Twisting the tale in cold blood
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Under your skin and into your core

The ever-admirable Litlove, of Tales from the Reading Room, asked me this in the comments on the differently fascinating Dirty Sparkle blog:

As a writer you've had a great deal of external validation for your work, more than most writers are fortunate enough to have. How will you feel when you get some really stinking reviews? I mean,I hope it never ever happens, but you're going to have to have some solid core of trust in your own work to withstand that, and it can only be developed (I would think) by committing in the act of writing to doing what pleases you first, and others as a delightful second.

It's certainly true that I've been very lucky with the quantity and quality of external validation, from the wholly commercial, such as Headline Review taking the front and inside front cover of The Bookseller to advertise The Mathematics of Love to the trade, to some terrific print and blog reviews (not excepting Litlove's own for The Mathematics of Love). But I've had some very curate's-eggy ones in print, and some pretty rude reviews on the blogs too, not to mention passing comments: the one-star ones for A Secret Alchemy on Amazon give you the idea. No doubt some day, and probably soon, the print reviewers and the well-respected bloggers will read something of mine which they hate, and make no bones about saying so. After all, there's very little point in publishing a really bad review of a debut novel by an unknown, but once an author's an existing, if tiny, plant in the book world, they're fair game.

So, how do you cope? How do I cope? With the proviso that I may well rescind all this when a respected reviewer explains, in detail, in public, just why a book of mine is so very bad, here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

1) Reviews are fodder for reviewers, and food for readers, and only incidentally feedback for the writer. A reviewer has no obligation to consider your feelings or teach you things, except in keeping the review to the book in their hands, and not taking pot-shots at your or its reputation or prospects. But, equally, the writer has no obligation to read, let alone take on board, the review. Your prime duty to your writing is to protect your writerly self, in order to write better. That doesn't mean stopping your ears to all negative comments, but it does mean taking only what's useful from reviews, as judged not by what pleases others, but by what makes sense to you. In other words, you need to make your own decision about accept, adapt, ignore from a review as with anything else. But do actually read the review, or get someone else to. Inevitably we're hyper-sensitive to what's said about our work, and we react far more strongly than the actual words would suggest to anyone else. If the first sentences of a review sound unpromising, I tend to read the rest with one eye, to protect myself from further hurt. Only of course I miss any nice, later things, and log it as a 'bad review' in my head, when by any normal measure it's nothing of the kind.

2) A central part of your writerly self is exactly that "solid core of trust" that Litlove talks about. It is essential - though it's inevitable that the outer edges of your core are more solid some days than others, I think. But how you acquire/grow/solidify that core I'm not sure. Saying that self-belief is vital, though it is, doesn't actually get you much further, for reasons I explored in Learning to be Bad: any self-belief worth having is the product of understanding your craft, and knowing that you understand it. That  includes knowing just how much you don't yet know, so self-belief is not a replacement for that understanding. The core is partly formed by what I think of as conditional validation: the detailed, thoughtful assessment by someone whose judgement you respect, that your work has objective merits. That's where doing the right course or class, or even getting an editorial report, at the right moment in your development, can be incredibly valuable: even where friends and writing buddies are knowledgeable, and willing to tell you the negative things, they may simply be too close to you and your own work for you to be able to mark their approval up in the "Am-I-any-good?" ledger in your mind.

3) I think Litlove's right, too, that the rest of the solid core comes, not from external validation, but from a certain integrity in what you do. I don't mean that you should only write morally impeccable, socially engaged, haut-lit tragedies about Real Life, or that you should never wonder what readers are buying at the moment. But I do think that you need to feel that what you write is worth writing, not just as self-expression for you but as a story worth telling to others, and that you're writing it as well as you can. Yes, the more of your heart and soul you put in (which may not be Tolstoy's, but rather the heart of Victoria Wood and the soul of P G Wodehouse, and none the worse for it), the more painful the knock-backs, from rejections from agents to hatchet-job reviews. But knowing that you've created something from nothing which deserves its existence as a creative work, means that judgements from outside can't entirely destroy its value: it was worth doing. As long as you believe that you won't look back on a piece of your work in five years time and think 'I wish I hadn't bothered', then your core is beginning to solidify.

4) Remember that there are lots of different ways in which a review can be negative which you can ignore. As Updike says (do read his rules for reviewers) a reviewer should "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and... not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt". If the blame your book attracts is for the latter, then you can safely ignore it. You can safely ignore a reviewer who gets the plot badly wrong too (unless several do, in which case maybe you really didn't make it clear!): reviewers are pretty badly paid and would usually rather be writing their own stuff, so sometimes they're operating on a pretty sketchy read. And some reviewers just don't get it. Most of the one-star reviews that A Secret Alchemy got on Amazon are by readers who read historical fiction as history lite, and didn't like what they read as my version of history. The central point of the book - that fiction-telling is at once less true and more true than history-telling - eluded them. And both ASA and The Mathematics of Love picked up blog comments from readers who don't get parallel narrative and aren't equipped or don't want to look for reasons why these two stories are in the same book. Okay, they don't have to, but I don't have to write to please them, either. Since I take no pleasure in excluding readers, not least but not only because I want to sell books, I felt bad about that for ages: in our consciously inclusive age we're uneasy about excluding anyone. Then something much more robust suddenly grew inside me, and I found myself thinking, "Well, I can't help it if you don't know how to read." No doubt there's a more politically correct way of putting it, but that, too, has become part of my core: there will always be people who don't get it, but as long as I get it, and some people get it, that's okay.

5) The impulse to resist, given reviews which get it wrong, is answering back. Yes, it's incredibly frustrating to know that there are potential readers who will get a completely wrong idea of the book and your writing. But it's never, ever a good idea. The only time I'd be tempted would be if the whole review, in a major newspaper or blog, was founded on a mistake. If a hatchet job was firmly based on my writing of a character or battle which isn't actually in the book, say, a calm letter correcting the error of fact, with absolutely no opinions or emotions attached, might - just might - be all right.

5) But there will always be reviews which do review the actual book, which have no beef with the kind of book you're writing, which understand what happens and what you're trying to do, and... don't think you did it well at all. Those are the ones which really hurt and, to a degree, so they should: you're writing for an audience - or why are you writing? - and an intelligent, responsible member of that audience has booed. Anaesthetics help for a while: I'd never say that a bottle of wine, a bar of chocolate and a well-exercised credit card don't cheer one up. But a review like this hurts your core and in the end you can only mend that hurt by attending to it. It will take time; it may mean you wince away from certain topics or forms or ways of writing - or any writing at all - for a while; it may mean that your writing process is hamstrung by self-consciousness. It's counter-intuitive, but only in really knowing and feeling what's going on with you and your work, including the damage and its consequences, can you get your core's strength back for the long term.

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