Discriminating Tastes

“But he answered him not one word…” Matthew 27:14

The first thing rookie writers learn when they join a writers group that practices read and critique is to accept criticism without countering with a defense. “No defending!” bark critique veterans as soon as the writer opens her mouth to explain. I’ve always felt valuable exchange is lost in the practice. What might readers and critiquers take away from a discussion of what was intended versus what ended up on the page? Of what was read versus what was heard? Such discussions do happen, but they happen during sidebars, where like-minded writers deepen their professional friendships.

As much as I believe is lost by the no-defending practice, something more important is gained: The grit to handle negative reviews after publication. A bad review feels like an unexpected ill wind. The writer’s sails go slack. Her compass flutters. A few bad reviews, even if they’re a small percentage of all the reviews, and a writer might go as far as wondering if she should change course.

I read more than a few books produced by writers who teach or have taught in MFA programs. We call them literary writers, and their work typically is published by small presses. Their books don’t have scads of reviews on Amazon or GoodReads or BookBub. At least, many do not. These top-shelf writers don’t beat the bushes for readers. Why would they subject their work to anyone and everyone? They know their readers, and their readers know them.

I’m writing this post on August 25, a couple of days before it goes live. Not coincidentally, this post goes live the same day my debut novel, ALL IN, launches. As of this morning, ALL IN has 35 ratings and 31 reviews on GoodReads. Five of the reviews are unequivocally negative. Ouch! Ironically, the reviewers who hated the protagonist’s story, told in her own words, justified their ratings with content other reviewers used to justify positive ratings. Go figure.

When the first of these negative reviews showed up about a month ago, it stung. I complained to friends about it, faithful friends who commiserated with me. When I’d had enough of listening to my own griping, I had to ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” Generally, the Lord did His thing without answering His critics. The same as I learned to do during my first read and critique session more than 20 years ago.

Readers are discriminating, and discrimination is a two-edge sword. On one side is refined taste and good judgement. On the other, prejudice and unjust judgement. As a writer—and as a person—I have to figure out if criticism means I’m way off base or exactly where I need to be. I used to work for a smart man who told his team the flak was thickest over the target—a bit of wisdom I still cling to.

I’ve already changed my writerly ways in the manuscript for my next novel. I did that years before ALL IN was put in final draft and sent off to the publisher. Doubtless, my next novel will get its own 1- and 2-star reviews for different reasons. Or for the same reasons but with different specifics. In any case, I’ll be catching roses one day and fending off rocks the next. It’s exhilarating. And painful.

That’s the price of pushing a book out to whosover will.

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