“What to do with a bad review.”

M.J. Downing

It’s like getting a C- on that paper on which I really worked hard. It’s a psychological gut punch I didn’t see coming. It puts me down, like on the canvas, trying to breathe, think, though nothing happens. George Foreman, as I recall, called them ‘canvas moments.’ I don’t know which boxer said it first, but some witty pugilist said “Everybody has a plan, until they get hit.” Then, there’s that second or two after I go face first onto the ring floor and think, “Maybe I can just stay here for a few minutes. Just leave me alone. I’ll be okay–maybe.”

Another writer I knew in college, who barely recognizes me anymore, except with disdain, told me that writing and boxing have in common the fact that the writer needs to know how to take a punch. And for all of his dismissiveness, he was right. No matter what I do in life, there will always be someone to tell me that it isn’t good enough or its just okay or it lacks this or that. I can’t please everyone.

Which means that I won’t be okay on the canvas, even if I hit it hard and think that staying there is an exceptional idea. But no one can stay there. No one should stay there. Of course, the saddest reality is that true trauma can put people down so hard that they can never get up off the canvas, no matter what. Then, we see addictions, neuroses, futile acts of revenge, taking the place of the work that could yet be done. But that isn’t the reality that faces me when I get a bad review.

I can rail at it, claim it unfair, even find evidence that the critic hasn’t really read the book. All of that is useless. My responsibility as a writer is to tell a story the best way I know how, reach people’s hearts and heads, excite or please them, scare or comfort them, even.

Now, a good review is like a pat on my back, an “Attaboy!” “Well Done!” “Good Job, Man!” It can buoy me up but only for a while. Soon, it gets shoved behind the work that has to be done, the research, drafting, and seemingly endless revisions and edits that go into any piece of writing, the perpetual OJT (On the Job Training) that makes up my writing life. In a sense, the bad review ought to make me smile, after I get over its shock to my plan.

So, is the bad review better than the good? No, not at all, though a clearer look at my efforts will come from it. The bad review is not better because it is bad, mean, or wrong. It is better because it shows me how I leave myself open for punches, which I can use to perfect my game, improve my craft. And, I need to face the fact that I can improve, as I face the other side of that fact: not everyone will find value in what I produce, no matter the effort I place in my work. I can smile to myself and think about how I left myself open to get hit, because that is going to happen.

Realizing that my reaction to a good review doesn’t last all that long tells me that my reaction to a bad one shouldn’t last any longer. The key thing is getting back to work, doing what I know to be good things, like researching, drafting, revising and editing. For, at the end of the day, all I have control over is what I choose as my focus, which, as a writer, is writing.

After a bad review, one thing I can suggest is watching a movie called “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Meryl Streep–who can sing really well, by the way, plays the title character, a wealthy patron of singers and composers. She supports them because she loves music and wants to headline as a singer herself. Now, Jenkins loves opera but does not sing very well at all. She gets her chance, of course. It’s the inevitable moment in her tragic, endearing tale. When she puts herself out there, she gets ripped by the critics. It is heart breaking to see her fall. Her response, though, is one for the ages: “They might say that I cannot sing, but they will never say that I did not sing.”

Paraphrased to writing, that is my mantra, good reviews or bad. Ultimately, it is also what must be done by those knocked down by true trauma, not just a 500 word review of a novel. For those people, the message has not been about their work but about their core identity. They have been slammed, early and often, to the canvas. I see many that live in the grip of such fear, a fear that makes them open to being radicalized, made to focus their hurt-based fear on another person or ideology. Those people spreading untruths, willing to vilify another kind of person, screaming about conspiracies because of the fear that lurks under the boiling cauldron of their anger. All of them, all of us, have opportunities to look at their fears. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Face the bad reviews. Learn from them. Do not let them erode who you are. Do your work. There are countless vistas of creativity and freedom to those who can choose to do so. You are not alone. You have a friend in me.

M.J.

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