Just last week, Jacqueline Howett was like the vast majority of the world’s writers: unknown. This week, she is one of the internet’s most famous authors — but not, alas, because her literary genius has been recognised. Instead, Howett is now the author of an internet phenomenon, thanks to her response to a negative review of her self-published novel by a blogger who gave it two stars, citing “spelling and grammar errors” that make the text difficult to read. Responding, Howett starts by asserting that “my first book is great” and demanding that the review be removed for “abuse”, before spiralling into a rage, concluding in telling the blogger and commenters to “fuck off”. It didn’t surprise me that this teapot-sized tempest went viral within online writing communities, tweeted back and forth with smirky comments.
But I didn’t find it entirely hysterical. Is her response pathetic? Yes. Can we surmise that her resistance to criticism may have contributed to the fact that it appears she did not allow anyone to edit her somewhat incoherent prose? Probably. But is it the same thing that everyone who has ever published anything would like to do when he receives a bad review? I’m afraid so. By drawing attention to Howett’s misstep, we make it seem like we’d never do it ourselves. But, by golly: we’d all love to.
Bad reviews mean far more to writers than good ones. It’s not the least bit counterintuitive: good ones confirm the belief that we’re gifted, which is what makes us put our writing out there in the first place. Good criticism prompts a fleeting moment of pleasure, but only briefly satiates the longing for approbation: nearly as soon as someone says something nice, we’re looking for someone else who will say something nice and then after we hear from them, we start busily coming up with reasons why we should really find someone better qualified and more astute to say something nicer.
In contrast, bad reviews confirm our darkest fears: that we are rubbish at writing. I have a vague recollection that some people said some nice things about my book when it was first published two years ago, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. But I will forever be able to quote the words of the critic who concluded a damning review saying that I write like I am “rushing to finish an undergraduate essay”. The urge to seize my laptop and send a riposte was intense. But I restrained myself. Not because I am a person of great moral fibre, but because I had spent two years working in a literary agency where I saw first-hand that people who respond to negative reactions to their work always look like fools.
If you want to be a writer but are not prepared to accept that some people will not appreciate your work, then I daresay you do not really want to be a writer. I didn’t let that nasty review derail my writing career: after whingeing about how life-ruining it was for a weekend, I decided I should use the criticism as an imperative to improve. My next book, I reckon, may well be as good as an essay rushed at the postgraduate level. The Guardian