SURVIVING A BAD REVIEW
By Brian Polk
Published Issue 077, May 2020
With the meteoric rise of the amateur critic, hardly anyone can escape the crosshairs of the bad review these days. From shortsighted, petty business assessments on Yelp to snidely tearing apart media on Amazon, bad opinions of your life’s work have never been easier to dispense. And thanks to the ease of accessing the internet, reading horrible, poorly-worded analyses of your blood, sweat and tears is conveniently a click or two away! How’s that for modern living?
Even though a bad review can cause some serious soul damage, it’s nonetheless a right of passage. If you’ve never been on the receiving end of one, it’s because you’ve never made yourself vulnerable by opening a business or creating and releasing art. But if you really put yourself out there, really make a commitment to try hard in life, some jerk with an internet connection and an opinion will fucking hate you for it, and they will say really shitty things.
So what’s a creator to do?
The Five Steps.
First of all, when you see a bad review, you must endure all five stages of grief postulated by the Kübler-Ross model before you can do anything else. No one is immune to this process (unless you’ve read thousands of negative reviews about yourself and have developed an impenetrable mental callous. That is a good place to be, but it takes a lot of shit to get there). And journeying through these stages is mandatory if you have any hope of turning it into a positive experience.
This stage doesn’t last long. Immediately following the first read-through of the review, you may briefly say to yourself, “Maybe it’s not that bad.” But that just motivates you to read it again. At that point you say, “Actually it is. It is that bad. Damn.”
A long-lasting stage, this is where you get to use the word “fuck” a lot and repeatedly wonder who the fuck the author of the review thinks he or she is. You also get to show it to friends and co-workers and ask them to answer the question of who the fuck the author thinks he or she is.
“Maybe I can hide the review so no one sees it,” you may think to yourself. “Or perhaps I can find the author and ask him or her to retract it.” These are examples of bargaining, a stage that also passes relatively quickly.
This stage takes forever too. This is where you say, “Why did I even [open this business / write this poem / release this album] if people are just going to shit all over it? I could have been hiking, binge-watching Netflix, or sitting on my do-nothing ass and coming up with criticisms of my own. This is so stupid.”
“Am I really going to come apart at the seams because of one asshole?” you ask yourself. “Definitely not. I’m not going to let him/her keep me from running my business/making my art.” This is where you realize that the review is real, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s not going to kill you. Reality is a thing with which we all must cope.
After the fifth step, you might even say to yourself, “Maybe some good will come of this,” which is true. There is such a thing as constructive criticism that can benefit either your business or your artwork. No one is above actual, genuine criticism, and it helps to possess enough aplomb and self-awareness to realize that. Of course the opposite also exists in the realm of reviews, but unconstructive criticism can be discarded outright, since it’s just unfocused vitriol spewed by cruel, lonely souls.
As a musician and writer, I’ve released a whole slew of cassettes, 7-inches, LPs, zines, and books, and I’ve had countless bad reviews written about all of them. For example, in a particularly stinging review of my band The Gravity Index’s debut EP, the author compared our effort to Boxing Day — an unpopular, easily-avoided holiday — while advising his readers to only celebrate the post-punk Christmas and New Year’s Eve that is Fugazi and At the Drive-In respectively. (All these years later, I have to admit it was a pretty good negative review from the standpoint of a reader who didn’t actually make the record).
In a critique of a book I wrote a few years ago, a reviewer lambasted me for writing fiction that wasn’t believable. In effect, he was saying my fiction was too fictional, which is like saying my poetry is too poetic, or my Journey cover band sounds too much like Journey. (If you didn’t like Journey to begin with, why are you reviewing my cover band?) He also did that thing that frequently happens to comedians where the reviewer clumsily retells a joke in his own words (and out of context) and then criticizes the comedian for the shit job the reviewer did retelling the joke. It can be very frustrating.
I also have a lot of friends who own businesses who have to take a lot of shit in the age of Yelp. Sometimes Yelpers will give my friends’ establishments one star because, “It just wasn’t my thing.” Why anyone would feel any kind of obligation to let the world know that a place “wasn’t my thing” is overestimating how much of a shit the world gives about him by a long shot. Other times the Yelp-holes will decry a shop’s business practices even though they don’t have even an infinitesimal understanding of how a business operates. Only in very rare circumstances will they give negative feedback that’s both warranted and constructive.
Courses of Action.
So what can you do when you get a bad review?
Sometimes it helps to read quotes from others who have experience in the field of shit reviews. Terry Pratchett once said, “Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” Aristotle opined, “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” And Benjamin Franklin remarked, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do.”
You can also plot revenge, write a review of the review, or start an online campaign against the unjust treatment of your work, but that all makes you look pretty thin-skinned. (And don’t think you can sneak your anti-criticism sentiment in an advice column entitled, “Surviving a Bad Review,” because I beat you to it.) When all’s said and done, you just have to take it in stride and keep doing what you’re doing. Coping with life’s indignities with grace is a feat that comes with experience and wisdom. Good luck.