Caroline O'Donoghue: The List - four thoughts on reviews

Caroline O'Donoghue: The List - four thoughts on reviews
Columnist - Caroline O'Donoghue in London.

Reviews are a thorny beast. Picture your last performance review at work. Now imagine that your performance review isn’t being carried out by your line manager, but a total stranger.

Now imagine thousands of strangers, all commenting on your performance, and all of these comments are available to the public and occasionally printed in the local paper. That’s kind of what reviews feel like. You have to constantly remind yourself, as an author, that reviewers – whether they are a blogger, an Amazon review, or a big-name journalist – are responding to a specific piece of work, and not to you.

1. This counts for both criticism and praise. Sometimes one can wreck your head as much as the other. I have known writers who have been praised so extensively for a specific element of their work (say, how they write about their personal life) that they feel totally hemmed in and suffocated by it. 

They feel as though they have to write about their personal life forever, or worse, that they have no stories left to tell because they have already shared their one dramatic tale. 

Dealing with negative critique at least gives you something to grow from; positive reinforcement, while lovely in the moment, can turn artists from wildly unpredictable beasts to puppy dogs learning to sit for a treat.

Then, after years of sitting on command, the pushback will come: “So-and-so is mining their childhood AGAIN? Haven’t we heard that one already?” The writer, at this point, will be deeply hurt and confused. 

“But you LIKED my mad childhood!” they’ll say, then declare all reviewers as ‘haters’, and never take a note again.

2. ‘Haters’ is another word you have to be careful of. When an author friend gets a bad review, my immediate tendency is to defend them like they’re my eleven year-old daughter getting bullied at a sleepover. “They’re jealous!” I’ll coo. “They wish they were you!” 

It’s much harder to just say “well, maybe they just didn’t like it” and to leave the sentence hang there. The temptation to add “because they obviously have no taste” is huge. A few years ago I got a fairly harsh review in one of the Sunday papers, and while the review itself was difficult to read, what was far harder was my friends and family trying to comfort me about it. 

Criticism is one thing; pity is quite another.

It makes you feel like someone who isn’t fit for the real world, and has to be covered in cotton wool. I decided I would never look for sympathy in this matter again when someone said “they have to run one negative review every week, and they draw lots to see who it’s going to be.” It felt better to be a criticised author than one who thought opinion was decided by fate.

3. I’m releasing my second book, Scenes of a Graphic Nature right now. 

In seven months, my third, All Our Hidden Gifts, will be out: it’s going to be a straight year of newspaper and Amazon reviews for the former, then skipping over into “early reader” feedback and author blurbs for the latter. 

From here on out, hearing what people think of me will be basically unavoidable, and while it’s impossible to stop caring completely about reviews (anyone who tells you they don’t care at all is lying) I have found a mantra. 

“For people who like this kind of thing; this is the kind of thing that they like.”

It’s a quote from Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and I find it enormously comforting. It comes in handy when I read both bad and good reviews of my work. When someone loves the book, it feels neutral: ah, they must like this kind of thing. When someone doesn’t like the book, it also feels neutral: ah, they must not like this kind of thing.

4. I think this kind of neutrality about criticism would benefit everyone, to be quite honest. As everyone goes back to work and back into an environment of clashing personalities, altered expectations, and in some cases (gulp) pay cuts, it’s easy to see how the ‘how-are-ya-gurl’ atmosphere could descend into us giving fairly scathing reviews of one another. “I missed going to the office in the morning!” may rapidly become “Jesus, Lorna would want to get her head out of her hole.”

As someone who has given and taken a lot of criticism, I have this advice. 

One: keep your critique to a description of what you’re seeing, not what you think you’re seeing.

Two: always sleep on a negative piece of criticism before responding to it. 

And three: if it makes you feel better, well… they’re probably just jealous.

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