Sometimes my books get one-star reviews. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Every once in a while, I manage to disappoint a reader so badly that he (or she) feels the need to lay out caution tape and road flares to warn other potential victims away from my work.
I’d like to pretend that I’m indifferent to some of the more vitriolic criticism, but the truth is I’m not. It bothers me that I can’t quite deliver the bacon for all of my readers. I know it’s impossible to please everyone. Or at least I understand that on an intellectual basis. But the knowledge doesn’t do much to lessen the sting when someone does a hatchet job on one of my books.
I’ve tried ignoring the really nasty reviews, but that doesn’t work. (They call to me in the night, the same way that jelly doughnuts can sing to me from the Krispy Kreme all the way on the other side of town.) I’ve tried looking past the venom, to learn from whatever errors put me in the crosshairs. That might help me avoid repetition of certain mistakes, but it doesn’t make me feel better.
In the end, I’ve only found one useful tactic for coping with one-star reviews. I go looking for others. Not in my own work. I can probably quote some of my own nasties by heart, so I trudge off in search of stinker reviews for books that I like and admire. Why? I’m glad you asked. We’ll talk about that in a minute. First, let me hit you with some examples. Ready? Okay, here goes…
Fellowship of the Ring — J. R. R. Tolkien
One-dimensional characters set in a ludicrously detailed, needlessly complicated environment (and lousy maps to boot). A classic? I’ve read soup can ingredient lists more interesting, and product warranty cards more expertly written.
The Hunt for Red October — Tom Clancy
The story displays complete ignorance of Russian military culture; the dialogue is unworthy of cartoon characters; the “action” is a far-fetched excuse for long pedantic discourses on weaponry lifted from the pages of Jane’s and Aviation Week; and the author is a draft dodging hypocrite right-winger who somehow elected not to fight in Vietnam and spent the rest of his life becoming enormously rich lecturing fellow cowards on the wonders of modern warfare.
The Stand — Stephen King
This is the only book to have the distinction of being hurled down my back yard. In frustration. I’ve never been beyond chapter 5 in four attempts although I have flicked through and read parts to see if it improves and it just DOESN’T !! It’s turgid from beginning to end and instead of adding all the edited bits they should have hacked another 300 pages out of the damn thing.
A Prayer for Owen Meany — John Irving
I had to literally FORCE MYSELF TO FINISH THIS BOOK! I found the book to be tedious and as slow moving as a glacier. The ending is foretold and there is no quality or depth to the characters. Mindless. This was a huge waste of my time. No more John Irving for me.
Heart of Darkness — Joseph Conrad
Make it stop! I am finding myself having to constantly re-read many paragraphs just to find out what Conrad was even talking about. In fact, it is getting so painful, I now know the meaning of torture. I’m sure they would use this in police interrogations if it weren’t for the fact that it is just as painful for the reader as it is to the poor soul who would have to suffer from hearing it read aloud.
To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
This is not great literature, and I avoid teaching it at all costs. It’s not even good. The characters are black and white two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. The rednecks are evil, the blacks are victims, and the self-righteous Atticus is too good to be true. There is nothing here to examine or explore. Critical thinking skills need not be applied for understanding. Moreover, if the lack of complexity and verisimilitude doesn’t stick in your craw, then the insipid narration of the androgynous Scout will.
Raise the Titanic — Clive Cussler
Completely unbelievable plot. Total lack of understanding of anything remotely connected with science. Abysmal characterization, junior-school dialogue, this book almost completely drained me of the will to live. I regret deeply the afternoon I wasted reading this turgid excuse for a novel, as I will never be able to reclaim it.
Neuromancer — William Gibson
People who tell you they like this book are LYING TO YOU. Gibson is credited with blending styles. What he is actually doing is sticking a 50’s dime store crime novel and a computer engineering textbook in his MixMaster and playing dadaist cut-up poet with the resultant confetti. It makes me wish he’d stuffed his head in as well.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — Stieg Larsson
While reading, I would often put the book down and wonder to myself, Why are we supposed to care? What character were we supposed to connect with? Even the scenery is flat.
Dune — Frank Herbert
I can only say I’m glad it was a $5 second-hand copy, because it’s a total waste of money. I’m not too far in, but the boredom factor is taking over fast, and skimming ahead isn’t encouraging me to pursue it. Herbert reads like he’s some undergraduate who’s overdosed on the more miserable philosophers.
Alright. Had enough? Yeah, me too.
I could trot out at least a hundred more literary assassinations of the same general stripe, but those ten are enough to make the point. I love every one of the books I’ve listed, and I disagree with every snarky little barb you’ve just read about them.
For me, the lesson in this is simple… It doesn’t matter if you’re Tolkien or Tolstoy; some people are going to hate what you write. If Harper Lee and Tom Clancy can get blasted this hard, why should I expect my books to be an exception?
I can’t. I remind myself that—while I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune at least a half-dozen times—some readers absolutely loathe it. As much as I’d like them to be, my books are not a magical exception to the rule. Some people are going to hate my novels. I can’t stop that, but at least I can remind myself that I’m in good company.
And when that doesn’t do the trick, I can always drown my sorrows in a nice box of jelly doughnuts.