A common topic/question among writers is, how do you handle bad reviews/negative comments on articles and stories that you’ve written. I’ve actually been waiting for my The Great Gatsby review at HTMLGiant to go up before posting this and I’m glad I did as I wanted to incorporate Fitzgerald into my answer. First off, this is just a given as a writer; if you’re writing about anything, you should be prepared for negative criticism. You can’t expect everyone to love you and you have to develop a thick skin about other people’s opinions. As I write a lot about gaming, it’s been a great experience in that it prepared me for a barrage of negativity. Say you make a list about your top favorite type of “X” games and you leave a title a reader loves out. You can be sure they will let you know why your list is worthless and a total fail. You can respond four ways to this: 1). Erupt, explode, and fight back. 2). Try to convince them why they’re wrong. 3). Thank them for checking out your article. 4). Ignore them.
This week, I had my Monkey Island retrospective posted to Kotaku and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised that for the most part, the comments were positive. There were a few, of course, that questioned my fond memories of the game. Some were really respectful in disagreeing, and one of the funniest had to be: “WHOA WHOA WHOA. Slow down dude. Are you trying to say that MI4 was a good adventure game? It wasn’t 10 years ago and sure as hell it isn’t now.”
I get a real kick out of reading comments and reviews. I love it when people are passionate about any topic, especially when it’s related to a topic that I’ve written about. And yes, that includes disagreements as well. I welcome differing opinions. I used to be the annoying kid in class that disagreed with everyone so I don’t mind it when others do the same to me. The question of how to handle negativity, though, has to be tied hand in hand with, what do you want to achieve as a writer? Are you out there to seek praise? Are you just writing what you want regardless of what people think? Or are you trying to engage people in a dialogue/conversation through your opinion on something? (fill in the blanks).
As I was doing my The Great Gatsby review, I was stunned by the amount of bad reviews the novel originally received. Here are some examples I take from my original review:
Many of the reviews of The Great Gatsby from Fitzgerald’s contemporaries were harsh.”In form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probably at that.” Another paper wrote that they were “quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today.”
I think the failure of The Great Gatsby affected him more heavily than we realize. After the Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote a lot of short stories, but only one additional full novel, Tender is the Night. The Last Tycoon was only partially finished and while I loved his Pat Hobby stories, nothing came close to matching the Gatsby. Was it the financial failure of the book that got to him? The horrible reviews? His deteriorating relationship with Zelda? I’m not sure. But I hope it wasn’t the reviews. No less a figure than Hemingway said this about Gatsby:
“When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to himself and try to be a good friend… If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one.”
Over the past few months, I’ve had writer friends who’ve published their first book or received their first negative feedback on stories and articles they’ve written. If you’re reading this post, you might have experienced it for the first time as well. Take heart. Don’t let it discourage you (though I know how empty those words may sound). No matter what the nature of the comment might say, it still meant someone took your work seriously enough to engage you on it (even if it’s just to tell you how much they hated it). On top of that, there are always going to be people who love your work and hate it too. This isn’t just a matter of books. It’s a matter of relationships. There are always going to be people who just don’t like me no matter what I do. And vice versa. As a writer, if you’re doing a good job, you will be out there in the public. For whatever reason, people might not like your work. I just saw a Takeshi Kitano film, Glory to the Filmmaker in which he turns into a stone mannequin whenever things get tough. Become like stone and don’t let it affect your writing. And if you can avoid it, don’t lash out. Look what happened to that couple in Kitchen Nightmares a while back, even though I know that’s an extreme example. No matter what you say, if you try to refute it, you will unfortunately most likely come across as being defensive. One thing to also note is if there is genuinely good criticism hidden with the harsh statement, it wouldn’t hurt to take that into consideration as well.
I’ve been fortunate that Watering Heaven has been getting fantastic reviews overall. I credit that in large part to all the editors who helped me. Almost all of the short stories in the collection were published before in literary magazines (which meant a layer of editing and commentary that helped sculpt the stories). On top of that, Signal 8 Press then had their team of three incredible editors fine-comb every part of the manuscript. If there is one critic of Watering Heaven that is the most harshest, it has to be me, ha ha. I wrote many of the stories in Beijing and Bangkok in 2009, so for me, many of these stories were written in a certain frame of mind. If I were to rewrite Watering Heaven now, it would be very different. I was actually starting to get worried there weren’t more negative reviews aside from some comments about there being too much romance and am glad I finally got a few (weird, huh?). To be honest, I’m grateful to everyone who’s read the book, regardless of whether they liked it or not. As this is my first book, I’m honored anytime someone takes the time to write a comment. I’m taking the time to try to thank all my reviewers, regardless of what they say, though I know several people have mentioned since it’s better not to say anything as to keep that separation. Still, I love engaging readers directly and as long as I have the time, I’ll continue to do so.
Above all, reading how harsh Fitzgerald’s critics were actually got me reflective, almost philosophical. The Great Gatsby is considered an American classic, the American classic according to some. How could it be so universally panned at the time of its release? Even now, people often tell me it’s the most overrated book of all time. The recent movie was also criticized by many reviewers and I almost didn’t watch it because of that. I ended up really enjoying the film, no doubt, aided by nil expectations. Still, it got me thinking a lot about reviews in general. If I got that many bad reviews in public forums, would I still be grateful for the reads? Or would it affect me on a deeper level and even affect my writing? Criticism always stings, even with a heart of stone.
You know whose attitude I love? Ed Wood in Tim Burton’s film of the same name. He always takes a positive spin on everything and fights on, wanting to tell his story, however horrible it is/was. This is the Ed Wood that was given the Golden Turkey award as the Worst Director of All Time. Keep in mind, even he has a fanbase now. Write on!