Reviews: The Donut from the Hole

I was listening to a podcast the other day, where one of my favorite writers, memoirist Dani Shapiro, was asked, “How do you handle your bad reviews? Do you read them?”

To which she replied, “I read them. I read them all.”

Now this may sound like a recipe for disaster, self-flagellation of the psychic kind, but Dani had an interesting take on the matter of reviews. According to her, there are four types of reviews:

  1. Good Smart
  2. Bad Smart
  3. Good Stupid
  4. Bad Stupid

The Good Smart review is the one in which the critic has offered a thoughtful, cogent assessment of a work (Smart) that is, at once, flattering to the author (Good).

The Bad Smart review is the wise-ass sidekick–cutting, raw, a blow to the ego (Bad) but also insightful, incisive, accurate (Smart).

The Good Stupid review is the one we want at first sight (Handsome, Buff, Popular), but who ultimately is, well, stupid (superficial, gilded, glib).

And then there’s the Bad Stupid review. Do I really need to explain it? This is the one easiest to brush off because, well, who cares??? Stupid just washes away all that negative energy. It’s like Donald Trump. You just can’t take any of it seriously. (Unless it’s coming from the President of the United States, in which case God help us all; we are doomed)

The one we all want is the Good Smart review. This one gives us a lot of information about how our work has been received, while at the same time leaving our egos intact. I want at least 50% Good Smart reviews. But these are rare. Sometimes because Smart is hard to come by (most days, I think that Stupid is the fastest growing demographic in the country). But sometimes because my writing is just not that Good. So this one is mostly aspirational.

The one I absolutely don’t want is the Bad Stupid review, the one whose currency is debasement–the cheap and easy kind of debasement. Like the Kardashian brand of debasement (although I read somewhere that one of the sisters is worth one Billion dollars – wtf???). The one where the only goal is to titillate–preferably at the expense of somebody else. There is nothing to it. Like eating kale chips. You can keep that one, y’all.

So that leaves us with the Bad Smart and the Good Stupid reviews.

What a choice!

On first instinct, I would choose the Good Stupid. My ego is just fragile enough that I would reach for vapid praise over thoughtful indictment every time. I mean who wants to hear how much they sucked, especially from someone who has done so cleverly???

But very quickly, my stupid-alarm gets triggered, and I have to jump out of bed and turn the damn thing off! Shut up, already!

Which leaves the Bad Smart review.


Choice by elimination.

So what is the edifying quality of the Bad Smart review? How has it survived the elimination process?

Perhaps because it is, at the very least, Smart. Thoughtful, insightful, true. And because there is something to be learned from it. About oneself, and about the world.

Here, for example, is what I’ve learned from Bad Smart reviews:

  1. I have waded in the shallows, not gone deep enough.
  2. I was having a conversation by myself. Invite other people in.
  3. Know thy audience. Academics, for instance, don’t like “voice.” Blog readers love it.
  4. There is always more I could have said. Writing is never “finished;” it’s just “due.”
  5. If there is one comma out of place, one idiom misused (“Begging the Question,” for example), you WILL be found out!
  6. Reviewers are trained to find the (black) hole, but the Universe is infinite. As are you.

So dust yourself off–whether the reviewer is from the New York Times or your catty neighbor next door–and live!!!


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Categories: Reflections

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7 replies

  1. Bad smart reviews aren’t necessarily welcomed because I tend to let the sting of the ‘bad’ override the smartness of the review. After a few minutes though I do pick out the valuable stuff delivered.

  2. Love this: “Writing is never “finished;” it’s just “due.”” SO on point!

    • Yes!

      Hard to come by, though. Recently read a “good smart” review that was basically an opportunity for the reviewer to show off her/his expertise in the area and spew on for pages and pages with only perfunctory mentions of the author and her work. *sigh*

  3. Love the insights here, Tina and I have recently discovered the treasure that Dani Shapiro is. This typology is helpful because so many writers say that they don’t read any of their reviews (very hard for me because I am so curious about the reception of my work) and others read everything (which can also be difficult). I like sorting out the reviews this way. I have also heard of folks having one trusted person read everything and sift through what’s useful and what’s not.

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