Why Criticism of Your Writing Stings — and Stays with You

Madeleine L'Engle

Say you’ve gotten a whole slew of great reviews and a tiny number of negative ones. Which ones are you most likely to remember (or more precisely, still be obsessing about) five years hence? Of course, it’s the nasty reviews. This is actually one of the top clichés of the writing life, right up there with “write what you know.”

I never quite understood why this was until Madeleine L’Engle made it crystal clear in the passage below. It’s the negative comments that reawaken our own self-doubts, the very ones we thought we overcame once our work was in print.

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Bad reviews awaken your self-doubt

Madeleine L'Engle


“When we write and are published, we become naked before people…it’s hard for us to open ourselves to rebuff. I bleed from bad reviews, even though I have been very blessed in getting many more good reviews than bad reviews.

But like every other writer I know, when you get ninety-nine good reviews and one bad review, what review stays in your mind? The bad one. And why? Because it awakens our own doubts. Did I really serve the work? Did I really hear it? Could she really be right and I haven’t done it as I should have?

If you’re going to write and be published, you’ve got to expect to have a few arrows thrown at you. They’re going to hurt, and you’re going to bleed. You’re probably going to cry if you’re like me. But that’s just part of it and you have to learn.”

—Madeleine L’Engle, Madeleine L’Engle Herself, 2001

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Edna Ferber: “I do read reviews, and I do care”

Edna Ferber

This reaction to negative press is so common that many authors made the decision to ignore reviews, good and bad. Edna Ferber was not one of them: “There are writers who say they pay no attention to reviews of their books, never read them, and don’t care whether they’re good or bad. I am not one of these. I do read them and I do care …”

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Not treated kindly by  critics

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852

A New York Times review of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, The Minister’s Wooing (1859), published just a few years after the smash success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sniped afresh at the latter.

The review stated that “we never felt much sympathy for the extravagant admiration” conferred on that novel specifically, and on the social justice and slavery themes in Stowe’s work in general.

“To use novels as weapons of attack or defense is like giving foul blows in boxing. You may disable your antagonist, but you degrade yourself, and doubly degrade the supporters who applaud you.”

Double ouch! Stowe wasn’t indifferent to reviews, but they were overridden in her mind by the huge audience she knew she had, and the cause (abolition) she was serving. And, after having been poor her entire life, the monetary rewards from her bestsellers were comforting, too.

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Carson McCullers: “I never read reviews”

Carson McCullers at her desk

Carson McCullers
passed on reading reviews of her works. “I never read my reviews. If they’re good, they might give me the big-head, and if they are unfavorable, I would be depressed. So why bother?”

Contemporary author Annie Proulx, widely known for The Shipping News and the novella Brokeback Mountain, seemed to concur:

“After things are published I never read them again. I never, ever read reviews.” Few among us, alas, can resist the allure of a Google alert or to peek at what reader-reviewers have to say about our work on Amazon and Goodreads. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to let sleeping doubts lie?

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Excerpted and adapted from The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life  by Nava Atlas

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