There’s Something Wrong With It

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press.  Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust.  Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels.  She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor.  Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now and Where the Bones Are Buried will be out in January 2015.  You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.

The poet Randall Jarrell defined a novel as “a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.” That’s a deflating premise for a novelist and a strangely mean-spirited putdown, coming as it did from a man who slit his wrists when a critic for the New York Times panned his poems.

We writers are constantly troubleshooting our manuscripts. We reread and re-plot, edit and rewrite, polish and proof and rewrite some more. We do our dead-level best to eliminate the wrong bits. Yet in spite of that flattering blurb on the cover that promises “flawless storytelling,” every book encounters at least one reader who finds something wrong with it. True hatchet jobs are rare these days. But faint praise can seem almost as damning, and a one-star review on Amazon can cause gnashing of teeth and rending of garments for some sensitive souls.

Writers thrive on compliments. They provide validation for our hard work. They warm our hearts and allay our self-doubt. We are thrilled when our books receive high praise and disappointed when they do not. Somewhere inside of every writer, there’s the memory of a slighting review we can’t forget and no amount of countervailing praise will soothe the sting. In a recent article on Digital Cruelty in The New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom summed up the problem perfectly: “Just as our attention gravitates to loud noises and motion, our minds glom on to negative feedback.”

Her Boyfriend's BonesEach of us deals with the slings and arrows of criticism in a different way. Raymond Chandler came in for his share of abuse by the critics. He wasn’t a bad writer, they acknowledged with backhanded regard, but why did he squander his talent writing cheap detective fiction? Chandler, who did not suffer from a lack of confidence, shot back, “I might be the best writer in this country . . . but I’m still a mystery writer.”

Critics never accused Erle Stanley Gardner of good writing, but he could afford to ignore them. His books were all bestsellers. When one of them came in for a bad review, he replied, “It’s a damn good story. If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.”

Unfortunately, not every writer possesses the self-assurance of Chandler or Gardner and besides, those guys didn’t live in the free-for-all environment of the Internet. Today’s authors not only run the gauntlet of professional reviewers. They must contend with online reviews, some by readers who strew stars like confetti, others by trolls who post disparaging or incendiary remarks. Most authors have the good sense not to respond to a negative review, even if they secretly fantasize an array of excruciating tortures they’d like to inflict on the stinker who wrote it. However, some hotheads can’t resist the urge to strike back. They have a self-destructive streak, not unlike Sonny Corleone. They tear out on a mission of vengeance, only to ride into a hail of gunfire.

One outraged author tweeted the phone number and email of a reviewer who dissed her book and encouraged her fans to “Tell her what u think of snarky critics.” Another went after her critics on Amazon, claiming that they “used the site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehood and lies.” And yet another aggrieved author assumed a false online identity to harass her detractor and threatened to report anyone who badmouthed her or her books to the FBI. These Twitter rampages and flame wars are like watching a house burn – or a reputation. The spectacle is simultaneously irresistible and appalling.

Where the Bones are BuriedThe thriller writer Brad Meltzer confronted a string of negative reviews without acrimony or resorting to ad hominem attacks. He made a funny, self-deprecating YouTube video in which members of the Little League team he coaches and a few elderly friends and relatives quote from the long list of scathing comments and dismissive assessments of his The Book of Lies. “Predictable, sophomoric, sophomorically implausible, preposterous, juvenile, formulaic, horrible.” His critics didn’t mince words. The video, first titled “Everybody hates Brad Meltzer” has been changed to “Everybody still hates Brad Meltzer in paperback.” It can be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/meltzervideos (click on “videos”).

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that everyone will absolutely love my new book, Where the Bones Are Buried. But as Meltzer demonstrates, a sense of humor and a hide like a rhinoceros are valuable assets for those of us brave enough to send our (inevitably) flawed prose into the world for all and sundry to judge.

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14 thoughts on “There’s Something Wrong With It

  1. I love the response of Brad Meltzer. One of my favorite little books is ROTTEN REJECTIONS, a 101 pages of the many ways editors have said no to the world’s best writers. Writers today are in very good company as they open those rejection emails and letters. Thanks for a terrific post.

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    • Susan, I have the same book, and it’s always good for a laugh.

      Jeanne, I like your “sensitive souls” phrase. It seems like some people are obsessive about checking their reviews, and quick to take offense. Yes, there are trolls. But where is your time best spent–wringing your hands over a bad review or writing your next book?

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      • Terry, I’m fond of a quote from the late Johnny Cash that goes something like, “After I got to be sixty, I don’t sweat the small stuff. It don’t mean #!**! Drive on.” Or write on, as the case may be.

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  2. Excellent post! Like everything else, you have to learn to take the bad with the good, and you need to learn how to deal with it. I’ll never understand why some people feel it’s their “duty” to be snarky about a book they don’t like. Just let it go if you don’t like it. Word-of-mouth means more to me than reviews anyway.

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  3. Hi, When I was taking screenwriting classes at UCLA, one of my favorite teachers always began the semester by reading a group of scathing reviews for famous books and movies such as “Gone with the Wind” or “The Wizard of Oz.” It always relaxed the class with a shared laugh.

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  4. Jeanne, you have such a funny, delightful way with words! I am reading Her Boyfriend’s Bones right now, and I discover a new favorite phrase on every page. One of my current faves: a description of a flock of sheep “bowling down a path and bunching in front of the car like a rockslide.” Thanks for the laughs and the mystery during this virtual trip to Greece. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

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  5. Jeanne,
    Another great post. It reminds me of the talk Bret (Anthony Johnston) gave in Iowa City one summer. Sharing some rejections he’d received, he read aloud a note from an editor who liked much of what he’d seen, but was passing on the story because of the talking donkey. Bret replied with thanks for the feedback and a question: What talking donkey? (I may have recalled the animal wrong, but you get the point.)
    Cheers,
    Karen

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    • I love reading all these comments. The last one about the animal reminds me of a friend who was writing serious short stories. She sent one to the New Yorker and they replied that they didn’t publish previously published stories. Uh….it had never been published. She wrote back and asked where they had seen it previously, thinking she’d send it there. They never replied, but it was good for a laugh.

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  6. Great post, Jeanne. We do indeed learn a lot about ourselves from the way we handle rejection. As do the characters in our books. In both cases, I like to revise the old proverb to say, ‘Writing well is the best revenge.’ And I that sense, you have achieved your goal.

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  7. I’m glad Dorothy Parker ain’t around to criticize my books. I forget who got this particular line, but in her CONSTANT READER column, she wrote about a book, “Tonstant weader fwowed up.” But I loved how she began her critique of Claire Booth Luce’s self-directed book as a presumed war correspondent during WW II: “All’s Claire on the Western Front.”

    Y’know…maybe it’d be worth it to take a Parker sling or arrow, if she’d couch it in terms such as those.

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