How to deal with a rotten review

Once upon a time, a writer wrote a book, as writers tend to do, and got it published, however unlikely that may seem. Then she sat back and waited for the good stuff that happens to writers who get published: trumpets sound, cherubs strew rose petals and hundred-dollar bills on our naked bodies, and attractive members of the opposite sex – or same sex, depending on proclivity – appear at our doors, bearing chocolate.

Burn, damnable rag!

But her book got a bad review. Oh, it got some good ones as well, but it also got this absolute stinker of a critique in what the writer had previously regarded as a praiseworthy publication. Now, of course, she knew it as a damnable rag, suitable only for burning.

That writer might be me. Or she might be some other virtuous, hard­working person. She might even be a man, and I’ve just been using feminine pronouns to confuse you.

The writer changes gender

Mt. Everest? No.

The writer — who does appear to have become a man — was cast into a swamp of despair, a hellish place without a convenient Starbucks. He was as bummed as if he’d been Sir Edmund Hillary, nearing the peak of Everest after weeks of toil, and suddenly finding that, due to a navigational error, he was about to crest Fitch Mountain (991 feet) in Healdsburg, California.

Or if he’d been stout Cortés (who was really Balboa; Keats got that wrong) standing upon that peak in Darien, eyeing the vast Pacific, and having it gradually dawn on him that it was more the size of Lake Windermere.

(It seems that Vasco Núñez de Balboa, whom I’ve always rather cherished due to fond memories of visiting Balboa Island as a tot, set dogs on Native Americans because they engaged in homosexuality. Oh, Balboa! That is so not cool. I hope it rained every day you visited the Lake District.)

Crocodile, post-hunt

Where were we? Oh yes. The writer with the rotten review. Life had palled for him, absolutely. How would he ever hold up his head in the literary salons? Would he not be “hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn”? Had he any right to go on quoting Bob Dylan: he, who apparently couldn’t write for toffee?

And then back again

And then, changing genders again, the writer remembered that amongst her possessions was a slim volume entitled Rotten Reviews. She tottered to the bookcase, extracted this gift from a prescient friend, and began to read.


“We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story,” trumpeted Children’s Books about Alice in Wonderland.

“What has never been alive cannot very well go on living,” predicted the New York Herald Tribune about that dead-as-a-dodo book, The Great Gatsby.

Dr. J. reads Webster’s review

Noah Webster sizes up his competition: “I can assure the American public that the errors in Johnson’s Dictionary are ten times as numerous as they suppose; and that the confidence now reposed in its accuracy is the greatest injury to philology that now exists.” (Do you think Webster might have been biased?)

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s verdict on Jane Austen’s novels: “ … vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.”

“Sentimental rubbish,” sniffed the Odessa Courier about Anna Karenina. “Show me one page that contains an idea.”

And what work do you suppose Voltaire dissed as follows? “It is a vulgar and barbarous drama  … one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken madman.” Just a negligible little play called Hamlet by William Shakespeare, and when’s the last time you heard of that?

There’s only one way to deal with a rotten review: keep on writing.

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“Confronted by an absolutely infuriating review it is sometimes helpful for the victim to do a little personal research on the critic. Is there any truth to the rumor that he had no formal education beyond the age of eleven? … Do his participles dangle? When moved to lyricism does he write “I had a fun time”? Was he ever arrested for burglary? I don’t know that you will prove anything this way, but it is perfectly harmless and quite soothing.” – Jean Kerr

All quotations from Rotten Reviews: A Literary Companion, edited by Bill Henderson.

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