I try not to read reviews of my own books, especially when they appear on sites where anyone at all can express an opinion. Although an author develops a thicker skin as each new book is published, her hide is not so impenetrable that negative feedback simply bounces off. Bad reviews, professional or amateur, still hurt.
But then, shouldn’t a writer take readers’ opinions on board for future reference? Shouldn’t she be robust enough to deal with the tough love that reviewers dish out? How can we ever improve if we don’t let people tell us what we did wrong?
Writing is a journey that lasts our whole lives, and on that journey there is always something more to learn. We can keep on improving our craft, developing our storytelling, trying out new techniques and polishing the old ones every day until we die. I seek feedback actively, from my critiquing buddies while the manuscript is in progress, and from beta readers when it’s finished. If their advice works for me, I act on it. Even so, I’m never 100% satisfied when a book is done. That can make posting on Writer Unboxed a challenge, since the WU community loves meaty craft posts including ‘how to’ writing advice!
Sure, we learn from our mistakes, in life as in writing. But the place to go for useful advice is not Amazon or Good Reads reviews. Nor will we find it in emails sent to us by readers keen either to praise without reservations or to list every way we disappointed them. Why not?
Firstly, the people who comment in this way are not seasoned professional reviewers. They are protected by the anonymity of the internet, and they are expressing a personal opinion, no more. Regular bloggers are a bit different – many write well, have background in the field and argue their points logically, supported by examples. I still avoid reading their opinions on my work. Too much feedback is a dangerous thing. It can eat away at a writer’s confidence and kill her passion for the next project. At its worst it can paralyse creative endeavour. Besides, the book that’s being reviewed is already out there. It’s the next book that needs me, and I need my self-belief so I can get on with writing it.
What about professional reviews, the ones in the respected journals or on highly-regarded review sites? Those I do often see, because my editors draw them to my attention. If they were uniformly negative in their comments about one of my novels, or if a lot of them were critical of the same aspect of a particular book, that would give me pause for thought. But ultimately, the artistic decisions I make about my work come only from me (and a little bit from my editor.) I have a story to tell, and I tell it with what I believe is the best combination of craft and imagination for that particular story.
Seer of Sevenwaters was well reviewed in mainstream publications. One or two made comments about slowish pacing in the earlier part, or thought it was too heavy on back story. I thought there was some truth in those comments and was not upset by them. Feedback from the vast majority of readers was also positive. That included some analytical and well-supported discussion, especially from readers who were moved by the elements of illness and healing in the story.
But a few readers were infuriated by the book. They didn’t pick on technical aspects of the writing, such as my choice to use dual first person point of view or present tense, but took issue with the plot. Seems my female protagonist, who had appeared as a child in previous Sevenwaters novels, made some life decisions these readers thought (a) sent a message of disempowerment to young female readers and (b) were not true to the way the character had previously been portrayed. There was a clear expectation that I would read and digest the opinions and take them on board for future novels.
My policy these days is not to defend my work online. Sometimes I have no choice but to read reviews and discussions because people send them directly to me and I am too polite to ignore them. I could answer the criticisms point by point, explaining why I wrote the story the way I did. But that would consume time and emotional energy that I prefer to channel into writing the next book.
Neil Gaiman once said something along the lines that a great percentage of a book is created, not by the writer, but by the reader. Each reader brings his or her own imagination to the story. What each reader sees and understands is different. And if a reader has a sufficiently different mindset from mine, she may not understand why I wrote that novel the way I did. If my story did not work for her, on some level it failed. But if I had written the story the way she wanted, I would not have pleased all those readers who were moved and entertained and delighted by the story I did write.
NOTE: Please keep comments spoiler-free.