The Ugly. Keeping it real. (BAD reviews.)

Thumbs down smiley by SunKing2 - Thumbs down smiley.  Good for rating stuff.

I’ve just returned from a multi-city book tour. There were happy meetings and reunions, great Q&A sessions, bookstores converted to speakeasies, and at the last stop, a basket of champagne and strawberries from my publisher. I enjoy posting photos from readings and cities I visit to support those who support me–the towns, the bookstores, the reviewers, and the people–but I always hesitate before hitting “upload” because there are quite a few writers out there still trying to find an agent, facing rejection, and unable to get a publisher. This is the exact arrested state of publishing misery in which I resided for nearly a decade, and while I was happy for others and their success, on bad days, seeing it felt like lemon juice in a paper cut.

So, to counterbalance all of the “happy-happy”, and to illustrate that publishing is not all speakeasies and chocolate covered strawberries, I’m going to post excerpts from some of the negative reviews I’ve gotten along the way. These statements are what I think of every single day when I sit down to write. They reinforce the demon in my head that tells me I’m not worthy. They haunt me with every revision, every book proposal, and every public or private sharing of my work.

Hemingway said that if you believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad. He also ripped off his shirt at a fancy dinner and punched a critic who called his overt masculinity a mask, hiding his true nature. I don’t advocate punching critics, but I won’t say that I haven’t fantasized about it.

In a sick way, I do think it is just as important to have negative feedback as it is to have the wonderful reviews that so many of you have given. I treasure the positive, and they are the sweet balm I need after what you’re about to see, but we need to be reminded that published art is for the public and doesn’t totally belong to us once we send it into the world.

After reading this, I don’t want any of you to comment with, “No, no, you’re work is lovely!” If you have the cajones to share some of your own bad reviews, do it. If you have a favorite bad review of mine, mention it. If you’d like to silently read and shake your head, go for it. Just remember at whatever stage of the publishing process you reside, it is always, always hard. Every day you have a handful of good and a handful of bad. It is an emotional roller coaster at every stretch, so make sure you fasten your big-girl pants for the ride.

Without further ado…

Hemingway’s Girl:

  • “[E]ven the dramatic arrival to theย Florida Keysย of a horrific fact-based 1935 hurricane can’t save Erika Robuck’s clichรฉd plot and soggy prose. Time to let poor Papa rest in peace.”
  • “In “Hemingway’s Girl”, the story is predictable and not very entertaining; even Hemingway ‘s character fails. It’s a quick read and asks little of its readers. Hemingway would hate it.”
  • “[I]t was nauseatingly lovey and cheesy at times, and not compelling to read.”
  • “Grooooooaaaan. Chick lit dressed up as historical fiction.” (**This is my favorite. I want it made into a sign to hang in my office.)

Call Me Zelda:

  • “It was for me a mistake to read Erika Robuck’s CALL ME ZELDA after having read [THE OTHER ZELDA NOVEL].”
  • “This is not a serious treatment of mental illness or of the tragedy of Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s cozy wish-fulfillment, the ultimate expression of Robuck’s desire to fix her subject.”
  • “[T]his book was just Dull, capital-D dull. Maybe two capitals: DDull.”
  • “CALL ME ZELDA is the sort of novel that is enjoyed by ladies who want a somewhat romantic story to pass the time while enjoying a good cup of coffee.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a good cup of coffee…with something strong in it.

Ouch.

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63 thoughts on “The Ugly. Keeping it real. (BAD reviews.)

  1. Susan Gloss says:

    I think “a somewhat romantic story to pass the time while enjoying a good cup of coffee” is a ringing endorsement! Going to pour some coffee…

  2. lomaurice says:

    You are very brave. Ouch, indeed. But if we all liked the same books, it would sure be a boring literary world. And, you, my friend, just keep getting better and better.

  3. Just like life: a handful of good and a handful of bad. I wish there were a way to magically make it all good, but there is no easy street. I’ve looked. Without the dark, we wouldn’t appreciate the light. Best to learn from it, shake it off, and move onward and upward. Write on … xo

  4. laramckusky says:

    I read this somewhere once:
    If you’re getting criticized for what you’ve written, they weren’t your ideal audience.
    Sometimes, we forget that publishing and writing is still a business. You still need to focus on your ideal reader/customer. You can’t please all the people all the time and all that jazz. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And let’s face it, some people just like to be negative. Sometimes, the most negative critics are the jealous ones who’d rather be writing themselves then reading and critiquing. A grain of salt, my friend. You do good work! xoxo

  5. A friend of mine once said something VERY wise and I think of it with every negative review (although I also agree with some of them, because I know my own weaknesses as a writer). She said when she reads a negative review she thinks, “Very good. Not my audience. Not my reader.”
    I like that. I find it helpful, not just as a balm to my ego, but also to help define my audience. Am I hitting the mark? I mean, I’d love to be a literary darling to all, but the reality is some will appreciate the work and some won’t. Some just won’t be my audience. And when I look at it that way, it’s a lot easier on my stomach. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Have you seen Cloud atlas, Erika? Thereโ€™s a priceless scene where a writer throws a really obnoxious right off the balcony of a high rise โ€“just grabs this insufferable twit right by his lapels and hucks him. I loved it. But only because the guy really was awful. Just scathing and disdainful, right to the writerโ€™s face, and in front of a room full of people.

    If those are your “bad” reviews, I’d say you’re doing pretty good in the review dept. On a bad day, just remember this: At least your work is being read! And personally, I loved Hemingway’s Girl. My thought as I read it was that the lovely, clean prose was the sort he would have admired.

  7. Oops…meant to write “really obnoxious REVIEWER”.

  8. Jolina says:

    I agree with Cynthia, Erika. Your prose is not “soggy” or “cheesy”! I could just strangle those people for you. But thank you for setting such a good example for the rest of us and making light of such cruel reviewers. I hope I have your good humor and strength!

  9. Glenn says:

    I to thought it was going to be just another chick book . After reading a few chapters , I really got into it , and I’m a guy . She blends fiction with facts very artfully . I enjoyed it !

  10. !! LOL !! I like the DDull.
    But I sort of take offense at them pigeon-holing me, the reader, as someone wanting a fluffy romance. Cuz while I was reading Zelda I was nowhere near feeling romantic.

  11. Great post. I don’t often read my reviews because the good ones tell me I can stop trying so hard and the bad ones tell me I should just stop! I like Kimberly Brock’s advice. Gonna have to write that one down…

  12. charlene shephard says:

    …hence the name “critic” My choice would not to be living in a world of negativity and also have it be my job as well ๐Ÿ™‚ Tearing down someone else’s work as my lively hood is pretty obnoxious if you ask me. Do they really have that much clout with people. I would buy a book…see a movie..or go to a museum and make up my own mind. I don’t need their input at all. All of you keep on doing what you love and remember that you are getting paid for doing a job that you love and you take us all away from our lives and give us a wonderful break from reality.
    Which is a blessing for you all as well as each of us. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Erika-This is such a great piece. I think we all want to believe that other people are getting our rainbows and chocolate covered strawberries but, in fact, there is no publishing experience that is ALL good . I think reviews can tell us something about how our work is being perceived by the reviewer–sometimes that’s helpful, sometimes not.

    Glad you are back home with the family after a successful tour!

  14. Major, massive props to you for this blog post!! I think I have mentally blocked all bad reviews of The Kingdom of Childhood, but Publishers Weekly called my earlier book, Desperado City, “a schizophrenic tangle” and a “YA soap opera” (it wasn’t YA). I wanted to crawl into a cave with a bottle of vodka and never come out. I survived ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. juliesondra says:

    Thanks for sharing! (I’m in the agented-but-still-trying-to-get-a-publisher phase, and the poor reviews from early readers sound pretty loud on the bad days.)

    My favorite “advice” regarding the book that is now on submission:

    “The first part of this writing needs some work. Change the language and sentence structure to make it sound more like a novel and less like an English paper or PHD dissertation. I know what papers, MS theses and PHD dissertations sound like. That’s because I’ve written them. Change the wording. That is, use one and two syllable words instead of more complex words where possible. Shorten your sentences. I caught several run on sentences. You are an excellent writer. However, you are not Henry James or James Joyce. They can get away with long sentences. Someday you may acquire the skill. Right now let’s stick with short sentences.”

    Thanks guy. I hope I will soon develop enough writing chops to have your permission to write a longer sentence and use my SAT words.

  16. Darcie Morin says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

  17. girlparker says:

    Good lord, this coffee-drinking lady would like to “trip and spill” her scalding beverage into that pompous reviewer’s lap. Then ask if they’d like cream with that. Or a scone.

  18. Colleen says:

    If you try to please all the people all the time, the only one unhappy is you. Make yourself happy and in doing so, others might just be as well.

  19. Had a reader track me down and leave the following comment on my long out of print children’s picture book’s FB fanpage:

    “…just wanted to let you know my son did not get past the first page of your book. After correcting your grammar in permanent marker, I am now on a tear! Next, a letter to the publishing company, and both the principal and the school librarian will be seeing this at 9:15. DISGUSTED!!!”
    The grammar wasn’t *that* bad. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  20. Ann Hite says:

    Had to share my very favorite negative review.

    “Hite starts off with an interesting premise. This story is told by six different women, each fitting in another piece and another perspective to the world of Black Mountain, NC, its most infamous resident, Hobbs Pritchard, and its numerous ghosts. But a premise does not make a good book. If you’re looking for a romance novel/ghost story for Halloween, this might fit the bill.”

    I don’t take offense to this. Because I did write a story about a girl who got married and it does have lots of ghosts ;). But mostly, I just will not allow myself to dwell on the negative. And there will always be a negative. Love your writing Erika!

  21. Melissa Crytzer Fry says:

    Talk about cajones… You have some mighty big ones to publish this post. Kudos to keeping it real and avoiding lemons in the wound (that comment made me laugh).

  22. You know some of those reviewers are probably just jealous. I bet anything word got out about the strawberries and champagne.

  23. Sara DiVello says:

    Thank you so much for having the courage to share this, Erika! I think you’re awesome!!

    I just got my first bad one. Of course, I was/am braced for bad ones, because we are told so frequently that there WILL be bad ones and it’s all part of the business, etc. but it was definitely interesting to actually “feel” it.

    I just keep remembering that saying, “You can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time. But you can’t please ALL the people ALL the time.”

    And I’ll add on: And that’s OK! We’re not writing to try to please everyone! We’re writing to tell our stories and they will resonate with some people and not with others. Write on! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  24. erikarobuck says:

    Write on, indeed. Good attitude, Sara! ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. I admire you so much for putting this out there. It shows you’re mature beyond your years, my dear. Love you and I love your writing. I’d bet you have more tallies in the good column by a long shot. ๐Ÿ™‚

  26. You’re a brave writer, Erika! Even Papa got some bad reviews. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I remember reading a piece by Francine Prose where she said she didn’t write reviews of books that she didn’t like because there was enough negativity and it’s too easy to be overly critical without being constructive.

    • erikarobuck says:

      Thanks, Jackie! That’s my review policy: I only recommend the books I LOVE. No criticism here.

      • Cindy says:

        I like that policy – only write reviews for work you love. I always cringe when I read about writers blasting the work of other writers.

        Thank you for sharing the “dark side” of putting your work out there in the world; it was brave of you to share the critiques of your own work. I, like you, will read my bad reviews one day and try to separate the ones that might have helpful advice to consider and ones that are just negative for the sake of being negative. I think it is a mistake to completely ignore negative reviews because you can learn from them as well.

        And I know you said we shouldn’t give positive praise in these comments, but I thoroughly enjoyed both of your books and thought they were well-researched + believable. Okay, I will stop with the positive praise now ๐Ÿ™‚

      • erikarobuck says:

        Thank you, Cindy. I appreciate your comments and wish you all the best with your own writing.

  27. Sharing this is so helpful, Erika! As for me, I live nicely and quietly on a river in Egypt. Denial. I stay away more than I read them, but when I do, from now on, I’m going to adopt the “not the right audience” mantra. Because when it makes me question the book I’ve written, or the book I’m writing, it does no one any good at all. xo

  28. Normandie says:

    Oh, my, Erika. My first book is just releasing. I remember the vagaries of those early contest rides–“Oh, perfect,” about a scene shouted down by someone’s “Gag. Who is that person?”

    I keep telling myself that I won’t read the reviews of Becalmed. I lie.

    Amy and others have the right idea: Not the right audience. But there’s always that ungrown-up in each of us who really, truly wants to be loved–even by the “not us” crowd.

    Excellent and courageous post. I’m bookmarking it so that I can return again!

    • erikarobuck says:

      Thanks, Normandie. I wish I had the will power to stay away, but I don’t. I am actually trying to learn, and there some constructive critical reviews. These represent more of a “troll sampling.” ๐Ÿ™‚

  29. Mallory says:

    Bad reviews must suck. I imagine its like reading a rejection letter from an agent/publisher (I’ve gotten plenty of those.) But they are supposed to help us learn and grow, right?

  30. Mallory says:

    Those aren’t the worst reviews I’ve ever read. Heck, they’re not even the worst I’ve ever written.
    That being said, I can imagine how hard it must be to read those. Probably as hard ad reading a rejection letter from an agent. (And I’ve received plenty of those.)
    Keep on writing. You’re very talented, and I am enjoying Hemingway’s Girl!

  31. cattychick says:

    I LOVED Call Me Zelda. I have been obsessed with the Fitzgeralds since high school – a long time ago:-) I own just about every book they have ever written, and gobble up every new bio. I’m no authority on them by any means. But I was amazed at how you combined your painstaking research with a highly credible and most engaging narrative. Zelda would have had countless caregivers during her confinements. That your main character is a nurse would be a natural choice, given Zelda’s circumstances. I purchased your book wanting to know more about the Fitzgeralds, but ended up adoring the character of Anna Howard. I finished the book hoping that Anna might resurface helping another troubled mid-century writer. There must have been many of them, right?

    You have a gift for writing about faith, love and redemption, even in the most challenging situations. You clearly do your homework on your subjects. Always keep writing. Take the constructive criticism, and never mind the crazies. You are a wonderful author!!

    • erikarobuck says:

      I can’t thank you enough for these kind words. I appreciate them so much, especially since you are such a fan of the Fitzgeralds. With gratitude…Erika

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