Last April (the 22nd, to be exact), I received an advance copy of the New York Times review of my debut story collection. The piece, which appeared in the Sunday Book Review, began as follows: "There's a postadolescent period many of us would rather forget: that summer or decade when we have no idea what we're doing. Days are measured in beer, TV and dead-end jobs. It is a dull time to live through, and duller still to read about. "Which doesn't stop young writers from writing about it."
The critic, Claire Dederer, went on to characterize my book as a "mopey, navel-gazing collection" full of "confused laddies."
You can include me in that list of laddies, actually, because none of the characters in my book—which include a 70-year-old widower, a 33-year-old female reporter, a middle-aged librarian, and a pair of gay soldiers—drink beer or watch TV or have dead-end jobs. None of them mope or navel-gaze. What they do, and quite vigorously, is have sex and suffer heartbreak.
My friends and relatives who read this review were quick to remind me that I was lucky to get reviewed in the Times at all, that there is no such thing as bad press, that the review did say some nice things. In short, they carted out all available bromides, none of which did squat to soothe my wounded heart.
I have since calmed down considerably. But I would still rank getting a bad review as the worst, most bruising part of putting a book into the world—with no close second.
I know how terribly unfashionable this sounds. Years from now, no doubt, I'll look back upon this confession and wince. To admit that reviews matter is considered poor form among writers. We're supposed to rise above the fray, let our words be our sole defense, blah blah blah. But that's how I feel. And I know, from speaking to dozens of other writers, that most of them feel the same way, though they struggle not to let this show. And, what's more—we've got every right to feel this way.
While writers may be habituated to rejection—I happen to eat the stuff for breakfast—a nasty review isn't just a rejection of your work. It's a public repudiation. You open the paper (perhaps in your very own town) to find that someone, some stranger, has deemed your work lousy. Your mother reads this. She weeps. Quietly. To herself. And then she calls you and says, "…Well, honey, the review did say some nice things."
There's no appeals process. No way to defend yourself in the court of public opinion, nor to question the critic's qualifications. Whatever they say, you eat. Period.