I had to wean myself off checking my book progress on Amazon this week. My latest novel Ellis Island has done well, generally garnered good reviews and had the accolade of being selected as a Channel 4 TV Bookclub Summer Read. But in the past couple of weeks a few nasty reviews have crept on to the web. I have always claimed to be immune to bad reviews – and for a writer, I know I am particularly thick skinned. I have never had a sense of entitlement around what I do, and as a result my writers ego is, I like to think, under control. I take criticism well, from both readers and editors, and almost every comment good and bad, is used to improve my work. I use every bit of feedback I can to progress my skills as a writer, but in any case, it is the creative endeavour that interests me more than the praise. I am pleased when people like my books, disappointed when they don’t, but I am my own harshest judge anyway – so can’t afford to take most of it to heart. Most importantly Ellis Island has sold well – which is the biggest statement of all. We writers like to be read, and we like people buying our books because – not wishing to denigrate or demystify the creative process – that is how most of us actually earn our living.
I love writing – it’s an inbuilt passion, and I have always, and will always hold onto the feeling of privilege I get from being published in a world where so many brilliant writers are still working away in private obscurity. But frankly, there are easier ways to make a living. There are harder ways too, (I started life as a hairdresser, ten hours six days a week, varicose veins, tennis elbow etc.), but there is something particularly exhausting about devoting years to producing a book, day after day, slogging away on the longest most difficult school essay you have ever written. It requires a level of commitment that a writer aunt of mine once described as – “play a game of chess in your head”, then having locked oneself away in this strangely private and often lonely pursuit – you have to prepare yourself to it being put out there in public, in the big wide world to sink or swim in a market already flooded with great books.
At first I found the bad reviews amusing. The expression “they are so bad – they’re good” occurred to me. Then I found that when I sat down to write, the nasty comments started to creep into my head. I know I am not a terrible writer. In fact according to the professionals I work with – editors and agents, I rate myself rather less than I should. In fact, the only way to write is to not rate myself at all – just get on with it and do the best I can – like most working people. So this whole “one star” – “five star” business on Amazon is something that I tally with at my peril. Of course, I don’t mind the five star reviewers - but this week I fantasised about giving the people who had written one stars about Ellis Island a taste of their own medicine. Standing behind them as they did their jobs and saying; “God – you can do better than that surely. Call that a good job? You are woefully inefficient and insufferably dull. Oh, and by the way, that shirt doesn’t go with those pants and you have a touch of halitosis.”
I was so enraged by one poisonous review that claimed I had written “a parody of romantic fiction” that I checked out their “other reviews” and was relieved to discover that they regularly bought a particular brand of sensible shoe (five stars) and was something of a gadget boffin. Social misfit – I said cruelly to myself – and undoubtedly falling into that category of person who secretly wishes they could write a novel but has neither the courage or talent to risk chancing it so they comfort themselves writing bad reviews for Amazon from their lonely bedsit.
Of course, that’s probably not the case. They are probably a perfectly nice, well-adjusted, bookish person who is simply expressing their opinion, which they are perfectly entitled to do.
If I choose to spend my life writing books and am fortunate enough to get them published, then I must lay myself open to public criticism and comment. There is something distastefully egocentric in a writer complaining about bad reviews, but at the end of the day, we are only human. Even if the weird nature of our solitary job, and the level of obsessive self-confidence it takes to do it, sometimes suggests otherwise.