Last October at Bouchercon, the granddaddy of all mystery conventions, which was held in Madison, Wisconsin, I was sitting in the bar with my agent, talking about my career.
“I feel invisible,” I said. “What should I do?”
“Stop comparing yourself to John Grisham.”
He was right. There wasn't much to compare. Or was there...
I’ve thought about my agent's comment a lot in the past few months. So on Thursday, feeling more invisible than usual, I went on Amazon.com to compare my sales numbers with John’s. It wasn’t all bad news. His last novel got fewer stars than mine did. Then I checked out the reader reviews. Some of them were really unkind. I suppose if I had as many people reading my novels as John does, I’d receive more negative comments, too. Invisibility has an upside.
John Grisham probably doesn’t read the reviews of his books on Amazon, but if he did I wonder if they would hurt his feelings. They’d hurt mine. After all, we writers are human, too. At least most of us are.
I’ve always wondered why people write hurtful remarks on sites like this. I can only surmise that they haven’t a clue how difficult it is to write a book, how a writer often writes to the exclusion of everything and everyone else in order to meet an impossible deadline, how, when most authors calculate the amount of time it takes to write and polish four hundred pages of text, the hourly wage isn’t much.
I’m not talking about negative reviews by honest critics. That comes with the territory. It’s hard to take, but we writers do take it and survive. I was in a critique group for nine years. Every week nine brilliant writers who were also gifted critics exposed the flaws in my work, but the criticism was always constructive and it made me a better writer. On the contrary, review-by-personal-attack and name-calling adds nothing to the literary conversation. It’s schoolyard bully stuff as well as being just plain ignorant.
Look, I don’t like all of the books I read, but I would never write a review in which I attacked the author personally or pan a book because I didn’t like the cover art, which I’ve also seen done. At least criticize something over which the writer has control. I believe what goes around comes around. Mean-spirited behavior has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass.
To compensate for snarky reader reviews, I'm sure the cosmos sends John Grisham occasional gifts to lift his spirits. I get a few of those, too, especially last week. I spoke at a charity fund-raiser in front of a super group of women who laughed at all of my corny jokes. I had lunch with my writing posse, the Gang of 4: Barb our effervescent surfer-dude who regaled us with the intriguing first chapter of her latest novel, Elaine—writer, mom, and EBay maven whose short story collection will soon be on bookstore shelves, and Mims who is brilliant and sage and possesses an uncanny gift for finding metaphors in the most unexpected places. She brought pages from her work-in-progress, a novel that will set the literary world abuzz one day soon. I asked the Gang to read a synopsis of my 4th Tucker novel, which I'm writing now. They loved the premise and suggested a change in the order of scenes that was spot on, just like in the old days when we were all members of the same writer's workshop.
And as if all of those cosmic gifts weren't enough, I got the news that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine had just bought a short story I wrote. It’s a noir-ish tale about an old copper on the eve of his retirement. So today I feel a little less invisible. Hope John had a good week, too.