• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You Only Want The Ones That You Can’t Get

Are you the kind of person who automatically points out a flaw once you’ve been given a compliment. For instance, a co-worker says, “I like your skirt,” and you respond by pointing out  a tear or a stain. Or maybe you say you got it for a few bucks at a tag sale or on sale at Marshall’s.  In that spirit, I feel like posting the two worst  Amazon reviews for the Forest for the Trees. At first, I was mortifried when this sort of thing turned up. Now, I like to rub my body with it.


By A Customer

‘The Forest for the Trees’ was a waste of time and money; any writer would be better off investing in ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott. She, unlike Ms. Lerner, is funny, helpful and offers far more than obvious advice. My desk was complete with a dictionary, ‘The Elements of Style’, and ‘Bird by Bird’; ‘The Forest for the Trees’ was an unworth addition.

By A Customer
I am writer so I thought I would pick this book up. At first glance it seemed to have some important information and a positive slant, but further examination proved otherwise. Sadly, Ms Lerner goes out of her way to say critical remarks about authors that I found personally offensive. For example: “Writers love to worry. By their very nature they are neurotic.” And if this isn’t enough another blast, one out of many I might add, comes later on: “The only place you’re likey to find more alcoholics than an AA meeting is in a writing program.” She consistently uses a broad brush in painting authors as having pychological problems and being indecisive and makes no aplogies for these harsh generalizations. It seems to me that the author goes out of her way to insult her audience and the people who have provided her a living for many years. After all, Ms. Lerner states that authors create and editors just provide energy, but does that energy have to be negative?
Tell, tell, what was the worst review you’ve ever received and how did you take it?

95 Responses

  1. Since the same things the second reviewer scornfully quoted sound damned true to me, I went right over to Amazon and ordered your book. Anyone who says those things out sound is someone I want to know.

  2. Um, that was supposed to say “loud,” not “sound.” But no, I’m not one of those drinking writers. Just so we’re clear.

  3. I quit drinking and started smoking hippie cabbage, makes the bad reviews less harsh to read and far more comical to digest..heh heh heh


  4. I haven’t gotten any reviews at this time so I can’t add much to the discussion.
    However, I would like to know when it became frowned upon to tell the truth?

    Point one: I am constantly worried about the way my writing will be received. I worry about how my query letters read so I rewrite them a thousand times. I worry if I will connect with an agent so I read their blogs to see if I like their style.
    Okay step one I fit the mark.
    Point two: I don’t drink every day, but point one sure does make it hard not to drink.

    Well there you go, I am a writer, I worry and I drink. I think I will be getting your book on my next order, I am a fan of those that except and speak the truth.

  5. my reviews are in the form of comments and emails from readers who happen upon my columns in our local daily. i’ve been told that:

    i suck as a parent.

    my husband is a saint and i should lock my doors because there will surely be women coming up to steal him as i obviously don’t deserve him.

    and, one of my favorites, “Your writings sound like that of someone who is trying to convince the world that you are so innocent! Get a clue.”

    sometimes i forward them to friends and make jokes and claim i have thick skin (even though i obviously don’t or i wouldn’t forward them to everyone and their mother silently begging for approval).

    other times i use them to write a whole new column about why i don’t suck as a parent. (me thinks me do protest too much, right?)

    mostly i lay in bed awake at midnight and obsess over why i feel the need to keep putting shit out there.

    and for the record…whose freakin’ desk is complete with only three books? i have more than three books on the back of my toilet. and as as an alcoholic and a writer myself, it is clear to me that you don’t go out of your way to insult…you go out of your way to embrace. people who lack depth miss this point every time.

  6. Well, I thought Forest for the Trees was fun, fabulous and useful! I wrote a book that got one bad magazine review (no biggie) but much worse than that was once I wrote a mag review of a very famous man’s book and I was snarky, and I STILL feel guilty for being so negative. (Not that this famous man cared.) If I could pull that review back out of the universe, I would do it.

  7. Such thought-provoking reviews, which might carry just a tad more weight if the reviewers included links to their personal author websites and lists of published works. Which, I’m only guessing, are nonexistent.

  8. Mortifried! Yes. Making it happen.

    @#1– you sir, are an unworth reviewer of this book

    @#2–if you think being called ‘neurotic’ is the worst it’s going to get, good luck to you. And as far as the drinking, I’m going to tell you what one bestselling author once told me after a lunch during which I was unusually abstemious (because I was hungover) ‘kid, if you don’t start drinking more, you’re never going to make it in this business’.

  9. People will hate no matter what. They just will.

    My reactions to criticism vary. When I was younger I was very sensitivo–in some respects I still am, but I’ve learned to deal better by focusing on the work itself. I *really* rely on friends, mentors, editors for on-point criticism, as I don’t have an MFA program to go to. Am so grateful when more accomplished writers and editors are generous with their time and energy and help me out. Very kind of them. So yes, generally I welcome direct, insightful, constructive (and sometimes even devastating) criticism–and yes I do seek it out because it helps me learn and improve. And yes-yes I will undoubtedly regret writing this. (Once wrote an incredibly harsh critique of one of my own stories. It was good exorcise.)

    Re those bad-typing haters from the Amazon: Meh!

  10. After reading three pages aloud from the start of a new project, I was told by a member of my writing group (and this is pretty much verbatim) that no one cared about anything I’d written, there wasn’t any story at all, and my writing voice was wrong. Not wrong for the story–just wrong.

    I’d never been savaged like that before. It felt like my face was on fire, but I croaked out that he was certainly entitled to his opinion and that I would take his comments under advisement.

    I’d like to say I finished the story despite his destructive criticism, but I didn’t. It was the first time I’d stood up for myself as a writer,though, even in such a small way. And I didn’t cry until I got home.

    And I’m still writing.

    • This was around eight years ago, by the way.

      • How long did that person last in the group? There’s no place for such mean spirited-ness. Well, there IS a place for it, but I’ll resist talking about that here. 😉

      • I think that might have been the last time I saw him at a meeting. I don’t know if someone else said something to him or he was embarrassed about his behavior. I’m thinking the former–he didn’t take even the gentlest criticism very well.

    • i hope you stopped going to that group. it sounds more like an S&M club than a writing group. (also, i read your stuff all the time and I care so that proves he was wrong even 8 years later. so there!)

      • I did, eventually–the rest of the group was supportive, and I’m still friends with many of the members, but the pressure to Get Published (and the fights over the One True Way to accomplish this) grew so intense at one point that I had to step away.

        (and thank you very much! )

    • Good for you Sarah! Keep writing is right. I hope that person who was cruel about your writing has gotten a taste of his/her own meds.

      I rec’d my worst review last month. I cried for 3 days, and though I smile big and tell people I’m over it, that’s a fucking lie — it’s still killing me.

      • I try not to be vindictive, but yeah . . . though I’ve decided that having his own unhappy thoughts for constant company is probably punishment enough.

        And I deeply sympathize. A month isn’t that long–I’m still grousing after eight years. Though at least I’ve gained some perspective. I think.

  11. Betsy, you’re the only person alive, I think, that would post your bad reviews. That’s what makes you so loveable. Those reviews are ridiculous. Some of those quotes are exactly what I loved in the book.

    My worst review as an actor (haven’t gotten one as a writer yet) was actually not bad…but I’ll never forget that the guy said I played a character who wants to please his mother…and would continue to do so until the day he died. This gave me a complex and still haunts me. What did he mean by that?

  12. I really enjoyed your writing book. I just finished it last week. Thanks for all the insights you gave me. I’ll write a review soon. My worst review came from a curmudgeon who thought he knew all about Irish history and my Irish historical novel was “nonsense” to him and he suggested I read wikipedia for my information. I told him off. The novel is still looking for a publisher. It’s funny, as well as accurate.

  13. Dear Ms. Learner,

    I’ve not read your book yet. I had it on my Amazon wish list, but after reading those two reviews I’m having second thoughts.

    I can’t believe you think writers are neurotic. I’m not neurotic. Do you think I’m neurotic? I can’t wait to tell my therapists (yes there’s more than one) that you think I’m neurotic. Just because I worry about what everyone thinks about my work, does not make me neurotic. I wonder if my mother thinks I’m neurotic?

    The topper for me was the second reviewer stating you think I’m an alcoholic. As I sit here playing quarters with myself, an empty vodka bottle guards the shot glass, I’m astounded you feel this way. I could totally stop drinking if I wanted too, I just don’t. Besides, I’ve been to AA, four different times, and I’ve been assured by several members that I didn’t belong there. They said they’d been going to AA for years and since we were met at the Applebee’s bar for happy hour, I consider them experts in the field.

    I can tell you this, if this room ever stops spinning and I don’t blow chunks on my laptop, I’m totally taking your book out of my wish list…..and putting it directly into my shopping cart!

    Love you and your book. Keep up the awesome work please. I need someone out there to drink with.


  14. Not that you asked, but the first one is probably someone you rejected once. and they are both, bless their little hearts, probably complete neophytes. These are the kinds of thoughts people who want to be writers think before they have experience. In a few years, if they’re still at it, they’ll look back and cringe.

    Happy new year. “Just Kids”–you can pick’em.

  15. First, I want to see some of these paintings of authors. Second, I am envious of your book being deemed unworth.

  16. not exactly a review, but worst response I’ve ever had was something along the lines of ‘loved your
    characters but your writing isn’t strong enough for today’s market.’

    I cried most of the flight from NYC to Edinburgh, Scotland. Will re-read, re-write, re-edit – as soon as I can bear to open the file again!

  17. I like your dress.

    What, this old thing?/Do you think it makes me look too fat? / I’m worried it’s a bit young.

    I like your hair cut.

    Ohh, I don’t know. Do you think it’s too short? Does it make my cheeks too fat? My kids hate it.

    That’s me. All. The. Time.

    I loved FFTT – borrowed first edition from library and bought the revised edition, which I’m looking forward to reading right after I finish Just Kids.

    The only reviews I’ve had so far were in writing workshops in my MA courses. One example – my blog (which began life as an assignment) was described as

    “an exercise in ego”

    All I could think was “Shit, I hope my ego didn’t look too fat . . .”

    • I’m right there with you, Downith. Cannot accept a compliment. New Years Eve and people are asking if I drank from the fountain of youth in Finland. I look great. No, no, no. Despite the fact I’ve been working really hard at my health I know they’re just trying to be nice.

    • The fat ego. LOL!

      I’m stuck on the 3 books on their desk. I have 43 writing books, plus Betsy’s 2, plus the dictionaries — and I still have no idea what the hell I’m doing. Kind of like watching an exercise video while sitting on the couch, chowing down a giant bag of potato chips.

    • ahahahahahaha! I hope my ego didn’t look too fat! love it.

  18. I’ve read your book twice via the library and asked for/received a copy this Christmas, so I’ll be reading it a third time.

    The worst review I ever received was probably the one-star over at Amazon where the person called my work blasphemous, overwritten, overwrought, and something she’d have liked to leave on an airplane except she was afraid someone else might pick it up and read it.

    I laughed. I mean really, when I come across a book I hate that much, I don’t finish the book. I get rid of it. But this person apparently tortured herself by reading the whole thing. I didn’t care that she dinged it in the review because it probably made her feel better to have gotten that off her chest.

    The worst reviewer I ever met was the teacher of my English 382 class, who used to read students’ work out loud in a smarmy voice, mock it, and then ask the class if we had anything to add. No one ever did.

    • oh, that comment unrepressed a bad memory for me! A teacher in a graduate fiction workshop introduced my second story by saying: we all know how well Mary knows anger. It’s obvious from this story she knows nothing about love. She didn’t even say it like she was talking about my work. She made it about me. (See, I do know anger.)

      What’s even worse in those workshops are the people who have already told you how much they like the story and then publically jump on the teacher’s bandwagon.

    • That teacher sounds like the perfect embodiment of “…those who can’t, teach.”

  19. About 10 years ago, after receiving about the 30th rejection of one of my novels, I read TFFTT. It inspired me to keep going, and today I am the mostly happy recipient of a wide range of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

    The reviews that drive me nuts are the one or two-starred reviews with no comments. What is the point of that? Tell me what you hated. I can take it. (I’ll hate your guts forever, but I can take it.)

    I suppose I shouldn’t complain, since I don’t object to a five-star rating with no comments. Still, a one-star/no comment feels like a nasty thumb in the eye.

  20. My worst review was from a good friend of my family, responding to an early and unpublished (thank God) MS: “The characters seem dead. Perhaps she meant them to be so.”

    I recommend your book highly, and I’ve recently had a thank you from a young writer for doing so.

    • Sandra Gulland! I looooved your Josephine books — devoured them (all three were a birthday gift from a friend some January a few years back) over a snow-stormed-in long weekend in Washington DC. Little did i know I’d end up moving to France. I had NO interest in France or the French but I loved those books! (Embarrassing but they’re about the sum total of my knowledge of Napoleon!) You made it all so vivid. Thanks!

  21. Is that all you got, Betsy? Two hilarious Amazon reviews? You gotta head over to GoodReads and root around. These gals are savages.

    The weirdest criticism I ever got was from Dennis LeHane. I have no idea why he called me a cut-throat.

    I adored the review from the girl who wrote, ”
    Figured out the story after page 1.” (The plot was so complicated it made my brain bulge for months.)

    And the real live one from a reader in an appearance audience who stood up and asked, “What exactly do you call your kind of weird writing?”

    Devastated me when I first started out to think about people taking time outta their lives to ball up a pile of shit and fling it at me. Now that I’m further down the trail, comments, good or bad, don’t seem to affect me all that much.

    (Except for that dick, Dennis LeHane’s. That cut-throat crack is still bugging me.)

    • Thank you both, Betsy and Sally, for this. I am trying to steel myself for the reviews to come (debut coming out in the fall and I have heard the reviews–good, bad and coyote ugly (as in: i would sooner chew off my arm rather than finish this book)–can arrive even earlier). After countless bad haircuts, bad fashion choices, bad dates, I’d like to think I’m long over the hurt-hurdle, but who am I kidding?

  22. I liked The Forest For the Trees because you encourage writers to write, but also cut through the bullshit and let the reader/writer know how the process works. It’s real, it’s good; it’s real good.

    I’m not good enough to be getting any negative reviews yet, but I remember one particular criticism after I wrote a pro pot opinion piece for my college newspaper. All the hippies were congratulating me, artists shook my hand, jocks smiled knowingly and I was feeling pretty full of myself when a woman at the dining hall asked if I wrote the piece. Yes, I replied expecting another accolade. “I thought it was immature,” the woman said. Brought me back to earth. I had redone the piece just before deadline after the subject, a friend of mine who had been busted, got cold feet and on the advice of his lawyer asked that I not run the piece as is. The woman was right, it was sophomoric, but shit, it still got my point across. Sort of.

    Bad reviews are like going to a Garden Party in Rick Nelson’s song: You can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself.

  23. Writing infant here. In one of my first workshops a member decimated my work. I don’t even remember what she said except that it seemed tantrumish. The instructor sent me an email right away and later called me to say I’d be up against jerks and professional jealousy from there on out. To grow a thick skin and learn to distance myself. A background in a cutthroat field – some of which spent competing with old school male academicians who wanted nothing more than for me to fail has desensitized me. I think I try to play my own game. We’ll see when the stakes are raised.

    • Playing your own game sounds like the way to go! And so does raising your own stakes.

      • Well, I’m definitely raising the stakes. MS is going out next week. I’ve also started a book proposal. I wasn’t going to write non-fiction but if I don’t write this one someone with less expertise is going to and turn it into a self-indulgent pos. Mine, on the other hand may only be a pos.

  24. I went and read the Amazon reviews. If I hadn’t bought the book already the *bad* reviews would have convinced me to do it. Seriously. The first one holds no weight and someone like that writing ‘not funny’ makes me think funny. The second one could be a marketing campaign. It would make me take a second look and say hey, I’d like to see that!

  25. Seems some reviewers really aim to wound, and with me they succeed, I’m sad to say. Bad reviews cripple me. I can’t even talk about my worst ones.

  26. One of my books has the word dollar in it and someone on Amazon said it wasn’t worth a dollar. (Currently it sells for a penny so I guess she was complimenting me.)

    Once I wrote a book partially set in Heaven and Kirkus said it was “Hellish.”

  27. BOOOOOOOOOO on both of these reviews. I bought The Forest for the Trees and LOVED it. I thought it was clever and very helpful. And more importantly honest advice in real every day language.

    The worst review/remark I ever got was “Your story is formula fiction, though better written than I might have expected.”

  28. The worst review for my latest young adult novel, The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye, was a blog review I discovered when I googled myself (that’ll teach me).

    The first chapter’s lead-in line is “My mother tried to kill me before I was born. Even then I disappointed her.” The reviewer was disgusted that I’d included an abortion attempt (the narrator’s mother was nearly fifty when she found out she was pregnant after her preacher husband had run away with the town floozy). The mother took a nose dive out a second-story window and landed head first in a barberry hedge when she found out she wasn’t dying of a stomach tumor (which would have been a whole lot better than having another kid).

    The review was written by a holier-than-thou woman (I’m imagining Dana Carvey on SNL) who pointed out my use of hell and damn in another chapter even though my narrator put a warning at the beginning of the book — “…don’t believe everything you read. I am a very good liar. I curse, too, so if you are one of those goody-goody types, you might as well go put on something frilly and have a tea party. I wouldn’t want you to get your squeaky-clean brain all messed up.”

    The reviewer should have had a tea party instead of reading my book!

  29. Some people always hate the truth. You tell the truth.

    So let’s see,

    My quilt teacher told me my quilts were too loud and strange. ( I loved quilting so much I just told her thank you because I didn’t really care what she thought)

    You write and talk well for a black woman.( People who say this really do think it’s a compliment and I just stare at them until they get that I’m ticked off. They usually walk away thinking I’m a ungrateful bitch.)

    I can only imagine what the reviews will be for my novel but I can’t promise I’ll rub my body in the bad ones.LOL

  30. Loud strange quilts are awesome. I can’t believe someone said “You write and talk well for a black woman.” I’d have told them to fuck off (your response is more admirable, of course).

    Once went to a New Year’s party at a friend’s. A friend of hers was commenting on a card I’d drawn and sent. Never met her before that night. And all she kept saying was “That card is so WEIRD. It’s so WEIRD. That card, it’s WEIRD.” I just smiled. Oh, okay. (It wasn’t that weird. Just a celebratory holiday cat wearing a jester’s outfit.)

  31. Back when I was shooting weddings, I attended a photography workshop led by one of my idols in the business. The first day was devoted to group portfolio reviews. Everyone brought out their best stuff, of course, and we oohed and aahed our way through this gorgeous extravaganza of wedded bliss.

    But in the middle of my portfolio was a black-and-white candid of an obese bride in the dressing room, being cinched into her corset while eating a cheeseburger. (Move over, Annie Leibovitz.) There was a long silence – as loud as silence has ever been – then one by one those photographers ripped me to shreds, explaining about how inappropriate the shot was, how insensitive I had been to grab it. I believe they thought I’d shown the picture to the bride and I was too shell-shocked to explain that I had never shown it to anyone at all. I just thought it was interesting and poignant.

    That night in my hotel room I deleted the image from my computer. I spent the rest of the trip, mortifried (it’s catching on, Betsy) in the corner.

    • it pains me that you deleted it. the image you described made me think of reading john waters Role Models and how he described the things that appealed to him, the weird and the wacko and the beauty in everything.

      as i type this i am listening to morrisey sing “I am the son And the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar…shut your mouth, how can you say i go about things the wrong way. i am human and i need to be loved just like everybody else does” perfect soundtrack, right?

      …so you go and you stand on your own and you leave on your own and you go home and you cry and you want to die….

      • The fact that I deleted it is the worst part of the whole thing. I was absolutely destroyed.

        I’ve been engrossed in A Photographer’s Life these last weeks. What a boatload of courage Annie has – she can make the most beautiful person look ugly, and make the ugliness beautiful. You have to be willing to cause pain, to shoot like that. I don’t have the nerve.

        (Did you just say Morrisey to me? This has to end somewhere!)

  32. A bad review is better than no review. And there’s always some truth in it. A good review can be like a political contribution, you just share the same values and beliefs, but that doesn’t say anything about your ability to stir the soul or shake things up. Bring it on…

  33. Test reader: “The characters are interesting. Maybe you could do something else with them.”

  34. The secret is to pick out the good stuff from all the shit that surrounds it. See, what I read from your critiques is :
    “The Forest for the Trees’ was … funny, helpful … important …and positive … a blast … the author goes out of her way to … just provide energy”

    All the rest is just blah blah blah

  35. Betsy, didn’t you say something in your book about good writers – they’ll piss someone off. Ex. Updike.

    You did good then!

  36. Being neurotic and alcoholic, any negative comment sends me either to my therapist or the liquor cupboard. In fact, Betsy, any negative comment about YOU does the same to me. Reading TFFTT ten years ago changed my life. Cheers!

  37. I don’t think I would take it very well. I think myself like the character Benny in the movie, Circle of Friends. She quips, “You mustn’t mess me about. I know I may look like a rhinoceros, but I’ve got quite a thin skin really.”

  38. I got a bad review from School Library Journal for my kids’ book series but I felt the review was unfair (never mentioned the books were part of a series, only mentioned 2 of 10 books, complained about indexes when they were just f&gs) etc. I wrote a letter to SLJ–the very thing authors aren’t supposed to do. If something like that ever happened again, I’d just suck it up. You get nowhere by arguing with a review and I felt like an idiot afterwards for complaining. I got other better reviews elsewhere so I moved on and tried to forget all about it.

  39. With 74 reviews on Amazon, 56 of which are five- star and 11 four-star, how is it that a couple of stupid ones can be so traumatic? With book sales stimulated primarily on word-of-mouth, why not believe the vast majority who give “The Forest for the Trees” a rave, including the ones here?

    Wonder how Mark Twain is feeling right now?

  40. What bad reviews?

    After I wrote a profile of an excellent young actress, I heard that a fellow critic had remarked that I should “stop writing with my d–k.” I felt a little stung, yes. But I haven’t really been reviewed yet.

    As for “mortifried”: good golly miss molly, anyone who uses that word, accidentally or on purpose, deserves a get-out-of-jail-free card.

  41. Those motherfuckers have no idea what they’re talking about. Bird by Bird is a book that makes me want to die. Whereas The Forest for the Trees once kept me going when nothing else could. But I’m one of those drinking writers. What do I know.

  42. I had a terrible Amazon review on the UK site dog me for a number of years. It was pretty obvious it came from a student I had at the time who just didn’t like me. I thought it was funny, but an editor or two considering doing a reprint in the US was disconcerted by it. It didn’t matter much in the end. Also, Betsy, you’re completely right about writers being largely neurotic and drunk. It’s amusing that the amateur who took exception hasn’t gotten far enough in her training to understand that.

  43. Yes! I’m always pointing out my own flaws. Thanks for posting your worst reviews. I thought your book was fabulous. I’m learning to cope with the review process. It feels like I’m having bricks flung at me, and it’s not getting any easier.

  44. I purchased the first edition of your book and have read it frequently for support and inspiration. The number of post-its that mark the best passages are frayed and well-thumbed!
    Ignore bad reviews. They are only one person’s opinion. 🙂

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