Like death, I knew it was coming, just not how or when. I had always wondered how, exactly, I would react. Would I escape into the seedy underworld of marathon video gaming? Go to bed for a week and stop taking baths? Regress into childhood? I am talking, of course, about a bad customer review on Amazon.
The two star review occurred during a five-day, free book promotion of my novel The Ghosts of Chimera. When I learned my novel had been slimed, the promotion had only been going on for about 24 hours, which meant that the reviewer would have had to consume my almost 700 page novel in a day — less than a day if she ate meals or slept, and even less assuming she did not download my book the minute it became free. Regardless, the review was like a worm burrowing through my mind, a cold, coiling, slimy thing.
But I did not, say, devour five cartons of Chunky Monkey ice cream or pull out all my hair. I kept feeling like the review had little to do with my book and in particular my experience of writing it. I reminded myself that there were those who had told me they had loved the story, and I did have one glowing review on Amazon to check the blistering one.
But what if the two star review had been my only one? There are supposedly many ways that writers can console themselves for bad reviews. Some advise “growing thick skin,” an image that seems to me not only grotesque but illogical, since thick skin feels pain just as acutely as thin skin. Others say they try to “learn from” the negative reviews to become a better writer. The problem here is that writing is subjective; what one reader hates, another reader might love; why should I give critics preferential consideration over those who love my writing as it is? It is creatively dangerous to treat book reviews as academic grades; they are not even close. Unless a critical review mentions something objective like a preponderance of typos or an inaccuracy, it would be absurd for me to “correct” every problem any reader has with my writing; trying to please everyone would fracture my point of view and render my work meaningless. Not reading reviews makes sense to me, but it is almost impossible not to see them sometimes. So how do you deal with scathing ones without becoming discouraged and wanting to quit?
What helps me is remembering the real reasons I write. Getting feedback is only a tiny fraction of what I do; the bulk of writing, for me, is sitting at my computer with a cat in my lap, sculpting ideas with words. Praise is never assured and writing is not a lucrative profession for the vast majority of writers, but my enjoyment of writing a constant. If I did not love the act of writing, there would be absolutely no reason for me to do it.
I write because I am deeply unhappy otherwise. Writing gives me a place to channel emotions that have no other place to go. Since for me the substance of my writing lies in doing it, the bad review made me think back to what was going through my head when I first began to write The Ghosts of Chimera over a decade ago. Seeking a flicker of hope inside a fog of depression, I had definitely not been thinking of what kind of reviews I would get on Amazon. At that time even publishing it had seemed remote. All I had known was that I wanted to write a second novel. I had felt creatively impoverished. I had been severely blocked and I had wanted to write something, anything that I could look at and say, “I like this.”
In the beginning stages of writing “Ghosts,” I was not only blocked; I was recovering from a recent manic episode that had left me emotionally drained; plus, I was taking a medication for bipolar disorder that I thought leeched my creativity and rendered me inarticulate. I tried to write anyway, but the voices of criticism inside me were brutal and made every word I wrote feel forced and self-conscious.
I have told this story many times, about how, on one particularly painful writing day, everything changed, but I am going to tell it again anyway. I rebelled against the critics inside my head. My feeling was, enough of this, I am going to write the way I did as a kid when I knew how to have fun, even if it means breaking all the rules, even if it means being trite, sentimental, self-indulgent, silly or all the things the professionals say not to be.
I proceeded to execute my promise with the bold and reckless freedom of one who has nothing to lose.
With all my options laid out before me, I considered a new creative direction for my novel, one that would propel me to my writing every day not with dread but with gusto. I came up with a solution that awakened my imagination. I added to my story a new character a purple monster, part fairy tale beast, part intellectual. I named him Trubble. The book is a fantasy, but there is ambiguity about what is real and what is dream. The monster becomes a kind of confidante and counselor to my 13-year-old main character Caleb, who is struggling to unravel traumas from his early childhood, yet Trubble is a monster after all; can he really be trusted?
My novel was charged by a spirit of resistance against critics, both real ones and the ones in my head that had made me too self-conscious to write. And that resistance changed everything. I began to enjoy writing again. I could hardly wait to dive into my novel each day and “hang out with” my main characters Caleb and his purple monster, and follow them around, and watch them do things and “listen to” what they said.
But maybe it is because of my “damn all the rules” attitude that, unlike most of the writing I have published, The Ghosts of Chimera appears to be a novel that readers either love or hate. I let some friends, a married couple, read an early draft. My male friend loved the book and said he was flabbergasted by the depth and intricacy of my world-building. His wife refused to give an opinion at all. Later her husband told me it was not “her kind of book.” A traditional publisher accepted my novel, apparently deeming it good enough to sell; however, my editor told me that the first part of the book was entirely “too bleak” and had few nice things to say about my novel overall; she said the beginning scenes depressed her so much she had to put the book down for three days to recover before continuing. Standing by my “bleak” beginning, I ultimately ended the book contract. My husband thinks the book is my “masterpiece” and that it is the most honest and courageous work of fiction I have ever done. A reader recently wrote to me that she loved the story and thought that it could be interesting as a series; she loved the central concept of the novel, and she thought my character Trubble was awesome (I agreed). Since there is no general agreement about whether my book is good or bad, I have to ask, what does the book mean to me?
It means a lot. The Ghosts of Chimera was the novel I was writing when the game changed for me. I went into the novel blocked and depressed, but by the end, I was so hooked on writing I could barely stop to eat supper; I had rediscovered the creative freedom I had remembered from my childhood.
Regardless of what kinds of reviews “Ghosts” has gotten, that novel freed me, but it was more than personal therapy; it was a story set in an alien world with characters I cared about, so I did everything I could to communicate my vision to others; I have rewritten and edited it countless times over a period of many years. What do I say, how do I respond to a two-star review on Amazon from someone who got my 700 page book for free and read it in less than a day? Does that mean anything at all to me? Can it? Should it?
The review makes no difference. It does not change my novel in any way, and it does not change me. I will continue, as always, to write what makes me happy. The legacy of The Ghosts of Chimera, beyond the novel itself, is everything I have written since then and everything I will write in the future. Without the turning point that the novel represents, I would still be stuttering out clever-sounding beginnings to stories I never finished. Since writing The Ghosts of Chimera, I have finished almost every story I have begun.
My purple monster did more than guide my main character through an alien world; he led me through the myriad insecurities of my own tortured psyche. It would be cowardly to turn my back on my novel now, just because of one bad review. My story gathered steam when I refused to stop catering to critics, real and imaginary. It was a good policy that has served me well, and I am going to keep it.