The Perils of Positive Reviews

I don’t know precisely what the One Ring whispered to Gollum when he held it close, crouching in the darkness of a cave… but based on its effect, I assume it was giving him a series of positive literary reviews. Reviews, I am coming to find, are diabolical and all too precious things.
There have been piles of articles advising authors on how to deal with negative reviews, but a scarcity about processing praise. In a strange way, praise can be just as maddening. As reviews come in from the Advanced Reader Copies of Jackaby, I find my fragile, increasingly schizophrenic arguments going something like this:

– They’re not for you. Walk away before you stumble on a harsh one.

– Read them, but read them for a purpose with a rational, cool head.

– Don’t! Fool of a Took! You’ll allow them to gain power over you!

– Too late! Lalala! I’m a princess in a tower made of pretty words!


It’s a terrible habit, I know—but like Frodo atop Mount Doom, I can’t seem to chuck the dang ring into the fires. The reviews for Jackaby have been unbelievably G R E A T, and I’m so proud and happy… but they make me all the more paranoid about when the other shoe will drop. Someone is bound to give me a thumbs down or a one star out of five. Who will it be? Who is after the precious?

I have, at least, discovered something better to distract me from the lure of obsessing over positive reviews: terrible reviews for acclaimed authors. My new AYR book buddy, Kelly Barnhill, recently turned me on to me a tumblr of one-star reviews… and they are a marvelous. They’re loaded with gems like:

Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare): “First of all, the whole thing is almost all dialogue.”

Metamorphosis (Kafka): “I’m probably going to burn it.”

To the Lighthouse (Woolfe): “… wasn’t lighthouse-y enough.”

They’re like a smelling salt. It’s impossible to take a review too seriously after a handful of those babies. If you receive public feedback on anything that you do, I highly encourage you check them out. Let the ridiculousness of totally subjective criticism shake you from your trance and help you to destroy the ring.

(Speaking of Lord of the Rings, Tolkein’s modern classic received initial reviews ranging from “Masterpiece… destined to outlast our time,” to “high minded… the death of literature itself,” to simply “Oh God, no more elves.” True fact!)


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6 responses to “The Perils of Positive Reviews

  1. If I am being completely honest, when my first book came out the positive reviews were WAY HARDER on my spirit than the negative ones. I had a bit of a different experience than you – I didn’t see any of the early reviews, because I didn’t even know that Goodreads existed. And I didn’t know how to set a google alert because it never even occurred to me to google myself or my book. (Those were the days! When I was clueless and fancy-free!) So the first review I ever saw was from Kirkus. And it was amazing and it had a star and whatever, but it was the first time that I was *seen*, you know? When I wrote Mostly True Story of Jack, I wasn’t in a crit group, never showed the book to anyone except my agent and my editor, and I worked exclusively from 4-6 in the morning before the kids woke up. Writing was this solitary, monkish practice for me.

    And then I was visible. And it was really uncomfortable.

    And what’s worse is that – and I know this sounds weird – but the positive reviews, like the professional ones, the people who put stars on things? Well. They were incredibly silencing. Like I was suddenly thrust into this space where I was no longer allowed to write really really sucky prose. Which is what I was used to. I write the sucky stuff in order to get to the good stuff. And there I was, with a book with stars on it, and I was like, “Shit. Hello expectations.” And it was like the spigot had been turned off, and writing became suddenly terrifying. And painful. And it made it hard to work on the next book, I’ll tell you what.

    So yeah. It’s hard. And my advice? Do WHATEVER IS POSSIBLE to drown it out. Ignore everything. Because none of that gets the next book written, you know? You write your book and you give it to the world, and then you let it go. Let the world yammer. Because, good god. It surely will.

  2. gaepolisner

    And this is why I love my one-star or bad reviews (yes, I have them): they allow me to believe the good ones. WIthout the bad ones, I would seriously believe that everyone is just blowing smoke up my ass. But it has to go both ways, if I’m going to give any weight whatsoever — or at least a moment’s thought — the the bad ones, then I get to believe the good ones too, under the theory that, yes, people are willing to be brutally honest, even five-star brutally honest.

    Actually, the ones that make me most mad: the 3-star ones that rave about the book. Brilliant, page-turning, beautifully written: THREE STARS. Those will be the death of me. 😉


  3. I am reading Jackaby right now. I’ll try not to be overly positive in my review, for the sake of your sanity 🙂 Actually, I’m not too far in yet, but I’m enjoying it so far!

  4. Krystle R.

    Why can’t I find a way to contact you via email??? Just wanted to say that I saw “Jackoby” at our public library in the “NEW” section and I have to say I picked it up because it looked like a sappy regency novel but thought I’d give it a shot… and I LOVED IT!!! I will be recommending it to all my friends. I am so glad that I found it, PLEASE keep the awesome story going! And listen to those positive reviews- they’re just being HONEST. 🙂

    • Thanks so much! Very kind of you—and I’m happy to hear Jackaby is making library rounds. More than a few chapters of that book were written in the quiet corner of a library.

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