Writer in Residence

How to Respond to a Bad Review

By Nathan Whitlock

Recently, the creator and star of a one-man show playing as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival posted a long response to the online review of his work – a review that was definitely unenthusiastic, but not particularly mean or snarky. After repeatedly misspelling the reviewer’s name (which may have been intended as a passive-aggressive counterstrike), he ends by declaring that the reviewer in question lacks “even the insight of a casual theatre goer.”

I only heard about the performer’s high-minded counter-attack because the reviewer tweeted out a link with the social media equivalent of a bemused shrug. So if the playwright/actor’s intention was to cut a wrong-minded critic off at the knees… mission unaccomplished. Instead of simply letting the review hang, he inadvertently helped give it a second life as part of a cautionary tale about responding to critics.

So what should an artist or writer do in the face of a bad review? Here, I lay out the appropriate responses.

 

If the review is mostly positive, but ends on a sour note (the dreaded penultimate “however” paragraph):

Do nothing. Accept the praise and shrug off the moments of hesitation. Know that most people won’t even read that far into the review. Some will only take in the headline, the name of your book, and the first few sentences.

If the opportunity arises organically, thank the reviewer – AND THAT’S IT. Don’t argue your case.

 

If the review is mixed, with roughly equal parts praise and disdain:

Do nothing. Copy-and-paste the words of praise – blurbs have no integrity. Complain to friends about the criticism while silently assessing whether any of it hit the mark.

You don’t have to thank the reviewer.

 

If the review is entirely negative, or almost:

Do nothing. Remember that criticism is inherently subjective, and that what turns off one reader might be the very thing that excites another. Remember, too, that simply being afforded the opportunity to be reviewed, however harshly, is a privilege most writers don’t enjoy. Review space is limited, so even a bad review is objective proof your book was considered worthy of attention.

Google the reviewer. Laugh at his/her Facebook photo or Twitter avatar. Then forget any of it ever happened. Live your life.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.


Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

You can write to Nathan throughout the month of July at writer@openbooktoronto.com