Dealing with reviews

After the Booker judge lambasted reviewers, and my own recent reading of Simon Gray’s excellent memoir The Year of the Jouncer, my advice is – don’t. Just don’t deal with them. Unless you have the hide of The Terminator, the self-belief of a TV evangelist and the waterproof feathers of a duck, you’re bettering off not knowing. I know this is provocative but I mean it.

Look at it this way:

1 – the reviewer isn’t writing the review to help you, but to help the buying public. A review on that basis will almost certainly sting at some point (often a point where you had no input anyway, but that won’t stop it stinging believe me) and won’t improve your writing because that’s not its purpose (I know, I review for several places, sometimes even under my own name!)

2 – If you read any food writer’s commentary you’ll find that they loathe certain foods with a passion (eg white chocolate, pineapple fritters from the chinese takeaway etc – okay, Nigel Slater is an exception to this rule) which – oddly enough – are the very foods that an extraordinarily high percentage of the population consider to be their favourite and illicit treats. What does this tell us? Simply that there is one rule for writers about food and another for consumers of food and the same people who love to watch chefs on TV eat the very foods they castigate. In the same way there’s one rule for book reviewers and another for book readers and if you confuse the two you may end up writing for reviewers rather than readers.

3 – Your publisher thought the book/story/poem/play was good enough to run with. Why damage your relationship with them by letting a reviewer stand between you? Because – be honest here – if the reviewer says it wasn’t good enough, who are you going to blame for letting you go ahead? Yup, the very people who’ve helped you get this far; agents, editors and publishers. Doubt and blame can corrode any relationshop, but especially a commercial one based on risk. You have people you trust who advise you on your writing, why put your self esteem in the hands of a stranger who may not have your best interests at heart and certainly isn’t thinking about your relationship with your publisher when he or she writes about your work. Your publisher will read the reviews, but that’s another story – their job is to suck it up and move on. Make sure you tell them you don’t want to know, not the bad ones, nor even the good ones, you just don’t want to know.

4 – What you don’t know can’t hurt you nearly as much as what you do know. If your mum rings and says you had an okay review in the Guardian (or the Go-Kart Quarterly, come to that) thank her nicely and say you’d rather not know right now as it might distract you from what you’re working on. Your reviews soon become old news for everybody except you and if you can learn to live in ignorance of them, you can spare yourself a lot of pain for some uncertain pleasure.

And what brought all that on? Thanking my lucky stars that I don’t write plays – because the way Simon Gray describes attending First Nights as a writer almost brought me out in a rash. The mixture of shame and embarrassment he describes, the horror of hearing his words spoken from the stage, the second-guessing of the critics in the audience … the depiction is enough to give most average-skinned writers nightmares.

Like Simon Gray I’ve had the odd experience of having a friend ring me to urge me to read a review saying ‘You’ll love it’ only to obtain the damned thing and find out that it was less than flattering. So reviews can damage friendships as well as psyches. As a writer, I suggest you do without them if you can.


  1. Emma Darwin
    20th October 2007

    You’re so right. As you say, the reviewer’s responsibility isn’t to us, it’s to the reader and to the book.

    But it’s also because we’re all too thin-skinned for our own good: maybe it’s a necessary condition of being a writer. Even when a review is basically good, the occasional less-than-good comment, which is almost inevitable, seems to glow like the spot on the end of your teenage nose just before the party. Which is perhaps why friends will kindly send reviews without seeing the negative things which are so agonisingly visible to us.

  2. Kay Sexton
    23rd October 2007

    Excellent points, Emma. That’s why it’s so important for a writer to have readers they know and can trust to be honest, rather than relying on commentary from strangers and those who are not responding to the writer as the creator but to the potential reader. I love that acne image – it’s exactly right for the way we respond to reviews!

  3. Charles Lambert
    25th October 2007

    An artist friend (OK – Giuseppe, my partner) has the most extraordinary capacity to only remember, or take seriously, negative comments about his work. A dozen people can go wild with enthusiasm and the thirteenth say something slightly lukewarm, and that’s the only thing he’ll hear. And dwell on. And never forget.

  4. Kay Sexton
    26th October 2007

    Guiseppe is not alone – I think a good 80% of people are capable of only remembering the negative comments. The rare 20% who can remember the good ones too, or who forget both (I’m in the latter category) cope much better with rejection and reviews than the rest.

  5. Nik's Blog
    31st October 2007

    What a good post. And useful too; I’ve just had a bit of a stinker of a review and have been cheered by reading this again.



  6. Kay Sexton
    31st October 2007

    I’m sorry to hear that Nik – but I think everybody does get those rotten reviews. Remember, the reviewer may very well be somebody you’d have HATED to have pleased! I always envisage that the reviewer is a girl who bullied me at school, writing under a pen name just to try and get at me again, and that puts any bad review I do happen to come across in perspectvie.


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