I’ve said it before but here in October of dismal 2020 I feel I should say it again: Never read or write reviews of anything ever, and especially never read reviews of your own writing.

Nothing is less useful to a writer’s craft or psyche—and those two things are inseparably linked—than some asshole’s uninformed opinion of you and your life’s work. It’s not sour grapes or being a “snowflake” to ask, sincerely, “Who the fuck are you to tell me anything about a work of art I essentially bled into?” That might sound kind of aggressive, and it is, and none of us have to be like that. In fact, the only thing worse than reading a review of your work is responding to a review of your work. The only conversation you really need to have with your readers is the book itself. If you want to do some speaking stuff, signings, seminars on craft, and so on—great. I do all those things myself. I talk with readers all the time, mostly via Twitter, and have done interviews and seminars and courses… all kinds of stuff. And though those are almost exclusively talking about writing in general, my own work does sometimes come up, and I will engage with people. I’m not a hermit, really.

I mean… I want to be a hermit, but I’m not one.

My wife won’t let me.

But guess what? No one has ever given me a negative review of anything I’ve written to my face.

And I’ve been to Gen Con, for Christ’s sake.

What does that tell you? My too-fast, too-furious stab at a computer game novelization from more than twenty years ago still generates online hate but not one single person ever looked me in the eye in real life and told me it was the worst fantasy novel ever written and I should have my fingers broken. That was reserved for the Internet.

Why would you read something someone wouldn’t say to your face, and not because they don’t have the courage to say it, but common courtesy and normal human empathy would preclude it for any but the literal sociopath?

Lest you think this is just sour grapes, that I read a negative review twenty years ago and have been having some kind of existential crisis ever since, take a look at this gem, written by none other than Voltaire, in 1748:

Hamlet is a gross and barbarous piece, and would never be borne by the lowest rabble in France or Italy. Hamlet runs mad in the second act, and his mistress in the third; the prince kills the father of his mistress and fancies he is killing a rat; and the heroine of the play throws herself into the river. They dig her grave on the stage, and the grave-diggers, holding the dead men’s skulls in their hands, talk nonsense worthy of them. Hamlet answers their abominable stuff by some whimsies not less disgusting; during this time one of the actors makes the conquest of Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and father-in-law, drink together on the stage. They sing at table, quarrel, beat and kill one another.

One would think the whole piece was the product of the imagination of a drunken savage. And yet, among all these gross irregularities, which make the English theatre even today so absurd and barbarous, we find in Hamlet, which is still more strange and unaccountable, some sublime strokes worthy of the greatest genius. It seems as if nature took pleasure to unite in the head of Shakespeare all that we can imagine great and forcible, together with all that the grossest dullness could produce of everything that is most low and detestable. 

What to make of this then. Was he wrong? Is it possible to be wrong or right when stating a preference? Did this stop Hamlet from being read and performed essentially continuously for the next 272 years?

Come on, just…

And Voltaire was a really smart guy who we might all agree would have something constructive, interesting, and informed to say about literature. Imagine what the anonymous teenage boys thought of Hamlet at the time and what they might have thrown out there if there was an Internet in 1748 that made every dumbass with Wi-Fi think they were the next Voltaire.

I know this will be hard for a lot of people, especially those of you who also write reviews. On GoodReads I sometimes write short little… I guess you could maybe call them “reviews” or maybe “blurbs,” or more accurately “recommendations” of books I’ve read and liked, because though in reality it might not always feel that way I want GoodReads to be a version of a conversation with friends, which the Amazon review just simply is not. I’ve also written recommendations, in much more detail, of books I think authors should be reading here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. So I don’t want you to think I’m either telling you to not do something I’m doing myself, or that you should never write about writing—hell, I’m writing about writing right now. But what I also do is work as hard as I can to be positive. I say something to the effect of: I read this book and I liked it and here’s how I think it has specific value (for my Books for Fantasy Authors series) or just kinda some version of “I liked this” on GoodReads—exactly as you would when talking to your friends. Amazon? No—and least not for a very long time, and yes, I did my time in the voluntary salt mines digging through hateful or lovely reviews of my own work before I wised up. Since I stopped reading reviews I have also stopped taking anti-depressant medication.

I’m not kidding.

Be a part of your genre community, a part of the writing community, a part of the book community—and be a positive member of those communities. Encourage your fellow authors, not with “stars” but with conversation and consideration and support. Even if you have the best intentions you are not doing anything of value in writing an Amazon review in particular, especially since no matter who you are, how smart you are, or what soapbox you stand on, in the 21st century you are being shouted down by the mob. For every impassioned and well considered three-star Amazon review you’ve ever written is a five star review that contains one word, like: “Awesome!” or a one-star review complaining that the book was damaged in the mail. What could you possibly gain from joining in that fray, or wading into it for a book you’ve already written? Despite the consensus of the faceless masses, there’s no take-backs. That book is done. It belongs to the ages. The critics can not help you, but they can and will hurt you.

Give them no power and they will have no power.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. isoltblog says:

    I’ve brought books because of a negative review. Someone commented a horror novel was ‘too gorey & scary’. Me: ‘I’m in!’ ,

    • Philip Athans says:

      I love it. Honestly? I’ve done that too. Ranting and raving aside, anything can be useful in some way if you look hard enough.

  2. Rachel Lionheart says:

    Personally I only use Goodreads to collect quotes, or to find books adjacent to ones I read and loved. And personally, I find this line of thought extends far beyond someone who talks smack about one’s writing. Everyone has opinions, and not everyone “gets” what someone else creates. I’m glad you’re sticking to the folks who get your own. (PS — Personally once more? Social media was a mistake.)

    • Philip Athans says:

      I would add only that ANONYMOUS social media was a mistake. If everyone had to use their real names/faces discourse would be significantly more civil. And for what it’s worth, I use my real name and either my real face or some silly image or maybe a book cover, but online or in real life, I am who I am.

  3. Pingback: November 2020 | Brenda Kezar

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