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Bad.
Contributor
Written by
lara vapnyar
December 2013
Contributor
Written by
lara vapnyar
December 2013

When the first bad review on my first book came out, I got physically sick. I developed strange intermittent pain in my leg, stomach cramps and a horrible headache. Still, the worst was the feeling of shame. I had a paranoid fantasy that everybody I knew had read that review and was now laughing at me. I made a mental list of people who might dislike me (including my first-grade teacher and my next-door neighbor with whom I fought over a parking space), and imagined them rejoicing over my failure. I felt like crawling under the bed and spending the rest of my days there, in the comforting company of dust bunnies. 

When my second book and third books came out, I decided I’d be tougher. I read all the bad reviews with masochistic obsessiveness, and I did cry, but at least I didn’t get sick. I did have stomach cramps once, but this could have been a coincidence, because I also happened to have food poisoning at the time. The shame was still there though, just as bad as the first time.

“Don’t read the bad ones!” my agent insisted. But how can you resist? Having lost my self-control and discipline at the age of twelve, I couldn’t. Most of my writer friends can’t resist reading their bad reviews either. And then they can’t help but to react to them with pain and anger. One of them—a truly wonderful writer—even goes as far as to ask La Santa Muerta to put a curse on her critics. I wouldn’t go as far as to put the death curse on my critics, but I certainly understand the sentiment. We writers spend years making the book as good as we can. We pour our hearts out. We expose ourselves. And critics simply leaf through our books and safely and effortlessly destroy our work in a couple of paragraphs.

My fourth book is coming out in a few weeks. I’ve already had some disastrous prepub reviews. And the usual feeling of shame was intensified by all those reports about glowing book reviews in my social media. There was not one single post of a bad review. It felt as if every other writer was being praised, while I was being singled out as a token flawed writer. I know for a fact that most writers get bad reviews and most writers feel just as bad about them as I do. Yet, browsing through social media made me doubt that. We use public space to brag about our success, but we choose to cry about our misfortunes in private.

There is nothing wrong with sharing good news, but shouldn’t writers who love to share share bad news as well? To put things in perspective? To alleviate the shame, if not the pain, of their peers? Or for a more selfish reason—to alleviate their own pain and shame by sharing it?

I’ve decided to try something new this time. I will say good-bye to my dust bunnies, crawl out from under the bed, and publish my bad reviews. I won’t denounce them, argue with them or comment on them. I’ll just let them out in the open. And I’ll save my raves for private enjoyment.

So, here it goes.

Library Journal

10/01/2013
The core of this tale by Russian-born and New York City-based Vapnyar (Memoirs of a Muse) is Lena's experience during her time as a counselor in a Russian summer camp. Through flashbacks, she is portrayed as a breast-beating ugly duckling, despairing of ever evolving into a Leda. Years later, now living in America, Lena has not changed much despite time, marriage, and motherhood. At a conference, she winds up spending an impulsive weekend with Ben, a stranger who is also sexually and romantically stymied. As though telling a rip-off Shahrazad tale, Lena regales Ben with the story of her mysterious camp experience, every detail repeated with unrelenting precision, even though it took place decades earlier. VERDICT Plodding, without depth or sincerity, forced and robotic, Vapnyar's latest isn't for readers who enjoy feel-good stories.—Joyce Townsend, Pittsburg, CA

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Comments
  • Diane Brandow

    I used to write songs when I lived in California, and trust me, the big name critics from LA and Nashville, not to mention other songwriters can be brutal. I toughened up, fast. With three books, so far, I've decided there will always be critics. Take it with a grain of salt, because you can't please everyone, so why try. write from your heart, believe in what you've written, and let it go. I did receive5-star reviews on two of my books, and a 4-star review on my other one. I was feeling great...until....I went into Goodreads and saw one of my books had a 2-star and 3-star rating. My heart sunk, but, that's ok. I still beleive in what I wrote, and the fighting side came out. NOt literally, mentally. Just believe in YOU and you will be fine. KEEP WRITING..smile

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    Remember what I said: Take every bad review with a grain of salt; glean anything from it that might help you in the next book, but ignore the rest. After 42 years of writing and 30 of those published I've come to believe that there are just spiteful, evil people who like to hurt writers maybe because they're jealous or high on the power a reviewer has. So don't let it get you down. I've had 1-5 star reviews for most of my books...so who do you believe...the 5 star reviewer or the 1 star? See what I mean. 2014 Epic Ebook Awards Finalist for my Dinosaur Lake, Kathryn Meyer Griffith

  • Laurel Davis Huber

    Lara,

    Do not feel bad, ever. You are in good company. Did you see the brutal review of Lorrie Moore's new book in the New York Times? I'm sure Ms. Moore had a few martinis when she read it - and it must be extremely tough when you have been so highly praised in the past....

  • lara vapnyar

    Dear Shewriters,

    Thank you so much for your support! You helped through a really tough time. The novel The Scent of Pine has gotten some really wonderful reviews since then, but I still think it's important to share bad ones.  Let's do more of that--it's empowering!

  • Rebecca Johns

    Excellent, and so very very true. When the NYTimes slammed my first book I thought I'd never get over it. (Still sometimes I think I won't ever quite get over it) but one bad review is not the end of a career. There may be a special circle of hell reserved for that reviewer who makes us physically ill, but after reading plenty of bad reviews of my books on Amazon and Goodreads I think the bad reviews have actually helped me really recognize that some people will be your readers, and some people won't, and it's okay if there are readers for whom your work will never resonate. You didn't write it for them.

    I've always enjoyed your work, but even more so now. Bravo.

  • Cheryl Rice

     Lara,

    Your post has haunted me for two days. Partly because it is so honest and brave, and partly because I wonder how I will navigate the same terrain when my book is birthed. My response to your precious question of whether writers share "should" share bad news in addition to the good, is not necessarily. I wonder if there is something in between hiding the reviews and sharing them publically. I get that hiding them can trigger shame but so can publically sharing something that already stings. Why add fuel to the fire-especially if it is from a source you don't respect? Why not look at all of the reviews (if that's what you wish) and then share just the good stuff - the stuff that honors your talent, and courage and best wishes for the reader. The world needs more of that. I sure do. Thank you for your provocative post. And congratulations on book #4. Oh My Goodness!

  • Maria Magdalena Biela

    Lara, I loved loved loved your story and it forces me to buy your book and after reading it, to write something about it! Something as honest as your confession. You give every writer a good life lesson in a sweet, funny yet deeply wise way. I could not help but smile reading about "the curse upon the critics". Lara Vapnyar, you are definitely my hero!!!

  • Daya Wakens

    Lara, I commend you for your courage in sharing this with us and I can only hope that you will continue your love for writing and follow your heart, regardless of a review.  A variety of reviews comes with the writing industry and you cannot allow it to hinder you in any way. I believe that there is a payoff for every struggle in life and holding on for the reward can be epic. 

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    Lara,

    I've gotten my share of bad reviews...I've gotten a one star review (from a girl who claims there were no words on the pages so she gave me one star...on stories she never read...but Amazon still won't take down that 1 star!)  and I've gotten one star reviews on a book that otherwise  had all 4 and 5 stars. I've had books that have had 1-5 star reviews. Some people love my books; some people hate them. In 42 years of writing I've learned that some reviewers are just mean-spirited or stupid people venting their anger out at the world in this way. So don't let a bad review get you. It takes two people to make a great book...an intelligent, empathetic writer and an intelligent, empathetic reader. A shallow person won't get the message. Just write your books and ignore the bad reviews. 

  • Mardith Louisell

    One more thing. Your post reminded me of a monthly writing event I used to attend. Everyone talked about how great they were and how much they had done. I became so dispirited that I escaped to the bathroom when my turn approached.  I spent 5 minutes there to avoid my turn but ever alert, the facilitator came back to me when I returned. There is no escape.

  • Mardith Louisell

    I love your post (and, by the way, also your writing.) And I loved reading the review, which could almost be a parody of a review. Had I read it elsewhere, I would have thought, "Hmmm, here's a person who likes fiction to be about perky endings. Maybe I'd like the book." But the review brings up another issue: recently an editor told me to remove one story from a collection because "It's a downer. Even though this is how much of life goes, people don't read fiction for that."  Maybe my story didn't work for other reasons but I disagree about "downers."  Perky endings of non-genre writing leave me empty.

  • Nancy G. Shapiro

    Bravo! 

  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    You speak the truth, Lara. We fall apart in private over the bad reviews (and the rejections) and try to keep it sunny in public. In part, because we're trying to entice readers and so need to accentuate the positive; in part, because, as you've rightly called it, because of the shame...I mean when someone refers to something you've labored over for years as a failure, how can you not feel like a failure...and obsess on it...even if it's just that one. They do feed that sense of inadequacy. I'm like you, though, I make myself read them (and since I live in a small community where people will tell you to your face why they didn't like Oh Gad! as much as Dancing Nude in the Moonlight or Dancing Nude in the Moonlight as much as The Boy from Willow Bend, hear it) and just as I link and share the good ones, I make myself share the negative. Maybe because I'm a masochist, maybe because I refuse to lie to myself and to only focus on the positive is to stroke your own ego, maybe because I believe there's room to grow and lessons especially in the negative, maybe because I'm finding freedom in keeping it real about the ups and downs of the writing life...maybe all of the above and other things I'm yet figuring out. Thanks for a very candid and relatable posting.

  • Andrea Miles

    Ugh! What a rotten review! My first book will be out in the fall and I'm already imagining all sorts of awful reviews. (I suppose I have self-esteen issues, lol.)  I did see a tweet from an author who posted her first bad review of her latest book and I felt so bad for her. But we have to remember we cannot please everybody, no matter what we write. Even the Great Writers whose books are considered Classics aren't loved by all. Even the NYT bestsellers aren't loved by every person who reads it. All of this is easy to say, but hard to accept when the negative words are directed towards something we've created. Thanks for sharing! And crossing my fingers that your next review is so gushing, it makes you blush! :)