Writing your own bad review

Keep calm and Keep Writing

I know, I know. You thought getting your book published would be it.  The happiest day of your life.  Once book is in your hands things are rarely as you imagined.  I realized this last year when I was touring with my book.  Admittedly, it was a very limited regional tour (it was an academic book, after all), but it was NOTHING like I had imagined:  driving to small college towns, sleeping in cheap hotels and eating bad food. And after those lovely weekends I got to go home and work a full week.  I loved meeting people who were interested in my work, but it was expensive and grueling.

Then come the reviews.  Most fiction writers dread reviews because it’s the last part of a long process where they have almost no control.  And let’s face it, it’s hard to think that someone might hate your work after you’ve suffered years to get it into print.  To preempt this, one of my colleagues created her own first bad review just to get it over with: “I figured it was better to have one on the [Amazon] site.  Then I could say the book had a bad review and I had survived.”

Today in the Guardian some leading authors have published bad reviews of their work:

The same is true of the confessions collected by Robin Robertson in his 2003 book Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame. Most of the tales of disastrous experiences are from the start of the authors’ careers, as with Julian Barnes’s anecdote about a literary party that couldn’t have gone worse for him, or Margaret Atwood’s account of an early signing session in the men’s underwear section of a department store and a TV appearance in which she followed a woman from the Colostomy Association. You don’t believe the shameful memories still keep them awake today.

This makes the self-rubbishing under the heading “What’s Wrong with Me?” in the latest Dublin Review more radical, as the authors who responded to its invitation (to reveal “what they do that causes them dismay, or what they wish they could do but can’t”) are exposing abiding, apparently ineradicable, flaws – not long-ago humiliations, or callow books, or problems since conquered.

Most of the confessions are nonetheless informal and relatively straightforward. Anne Enright berates herself for punctuation tics (“I am tormented by my need for commas”). Richard Ford is unable to “describe how people look”. Tessa Hadley admits to repeating images. Neil Jordan says he has written “a thousand beginnings” but few become finished projects. Ruth Padel convicts herself of “too-muchness”, writing too much and overdoing imagery.

The truth is, the author knows his or her weaknesses best.  I find it comforting to read that these wildly successful authors share my insecurities.


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