In praise of—well, at least in support of—bad reviews


The New York Times poses a provocative question in its Bookends column this week: Do we really need negative book reviews?

As noted by Bookends columnists Francine Prose and Zoe Heller, the subject been the topic of much discussion recently. And Prose admits that there was a time when she thought, “Life is short, I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love.”

That’s an attractive idea. It’s especially attractive to me as I recover from the sting of my first bad review in a major publication. The kindest thing that Publishers Weekly had to say about Dakota, the sequel to my debut novel, Montana, was that it was “disappointing.”

How did this make me feel?

You get the idea. 

Luckily, Dakota had just gotten a good review from Kirkus, saying that “In Florio’s capable hands, Lola Wicks is going to be around for a long, long time.” Then Library Journal chimed in (in a review to be published Feb. 15), terming Dakota “riveting.” That helped. The other thing that helped? Knowing that bad reviews are part of the drill. And that the inevitable had finally happened.

Prose went back to writing negative reviews, likening their usefulness to that of the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. As Heller says in the Bookends column:

“… most writers do not write merely, or even principally, to escape from or console themselves. They write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction. That is why they scrap and struggle, often for years, to have their work published. Being sentient creatures, they are often distressed by what critics have to say about their work. Yet they accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena.”

I spent a day wallowing. Then pulled up the big-girl panties and went back to work. The toughest thing about a bad review is that by the time you get it, it’s too late to fix the problems the review might have nailed. That’s why there’s the next book. And the next. As we say here in Montana, somewhat less eloquently but more directly than Heller:

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