Jeanne 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.”
Each 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.
The 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.