’s clear to me that Mr. Guthrie has talent as a writer – he has some skills that can’t be taught – but he would benefit from a professional review from an editor such as one can find at Poets and Writers or Writer’s Digest.
I hope to see more of Mr. Guthrie’s work.”
Speechless. This review honestly rendered me speechless. More than that it made me want to sit down with the reviewer and buy her a drink. I wanted to drill into the mind behind this review. She clearly thought highly of me as a writer. She also clearly thought I should be drawn, quartered, and burned at the stake. Her two other book reviews were of books by Anne Rice and Stephen King. One-star reviews, both. In fact, I actually had to admire her pith with the Rice review:
“OK, Amazon requires at least 20 words: Lame. Annoying. Pointless. Potboiler. Laughable. Absurd. Pathetic. Waste of money. Waste of time. Lackluster. Insulting. Poorly written. Feeble. Lousy. And WEAK!”
Based on that review (and her one-star for Stephen King), I tried to see the review she gave me as encouraging. Yet the splinters of her duplicity festered on, lodged not in my ego, Dr. FREUD, but rather in my neocortex (the part of the brain responsible, among other things, for spatial reasoning and logic).
Love me or hate me, dammit, but enough of this passive-aggressive horse puckey.
(I know, I know…it sounds like I’m talking about a lover who jilted me. Time to be speechless again. If you don’t have anything nice to say…right?)
Finally, if you’re wondering “why the soap box (particularly weeks post-review)?” it’s simple: I blogged about grammar and punctuation and using an editor and I immediately thought of my like-me / hate-me reviewer and her suggestion I check out “Poets and Writers” or “Writer’s Digest”. (And yes, that one stung, too.)
Seriously, though, I’ve decided to simply be quiet (now, at least), take the good with the bad, and feel gratitude for the nice things the reviewer said about my writing. Even had she not caught me red-handed with my stupendously asinine Freud miscue, I would have chosen the high road anyway, rather than debate her or ask for examples. After all, I do respect her opinion [if not her spelling of (sic) Nietsche].
Couldn’t resist. I guess my ego doth know no bounds.
Talking about Freud also helped me to realize something else: arguments can backfire.
The last thing I need is a reviewer stalking me down and putting an ice pick right through my neocortex.
The blank page is dead…long live the blank page.
Author known to use spontaneous satire, sarcasm, and unannounced injections of pith or witticisms which may not be suitable for humorless or otherwise jest-challenged individuals. (Witticisms not guaranteed to be witty, funny, comical, hilarious, clever, scintillating, whimsical, wise, endearing, keen, savvy, sagacious, penetrating, fanciful, or otherwise enjoyable. The Surgeon General has determined through laboratory testing that sarcasm can be dangerous, even in small amounts, and should not be ingested by those who are serious, somber, pensive, weighty, funereal, unsmiling, poker-faced, sober, or pregnant.)