Thursday, July 11, 2024

A Good Review Feels as Good as Scratching a Mosquito Bite from James W. Ziskin

What's your favourite positive review, and worst negative review, and how did they make you feel? Tell us, really.  

About four years ago, I posted in this space about negative reviews. Much of what I wrote then holds true today for this week’s question, except I didn’t mention positive reviews. Good reviews are amazing. But they’re like breaths of air. You take one in and it feels great. It sustains you. Energizes you. Lifts you.

But then you exhale and need another one right away.

After a while, the thrill of a glowing review is no better than scratching a mosquito bite. The ecstasy is short-lived; it never lasts. It’s never enough. Just like Johnny Rocco (Key Largo), you “want more.” And, rub all you like, more positive reviews never feel as good as the deliverance that first vigorous scratching provides.

Negative reviews, on the other hand, are more like watching—in slow motion—as your soufflé collapses while still in the oven. You know, that sinking feeling you get as the thing deflates and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You mime some kind of desperate STOP STOP gesture with your useless hands—as if they might reverse the disaster by telekinesis—and you pray to a god who probably couldn’t care less about soufflés. Please no. No, no, no, no. Your skin crawls and your heart sinks. (Feel free to insert any other cliches that come to mind.) This can’t be happening. Why? Why does my whole life suck?

And what’s worse, my soufflé is ruined.

Later, once you’ve dumped the mess into the trash and warmed up some spaghetti from a can, you get angry and start to debate with your soufflé reviewer. The idiot didn’t get it. How stupid can a person be? And how cruel? The argument rages in your head for hours, interrupted only by games of angry solitaire where you actually begin to root for the computer game to deny you, just so you can feel even worse about yourself and your sorry life.

But that welcome respite doesn’t last. You remember the review. You go back and re-read it, proving once and for all that masochism is your favorite -ism.

You have trouble falling asleep, as you fantasize how you’d like to respond to your tormentor. You imagine delivering withering ripostes, ideally at a writer’s conference or—better yet—at a cocktail party. Your critic shrinks under the weight of your wit and, even though they’d arrived for the soirée without a tail, now crawls away with one firmly tucked between their legs.


Here is a modest sampling of rotten notices I’ve received for my Ellie Stone mysteries. My reactions follow in bold.

⭐️ ⭐️ “Ok. But Ms. Stone sounds like a man.”

JWZ: Fair enough. One reader’s opinion.

⭐️ “It was very obvious to me that this was written by a man, trying to adopt the voice and viewpoint of a woman.”

JWZ: Okay, another reader’s opinion, but what was the first clue? Maybe my name on the cover?

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ “Too quiet and feminine for my taste.”

JWZ: Wait a minute... Um… 

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ “More classical music. More Jewish references.”

 JWZ: “Jewish references ??? 

⭐️ ⭐️ “This is an engaging plot and the throwback to LA in the early 60s is great. BUT Ziskin is an appalling sexist--with a twist: his female character is constantly harassed by every man she encounters in ways that are both ludicrous and offensive.”

JWZ: All right, I’ll admit I’m quite happy with this particular review.

I’ve come to believe that cruel reviews say more about the reviewer than the books in question. What kind of person takes themselves so seriously to delight in bashing books that many other people seemed to have enjoyed? Below is the list of just such people I posted four years ago. I hope it’s worth another look.

1. The ones who give one-star ratings to all the books by an author. Why continue reading books you hate? How do you manage to turn the pages while holding your nose?

2. The ones who write that they really loved the book but mistakenly clicked on one star instead of five. (It is possible to change the rating.)

3. The ones who qualify their three- or four-star review by announcing they only award five-stars to “literature.” What do they say to their kids about their latest finger painting? “It’s not exactly a Rembrandt”?

4. The ones who say “terrific book! Loved it. Three stars!” 

        Teacher: You aced the test, young man. Congratulations! C+.

        Student: Huh?

5. The ones who—essentially—admit they’re not smart enough to understand the book. “I just don’t get it.”

6. The ones who hate the book because they dislike the genre. Me, I don’t like getting punched in the face. That’s why I don’t pick fights in biker bars.

7. The ones who want to show off the devastating cleverness of their ridicule.

8. The ones who complain that they figured out the ending.

9. The ones who complain that they couldn’t figure out the ending.

10. The ones who say the book was damaged in shipping.

11. The ones who didn’t like the picture on the cover.

12. The ones who say the print is too small. (Legitimate complaint, but not the author’s fault.)

13. The ones who ordered the book by mistake.

14. The ones who didn’t read the book, but know that it’s bad anyway.

15. The ones who don’t approve of the four-letter words in a book set in a maximum security prison.

16. The ones who don’t like female characters who have a sex life.

17. The ones who conflate a character’s behavior/opinions and those of the author.

18. The ones who say they skipped large sections of the book, but—don’t worry—didn’t miss anything...


I’m not going to post any of my positive reviews here. That would be the height of arrogance. No, I won’t brag. Instead, I’ll drop this here as a reminder to myself: it’s a list of honors for the books my online detractors hated. Just in case I ever meet them at that cocktail party...

Award finalists. Winners in bold.


2021 Best Short Story, “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement” In League with Sherlock Holmes

2021 Sue Grafton Memorial, Turn to Stone

2017 Best Paperback Original, Heart of Stone



2021 Best Short Story, “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement”

2019 Best Paperback Original, A Stone’s Throw

2018 Best Paperback Original, Cast the First Stone

* Winner 2017 Best Paperback Original, Heart of Stone

2016 Best Paperback Original, Stone Cold Dead

2015 Best Paperback Original, No Stone Unturned



2021 Best Historical Mystery, Turn to Stone

2019 Best Mystery, A Stone’s Throw

2018 Best Mystery, Cast the First Stone

2017 Best Mystery, Heart of Stone

2016 Best Mystery, Stone Cold Dead



* Winner 2021 Best Historical Mystery, Turn to Stone

2021 Best Short Story, “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement”

2018 Best Historical Mystery, Cast the First Stone

* Winner 2017 Best Historical Mystery, Heart of Stone



* Winner 2021 Best Paperback Original, Turn to Stone

2016 Best Paperback Original, Stone Cold Dead



2021 Best Short Story, “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement”

1 comment:

Mysti said...

Whenever the subject of men writing female protags comes up, I always end up saying "Read Ziskin's Molly Stone books. He nails it."

This article is a great way to start the writing day; thank you!