What It Means When Your Reviewer is Mean, Unfair, and Totally Doesn’t Get It


By Julie Wu

You’ve been hit over the head: the totally unfair review.  On Goodreads, on Amazon, at a job performance evaluation.  It’s hard to feel that the fault is really the reviewer’s, but it is.  Believe me, I know:  I once gave the worst review in the world.

It was 1995, and I wasn’t reviewing a piece of fiction.  I reviewed, at a medical department conference, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.  The article that introduced metformin, now one of the medications most widely used for Type II Diabetes, to the United States.  And yes, I trashed it.  In an oral presentation, for about thirty or forty minutes.  Oy.

So I am well qualified to represent the baselessly unjust reviewers of the world.  Ask me a question, any question.

You:  How could the reviewer trash my baby, my so obviously beautiful work?

Me:   Excuse me, the actual piece of work is irrelevant.  The reviewer is coming from a place of deep insecurity.  In my case, I was feeling at that time in life particularly insecure about my lack of research background.  Heck, I was a literature major masquerading as a medical student.  I somehow thought that criticizing the study was the way to show myself and everyone else that I knew what I was doing.  A psychologist might say I was projecting—seeing lack of scientific rigor everywhere I looked because I feared that lack in myself.  I came to the work looking for faults and was blinded to its (many, important) merits.  If I had been handed the Hippocratic Oath itself, it would have gotten trashed.  You don’t even want to know what I would have done to Ulysses.

You:  Was the reviewer trying to hurt me?  Ruin my life?

Me:  Now, you are assuming that the reviewer thought way more of you than he/she actually did.  She did not actually think of you as a person.  In fact, she was only thinking of herself and how she may not have chosen the right career path.  She was additionally distracted by recently having been dumped by a man three years her junior.  

She was desperate to improve her own life by showing her cleverness and create the kind of camaraderie that sometimes arises in group censure.  (P.S., it didn’t work.)

You:  Didn’t the reviewer notice my awards, my blurbs, my prestigious publishing house?

Me:  Possibly, but she was too ignorant of the system and blinded by her own needs to understand what that meant: that people way more knowledgeable than her had already vetted your work.  Insecurity and arrogance are two sides of the same coin.  Keep in mind that the reviewer has never, and will never, be able to produce any work comparable to your own.

You:  Why couldn’t the reviewer look at my work with a positive attitude, looking for merits instead of flaws?

Me:  Because that would have required maturity, self-confidence, and lack of personal agenda.

You:  Will I ever get over this?

Me:  Oh, yes.  A few more positive reviews and you’ll be fine.   As for your reviewer?  It’ll take her, say, seventeen years or so to live down her review.


  1. Kathy Crowley says:

    Of course I remember when you gave that metformin review, Julie. Everybody heard about it. And then the smear campaign from Bristol Myers Squibb. (“Julie Wu doesn’t write complete H&Ps! Julie Wu doesn’t always go to morning report! How much original scientific research has Julie Wu published?? Not much!”)
    Always good to try to keep in mind where the reviewer is coming from.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Kathy, let me assure you that Bristol Myers Squibb is doing just fine despite my review and they certainly did not need to do any smear campaigns! Good grief!

  2. Your honesty is inspiring. Thanks, Julie.

  3. Lydia says:

    Hilarious!!! Will try to remember this! :)

  4. Erin Cashman says:

    Great post, Julie – so funny! Speaking from experience, a good review sure does takes the sting out of a bad one!

  5. Julie, judging by the extremely wonderful quality of your essays, anyone who gives you a less-than-stellar review will no doubt be suffering from a severe case of dyspepsia. (For which they should not take metformin.)

  6. Was there video footage of that metformin presentation? Because it might make a great lead-in for a book trailer for THIRD SON.

    “You couldn’t believe her then….” [insert drug-bashing video]

    “…and you still can’t believe her now. That’s why she’s such a good writer of fiction.”

  7. Kathy Crowley says:

    Julie –
    Forgot to say something earlier: I love your point that sometimes reviewers get so caught up in seeking out what’s wrong and bad (as part of this compensatory effort?) that they lose sight of or otherwise neglect to mention what’s good. I think that happens all too often.
    Terrific post!
    P.S. I wasn’t really worried about Bristol Meyers Squibb….

  8. Leslie Greffenius says:

    Wonderful, sage, honest and funny piece, Julie. (You described what projection is very well, too.)

  9. Thanks for this honest assessment, Julie. I had a co-groupie tell me I was overly critical of his piece, and have been trying to learn to do critiques in groups that provide something useful to the one whose work is being critiqued. It’s hard to know ‘on a dime’ what stage everyone is in and where they are going. I usually see the flaws first and in some pieces (after 4 pages of writing the same thing over and over, for example, a longer write-up that essential addresses show v. tell), I figure they’re as tired of listening to my comments as I am of reading the piece. If it’s outside my genre, I may stop there because I obviously can’t help them with everything since I don’t read their genre enough. If they’re in my genre, I may look to see how they build suspense, etc. I know that I want my writers groups to help me better my writing, but I also want it to zoom off the page and smack some agent/editor/publisher awake and get them excited, and if the group isn’t hard on me – doesn’t hold me to the standards of Coben, Deaver, Evanovich, Grafton, Childs – then I won’t ever be able to get that high. Or as high as I possibly can. Then again, I’ve always been an overachiever in other things (not here, lol) and want to aim as high as possible, knowing I won’t hit the mark, but getting closer than if I had aimed lower. I’ve got a long way to go. Any suggestions on how to see the positive over the negative first would be greatly appreciated. In the meantime, I’ll keep stepping back and looking for it, so I can open with it, and I’ll read this post again to help me keep my perspective. Thanks for a tough post. I know I needed it.