In my other life as a lawyer, my colleagues and I have a running joke. One day your client says you are the best attorney in the world, worth every penny (that would be the day you win a trial, an appeal, or a crucial motion), the next day you have no idea what you're doing and it's unbelievable you graduated law school (that would be the day the judge rules against you). Sometimes it's the same client sending those conflicting messages. As the author of Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff notes, if you take either praise or blame too much to heart, you’ll live on an emotional roller coaster. This is why many authors I know don’t read reviews of their books. So is there anything to be learned from the comments (especially the negative ones) people make about our work or other aspects of our lives? That depends upon a few factors.
The first is how specific the critique is. No doubt like most people, I prefer “loved it” to “hated it” (so feel free to write a few “loved it” reviews of my latest release, The Unbelievers), but what I value most are comments that pinpoint what worked and/or didn't. For example, one reader wrote that she really liked the supernatural pregnancy aspect of The Awakening (Book 1 in my occult thriller series) and found it to be fast paced and intriguing, but she felt the male characters were overall portrayed negatively as compared to the female characters. That certainly wasn't my intent, but on reflection, I could see where someone could read the book that way. So in Book 2, The Unbelievers, I focused one of the sub-plots on two of the male characters and delved into their stories and motives more. That ultimately became one of the greatest strengths in the story. On the other hand, I didn't learn anything from a 1-star review that said “Meh – not for me.” Or, though they made me smile, from 4 and 5-star ratings on Goodreads with no comments.
Can we learn from the comments (especially the negative ones) others make about us?
Another thing to consider when deciding whether praise or blame tells you anything useful is the emotional context. A client's comments about my legal ability just after a win or a loss are less likely to reflect accurately my actual legal skills or the service I delivered than the same client's feedback after a year of working together that included both ups and downs.
Perhaps what matters most is understanding the critic's preferences. I have a friend whose decorating advice I’d take any day of the week, even if she told me my favorite lamp needed to be hidden away where no one but me would see it. I love the way her home looks and admire her taste. Plus we both love hardwood floors and antiques, and we both are definitely not fans of matched sets of anything. Or of ruffles. On the other hand, her interest in fashion is minimal and her clothing choices are ultra-conservative. If she told me my shoes were too flashy, it's unlikely I'd change my footwear. Likewise, when I see a review of one of my thrillers, whether it’s positive or negative, I often check to see what else the reader has reviewed. One reader complained that the characters in The Awakening raced around too much and there wasn't even a good love scene. Her other reviews were mostly of romance novels. While I'm sorry she didn't like the book, I didn't change the pacing or plot of Book 2 because of it. The racing around that she didn't like is what makes fans of Dan Brown and Dean Koontz call The Awakening and The Unbelievers fast-paced page-turners, which is what I was aiming for.
If I tried to make every potential reader happy, I'd probably produce terrible books that zigzagged all over the place, So I do my best, in writing and in life, to appreciate anyone who takes the time to give feedback, and to pay the most attention to those critiques likely to help me get better and better. That makes my life more peaceful and, I hope, my work the best it can be.