You (Literally) Asked for It: A Cautionary Tale About Taking Constructive Critique in Stride

Michelle Anne Schingler, a former librarian and Hebrew school teacher, is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. Her days are books, books, books; she knows how lucky that makes her.  Twitter: @mschingler

Once upon a time, an earnest, lifelong reader gave a title a lukewarm review.

There was a lot right with the book, sure. She didn’t suffer through it. She absorbed pages in their due turn.

But there were problems–both in the semi-cheesy way that the story unfolded and resolved itself, and in its presentation of (certain) characters.

The guys were pretty great. They had dimension. They seemed sort of aware of their shortcomings.

But the women, man: the women were a frat boy’s conception of what women should be. They were buxom, seductive, and totally willing to overlook the (seriously cumbersome) flaws of the broken protagonist. Who cares about the chronic solipsism of a potential partner when you’re able to imagine a person’s best potential, amiright?

All errors considered: the reviewer rewarded the book 3 out of 5 stars–definitely on the positive side of the review rating divide!–and reported shortcomings as they were asked to do.

(They wondered–they were a woman, after all, and had been trained to second guess their instincts (can you really trust a feminist to be fair to the authorial instincts of the “superior” sex? Patriarchy dictates an inordinate dose of self-lady-doubt), if they’d been fair.

(Maybe they just DIDN’T LIKE the boobalicious, salacious leads. Maybe they just couldn’t conceive of a gorgeous and brilliant gal so selfless that she’d risk it all on the chance that the dude opposite–floppy mess though he appeared to be–might turn out to be a mensch in disguise. Maybe. Maybe they were wrong.

(Or maybe not.


The reader filed their review. As, for the record, the author had asked them to do: they forwarded an objective account of the book at hand, written for readers, by a reader.

As it turned out: the reader was probably right. Their proof came in the crass manner in which the author did not, at all, receive the criticism gracefully.

For the bloody record, authors–writers of all sensitivity levels!:

Here’s what you don’t do when a reviewer suggests that your book critically misunderstands women: respond by reducing the woman critic to her woman-body-parts.

And yet, despite the seemingly obvious moral of every story ever written about a person who asked for the truth without actually wanting it: once upon a time, this is what one author chose to do.

He reacted with fury: writing a vigorous blog in which his lifetime of slights, sure, but mostly affirmations, from beautiful women was placed into context. Some buxom broads DO love absolute messes of males!, he proclaimed. He blogged a series of photographs of his former lovers as Exhibit A.

What does this reviewer-broad know anyway?!, he raved, citing her social media declaration that she was a feminist–and the accompanying photo in which her breasts were present, though concealed–as proof that said reviewer was a whorish degenerate who was only out to prove that all men were sloppy slobs, mindlessly victim to her self-presented, manipulative seductions, no matter the actual quality of their work when presented before her.

Women who, in their personal lives, lead with the declaration that women are equally human beings, can’t actually be trusted to read a novel (with normal, living, flesh-and-blood man-loving perspectives/”equitably”), amiright?

Upon every time: this is not how you respond to a review.

Dear writers:

If you ask for an outsider’s perspective on your work: be prepared to accept it as honest, no matter the terms.

Ready your graceful response.

Prepare yourself for the possible pushback.

Not everyone will consider your work as brilliant as you believe it to be.

A writer’s work will never be received by all exactly as they hope that it will be. Even if there are rose petal parades and book signing lines that wrap around the block, there will always be some who will–truthfully enough–be ready to say “you know, there was something in these pages that seemed just a little bit off.”

Criticism is not an assault; criticism is a response that you invite when you put your work out into the wide reading world. Sometimes, criticism is the thing that–if taken in good faith, if considered and absorbed–could make your next book even better.

Criticism, even if you don’t agree with it, is valid.

And when you ask for criticism from a reader whom you do not know, as a matter of course and courtesy: criticism is something that you’ve agreed to take in stride.

…you know: without stalking and blog-“shaming” your reviewer. (Manners still matter, y’all.)

Once upon this and every time: don’t be the person who flips out when someone doesn’t rush to sing your book’s praises.

Be the person who listens, calmly, while someone says that your book struck them in a particular way.

You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to change your writing style. You don’t even have to think that such readers are able to read.

But if you’re able to hear what a reader with a foreign perspective says about your work without feeling that your whole being has been attacked: you may just find that your next book is able develop in response, and to be read, happily ever after.