The Blessing of the Cranky Reader

No matter how big or small your writing ambitions happen to be, there will come that point in your endeavors that someone will be happy to tell you that you suck.

I was fortunate in my career to work for newspapers for a good many years, and there’s nothing like a pack of newspaper subscribers to take it upon themselves to inform you of your many shortcomings with indiscretion and a hearty lack of tact.

Oh, and not to mention that they frequently do it via the letters to the editor, so those slings and arrows would almost always end up in print.

During the course of my stint as weekly columnist for my university paper and then my home-town newspaper, I was variously called a Marxist, Fascist, socialist, godless heathen, punk, whippersnapper and clueless kid. My skin was already thickened by my boot camp-like journalism instructors, and dealing with ornery readers put the last thick layers upon the callouses of my soul.

Since then, I’ve been happy to have my work critiqued by both friends and strangers and have been strong and open minded about accepting those negative comments that they had and using them to make my work better.

But when the novel you’ve worked on for 20 years finally ends up in print, you’re submitting your work for the approval/dismissal of an exponentially larger spectrum of folks. And the chances are pretty good that no matter how incredible you think you are, how great your friends and family say you are and what kinds of positive reviews you’ve received from readers, there will always be that person who’s ready to tell you how much you suck.

My worst reader review so far came in recently – a raging one-star review on the Amazon page for my novel Immaculate Deception, and I was immediately struck by a strange mix of emotions.

Much like the classic Five Stages of Grief, I was struck on a number of emotional levels. The first was the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach I used to get in school when I’d get a terrible grade back from a teacher. I had failed, and this person had called me on it.

The second was that punched-in-the-chest feeling I got whenever I would get the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech from a girlfriend. It was the “you’re just not good enough” feeling.

The third was boiling rage – how dare this guy have the nerve to say that about me?Had he been standing in front of me at the moment, I would have landed several powerful blocks on a couple of particularly soft and vulnerable points on his body.

The fourth feeling was one of inevitability. Not everyone likes everything, I said to myself, and it was almost guaranteed that someone out there would dislike my work enough to go on record about just how much they disliked it.

The fifth and final stage was dismissal. I looked again at the overwhelming number of positive reviews I’ve received across the board, then checked on other things the fellow had reviewed. He genuinely didn’t like anything he read, and my last thought was that perhaps he just needs to re-evaluate what he’s reading if nothing he picks ever makes him happy.

And in a way, a truly poor review is a form of validation. It demonstrates that your work is indeed being read by people who aren’t your friends, family and adoring fans. It shows that someone you don’t know and have never met was intrigued enough to pick it up, plow through it, turn their nose up and decide the entire thing was a waste of time and then take more of his valuable time to tell other people why.

This is perhaps the best compliment a writer could receive, because it means people are picking your book up or download on a whim – not because you begged them, not because they felt obligated, but because it sounded like something they might like.

Or, as my friend and colleague at Codorus Press, Tom Joyce, put it, “Scott’s really arrived, because he’s got his first troll.”

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