I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism since the news of Roger Ebert’s death, and about the lessons we in writing and publishing can learn from his amazing career. His passion for the films he liked inspired generations of young filmmakers to seek that “thumbs up.” He could also strike a low blow better than anyone else—he famously said of 1998’s Armaggedon: “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.” (Read more great examples here.) That kind of witty critique is hilarious—unless it’s directed at you.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
When your book debuts, first will come the gushing reviews—it wouldn’t have been published, or gained popularity as a self-pubbed title, if there weren’t a lot to like. But the sad truth is that if your book is in the public realm, sooner or later you will receive a negative review. One that cuts to your very soul.
So what do you do next? I suggest framing the positive reviews and hanging them around your desk. Smile at them; give them a wink and a coy wave now and then. How you deal with the negative ones depends on your level of creativity—and hey, you’re a writer, so the sky’s the limit! Crumple them and use them as cat toys (you know how ferocious Fluffy can be), roll them up and smoke them in your incense burner, or use them to protect the carpet while toilet-training your puppy. But there are two things you should never do. The first is to respond to them publicly—even your most loyal fans will be turned off, embarrassed, or appalled, depending on the tone of your rebuttal; it’s just not professional. The second is to pretend they never happened. Use bad reviews—let them fuel your desire to become even better. The most dangerous thing that can happen to a writer is complacency.
Critics stake their reputations and their livelihoods on strong convictions. Roger Ebert knew what he had to say wouldn’t please everyone. He said it anyway, and we respected him the more for it. As an author, you must pour that same courage and brutal honesty into your work. Your ability to do that—more than any review—will be the measure of your success.
What do you do to move forward after rejection or criticism, whether to your published novel, manuscript, or query letter? Please share your advice and stories!