When you’re a real-life published writer, everyone will love you and your work and no one will say anything bad about it, ever. Right? No such luck. Gabrielle Zevin is the author of an acclaimed screenplay and five novels—including All These Things I’ve Done, which you can start reading for a limited time here on Figment—but she still has to deal with harsh criticism. Instead of ignoring it, though, she embraces it. If you think that sounds crazy and needlessly masochistic, read on and let Gabrielle convince you otherwise.
Not too long ago, I was interviewed by a Brazilian journalist about my novel, Elsewhere. “So, Gabrielle,” he whispered at the end of our talk, “I notice on your website you have a ‘Gallery of Bad Reviews‘ . . . What is wrong with you?”
I laughed and told him that loads of things were wrong with me, but that I didn’t think posting bad reviews to my website was one of them.
“You do know what an author website is for, don’t you?” He said this like I was a particularly dim-witted child.
I told him that I thought I did.
“My advice to you is to only put the good ones up.”
“Well,” I said. “The thing is, I’m kind of proud of the bad ones, too.”
At this point, he muttered something in Portuguese that I didn’t understand, but seemed to indicate that I was a person beyond help.
Unless you only want to keep a diary, the act of writing will invariably lead to criticism. Consider the caveman: he painted a buffalo on the wall, added a couple of wavy lines to represent water, took a couple steps back, and said with a satisfied nod, “Ooga.” [Ooga, in this context, translates to “Not bad.”] The caveman went back to hunting real live buffalo and returned to the cave a couple of weeks later only to find two other cavemen staring at his handiwork. “Ooga?” one asked the other. “Ooga! Ooga ooga!” the other replied. [Translation: “Is this supposed to be a buffalo? Could use more red! And those lines look nothing like water. Grog should really stick to buffalo-hunting.”] And thus, criticism was born. My point is, writing leads to reading and reading leads to other people and other people have opinions. Oh so many opinions!
One of the earliest truly awful reviews I received was from the newspaper where I had my first writing job:
By around page 60 . . . the whole project has become so self-congratulatory in its cleverness, the urge to throw the book across the room is stayed only by the persistent pull of the narrative voice.
— Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel on Margarettown
At the time, I remember feeling embarrassed. The review ran in my hometown newspaper, and I narcissistically imagined my high school English teachers and my ex-boyfriends and my dad reading it. Six and a half years later, I’m proud of this review and that’s because I know more about the kind of writer I aspire to be. I want to write the kind of books that some people really love and other people really hate. I don’t want you to just “like” my book. (Oh, the tyranny of like. I hate like.) Consider the caveman again: whatever the quality of Grog’s painting, his piece was a success because it provoked a response. This is to say, hate can truly be a sign that a writer is doing something right. The work has inspired an emotion, a reaction. Here’s a secret: the things that other people hate the most about your work sometimes turn out to be the most interesting things about it.
So, why the gallery of bad reviews? One, I was tired of the endless self-promotion on the Internet. Two, from a writing perspective, I’ve increasingly found that the books I dislike can be just as creatively instructive as the books I instantly love. But the most important reason is my belief that we give power to what we don’t acknowledge. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had many more good reviews than bad. Still, it makes me braver as a writer to know I won’t be destroyed if someone hates my work. When you’re not a slave to the bad reviews (or the good ones), you’re truly free as an artist and that’s when the great work can begin.