Friday, 26 August 2016

Growing a second skin – or dealing with book reviews

Today I read a bad review of one of my books. Well, it wasn’t that bad. It was still 3-stars and it said I had written about an interesting time period and I had handled the mystery element well. But it also said the narrative was flat and the dialogue awkward and stilted. Sigh.

I knew I shouldn’t have read it. When I saw the three stars I knew it would be a mixed bag; I should have just moved on. But it’s like a car crash; you’ve just got to look, just to see that no one’s that seriously hurt … haven’t you? Well, apparently not. Some writers claim that they consider reviews of absolutely no consequence whatsoever:

“A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.”  Iris Murdoch

I wish I felt the same Iris; you’re obviously made of stronger stuff than me. But I am trying to grow that second skin, honestly …

I know some writers who never read their reviews. Or claim not to. I am not one of them. I do like to think I can learn from them and if sufficient people are saying the same thing – eg my dialogue is awkward and stilted – then perhaps it is and I should do something about it. However, I should think that my editor would have told me that before the book was published …

So the flip side is: what is written is written and no review, good or bad, will change it. Neil Gaiman has some wise words for us:

“If you make art, people will talk about it. Some of the things they say will be nice, some won’t. You’ll already have made that art, and when they’re talking about the last thing you did, you should already be making the next thing. If bad reviews (of whatever kind) upset you, just don’t read them. It’s not like you’ve signed an agreement with the person buying the book to exchange your book for their opinion.”  Neil Gaiman

Can authors really reach this level of ‘I don’t give a damn’? Or do they just say that in public and do the voodoo doll thing in private? I have a sneaky suspicion JRR Tolkien was of that ilk:

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”   J.R.R. Tolkien

Another good piece of advice I’ve come across is from Stacia Kane (yes, I had to look her up too).

“Authors, reviews are not for you. They are not for you. Authors, reviews are not for you.”   Stacia Kane

She’s right. Reviews are there to help other readers decide whether or not the book is the right kind of thing for them, not to make the author feel better about themselves; we have chocolate, wine and devoted pets for that [replace with your own vice or sycophantic fan as appropriate].

And finally, as this is the blog of the Association of Christian Writers, I should end on a spiritual thought:

Bad reviews are good for the soul. They expose your fears, insecurities and pride. So I suppose we should be grateful for them. They help put you and writing in perspective. Don’t they … don’t they … oh for heaven’s sake, just pass the chocolate.

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series are available from SPCK. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series, is published by Lion Fiction, the second, The Kill Fee, will be coming out in September . Her novel The Peace Garden  is self-published under Crafty Publishing


  1. I don't belueve any writer/creative person is immune to negative criticism. Some people are just better at pretending they are. Underneath - immediately underneath - that thick skin is the raw, cringing layer of desperate need for a positive stroke. It's that sensitivity that is the oxygen of creativity.,

  2. I know I'm far too sensitive when it comes to criticism - and not just about my writing. My first instinct is always to rush to show the other person why they're wrong, although as I'm also fearful of confrontation, this usually ends up as an internal diatribe (which is probably a good thing!). It's helpful to know that others struggle with this, too. Thanks for sharing, Fiona. xx