Ratings and Reviews

I know, this is the way I always start nowadays: I’m very tired! But this has been a particularly tiring week.

I had a wonderful time at the reading on Tuesday night, and then a wonderful time meeting people at the Concord Bookshop today, and I’m going to post pictures. I’m also going to link to some of my favorite reviews of The Thorn and the Blossom.

But maybe tomorrow night. Tonight I’m too tired, and so I’m going to write about an issue that was raised on Tuesday night. An audience member asked me, how do you handle reviews? Because whenever you write a book, there will be positive reviews, and there will be negative ones. And as I told him, I don’t think writers ever develop thicker skins. We can’t. We have thinner skins than most people, and I think we need to be that way: it’s what gives us the sensitivity to write, to create art.

So how do you handle reviews? Well, I read mine. Even the negative ones, partly because I find that I learn from them. When they’re done well, they’re like getting feedback from a critique partner. The good negative ones, I appreciate. And then there are the ones that say “This just wasn’t my sort of thing” or “The book was stupid.” Those I can’t really learn from. (Make my next book not stupid. Got it.) Those are also the ones you need to put into perspective.

How, you ask. (Even if you didn’t just ask that, you did. Trust me.) Here’s what I do.

1. Go to Goodreads.
2. Look up James Joyce.
3. Read his one-star reviews.

Did you know that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has (as of today) 2423 one-star reviews? This is JAMES FREAKING JOYCE. If he’s going to get that many one-star reviews, I don’t think I’m going to worry about mine.

Here’s what some of those one-star reviews say:

This book is a very dry, written version of the Dead Poet’s Society without Robin Williams.

I almost felt as though I was reading something written by someone with a severe case of ADHD, with an inability to focus on any central point for more than a moment.

The only reason I am giving it 1 star is because I didn’t want anyone to think that I just forgot to rate it.

This review is based on a partial reading of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because I really couldn’t force myself to read more than the first 25 pages (and page 99, to see if it had improved).

He may be the master of moderist lit and stream of conscious narration, but every time I try to have a Joyce appreciation moment, I flash back to an ex boyfriend who would call me at 4 a.m. to sigh into the phone for an hour before finally offering, “I feel abstract.”

This was much more enjoyable than Ulysses, which is saying almost nothing.

There was no climax and that also bothered me.

I found it extremely difficult to get through (and this is coming from someone who read Atlas Shrugged in a week) and filled with the sort of run-on sentences that make children grow up to hate reading.

I read the beginning and chose to stop. I would rather read Vogon poetry, or stab myself repeatedly with a fork, than read Joyce.

That’s probably enough, right? (I actually cleaned up some of the punctuation.) After all, you can go read them yourself. I should be clear and say that while I don’t like everything James Joyce wrote equally, I do consider him a genius and one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. And a man capable of exquisite prose. For example, here is the final paragraph of “The Dead”:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

The final sentence makes me shiver.

I’m not going to comment on those comments (and my opinion of Atlas Shrugged is unprintable), but I think they’ll help you put reviews into perspective. Because we’re talking about JAMES FREAKING JOYCE and some people aren’t going to like him because they’re looking for a climax.

As for ratings, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has a 3.54, which is lower than Twilight, which has a 3.67. I’m not even going to comment on that one. But this is possibly worse: it’s rated lower then Stephen Hero, which has a 3.64. Now that’s just stupid, but it’s also predictable because the people who read Stephen Hero are already Joyce fans, while Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is read by most high school students. If only your fans read you, your ratings will be higher.

Lev Grossman wrote an interesting article on ratings and reviews that I will discuss tomorrow. But I hope today’s brief discussion of ratings and reviews has been helpful. Remember, I read my reviews, even the negative ones, and try to learn from them. But you can’t take them entirely seriously.

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7 Responses to Ratings and Reviews

  1. How how do you handle reviews? Well, I read mine. Even the negative ones, partly because I find that I learn from them. When they’re done well, they’re like getting feedback from a critique partner.

    I’ve been working lately w someone at my firm who rips my writing to shreds. My first reaction is, always, to want to hurt him. But, you know, no one else makes me grow, stretches me, the way that he does. I’m not saying it isn’t painful. Just saying that I’ve learned (the hard way) to appreciate it.

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

    — Schiller

  3. If you are ever not tired, I will shout “Hooray” with all the angels, fallen or risen.

    Meanwhile, an exquisite-poet, friend printed this over at her blog the other day, and I think it useful for you to print out and tack up somewhere:
    1791, Rabbie Burns responds to one of his critics:

    Dear Sir:

    Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

  4. Rich says:

    Someone’s put out an entire blog of misguided reviews:


    But if reading six of these is cheering, reading six dozen may well be depressing with the way it highlights the worst tendencies of today’s students.

  5. Brittany says:

    I absolutely love that last paragraph from “The Dead.” It’s one of my all time favorite pieces of writing. I love your attitude toward negative reviews, I hope I can incorporate it more into my own way of responding :).

  6. Keith Glaeske says:

    Sometimes, the review reveals more about the reviewer than about the object reviewed.

  7. Colleen says:

    This post totally made me laugh. You have an excellent response to bad reviews, one worth bookmarking. But now I’m curious about your unprintable opinion about Atlas Shrugged.

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