Here’s the good news. My first novel was reviewed by the New York Times.

Here’s the bad news. It was a horrible review.

I do not hyperbolize. It was really bad. So that you understand how terrible it is, I’ve included it entirely as the next full paragraph. Please feel free to gasp, snicker, or laugh aloud at any time during my cautionary tale, even if you think you shouldn’t. Release the humours. It’s healthier that way.

Fiction Chronicle, Sunday, November 20, 2005. The Mercy of Thin Air (Atria Books)

Domingue’s first novel is like “The Lovely Bones” minus the lovely prose; its young narrator, Raziela Nolan, died in the 1920’s before she could choose between medical school and a marriage proposal, and she has spent the next 70 years hovering between life and whatever comes next, acting as a kind of admissions counselor to the spirit world while she keeps tabs on her remaining family and friends. But Andrew, the man she loved, has eluded her efforts to locate him, and so she lingers, unable to cross over to the other side until she can satisfy her curiosity. The story cuts back and forth between Razi’s life, where she was a flapper and an early birth control advocate in New Orleans, and her afterlife, where she haunts an unhappy young couple whose connection to her past grows gradually clearer. Familiar as all this is, it might hold a certain morbid appeal if it weren’t marred by so heavy an emotional hand – especially in the earnest, sentimental and utterly false dialogue, as in one regrettable scene where Andrew’s black maid offers him some folksy hard truths: “Miss Razi, she love you. You think she would want you burning her letters like this? Trying to forget her? You not going to forget her. Ever. She going to live inside your soul till you die. . . . That what going to teach you how to love next time.” Readers interested in heartbreaking ghost stories from New Orleans will do well to pick up a newspaper instead.


If only that had been as mercifully succinct as the one Spinal Tap got for its album release in 1980. A terse “Shit sandwich.”


Months before my novel came out, both my editor and my agent gave me the same advice about reviews. They will be mixed, you know. I mean, we expect most of them to be wonderful, but these things happen. You have to have a thick skin. Don’t let it get to you.

I knew this intellectually. It’s not as if I’d been spared criticism on my writer’s journey. My first MFA workshop was a bi-polar mix of respectful feedback and sneering remarks. Getting an agent took more than a year and 59 rejections, some of which were harsh, even damning.

The experience was quite different when my book was in print, out of my hands and control. Expectations take hold. Reality shape-shifts. I found strength I didn’t know I had and weaknesses I tried to bury.

With that said…

Two weeks before my novel launched, Hurricane Katrina made a mess of the Gulf Coast. The city where I lived became a chaotic refuge for thousands of grieving, confused people. One of them was my closest friend, who sought shelter at our house until she left to go North. Katrina hit home—my rooted sense of it, Southern to the tips—and I had to leave for a month to promote a book, oh so ironically set in New Orleans.

Then I, an avowed introvert and regular hours keeper, went on said month-long book tour. I was suddenly thrust into ten to twelve hour days talking to people, strangers mind you, insomniac thrashings until midnight, and four a.m. wake-up calls. I liked the people I met and had some spectacular meals. I was spent when I finally returned home.

The magic six-week window closed, the period in which a book takes off, falls flat, or drifts to build an audience. Mine floated. I knew the novel wasn’t selling as well as I’d hoped. How many first novels do for their authors? Call me ambitious. Call me unrealistic. Both are accurate. If my publisher was chagrined, I never heard a word of it, although there was suddenly more talk of plans for the paperback.

Some readers e-mailed to share their thoughts, often personal and touching. The notes gave me comfort and validation as I dealt with an exhausted body and a frustrated mind. As for traditional reviews, they were good. A few were tepid. Now and then, a straggler appeared in a newspaper somewhere. My publicist assured me that she was still in communication with one of the top reviewers at the NYT. It might well happen. I flung this possibility to the edge of my radar, cautiously optimistic. Be careful what you wish for.

November arrived. I had a few book signings on my calendar. I tried to relax, attempted to work on a second novel, and struggled with doubts about myself and my work. And then the news came. A NYT review was imminent. I tried not to be hopeful, but fantasy overtook me. Oh, what if it’s really good and bumps sales? It is right before Christmas and…

Moments after I got the news through e-mail, I talked to Jandy, my agent at the time, a woman of preternatural sensitivity and sincere support.

“This is great news. Everybody reads the Sunday review. It’s so exciting!” she said. (Everything was exciting in the publishing world then. Has the adjective changed yet?)

A glimmer of hope gleamed. I had to agree. It was, indeed, exciting. Many writers dream of getting NYT reviews, and for me, it was going to come true.

Days later, I had a book signing in North Louisiana. I’d been courted by a cheerful independent bookseller who assured me I’d be well cared for and get plenty of media. And they loved the book, too. The bookseller delivered. My first night, I visited with a book club. The next day, November 17, I received copious publicity through print, TV, and radio. After a social yet calm afternoon, I returned to my hotel room, a grand honeymoon suite.

I’d left my cell phone in the room all day. I had a message from my editor. It was a little late on the East Coast, but I decided to return the call. In a couple of hours, I had to attend a book signing. The truism is indeed true: Hindsight is 20/20.

My editor Sarah—adorable, intelligent, and seasoned—told me the review had come in.

“It’s disappointing,” she said.

“Disappointing? You mean there’s not even a pull quote?”

Silence. Or maybe there wasn’t. I think I blacked out. She didn’t read it aloud and I didn’t ask her to. Somehow, we ended the conversation. Disappointing. Code for something worse, I was sure.

Then I called my West Coast agent for the calm she gave me, which came from the sound of her voice. Jandy had already received an e-mail with the review. She assured me everything was going to be okay.

“Nobody reads the Chronicle anyway,” she said.

“I thought you told me everyone reads NYT reviews.”

Silence. Until I said, “I’m not going to read the review. What’s the point?”

She agreed that might be for the best.

To this day, I don’t think I caught her in a lie. Plenty of people and I didn’t read NYT reviews—and still don’t. Others avidly await them. In this circumstance, I was a writer thrust from the rigidity of either/or and into the realm of both/and. I’d have more to learn about this soon enough. Anyway, my agent did her best to ease the sting, but there was no balm. I knew I’d been panned by the newspaper of record. Forever and ever, my first novel would bear the taint of its NYT review.

I called home, talked to my partner Todd, calmed down. Then I dug deep, because that’s what professionals do. Even when I felt myself and my career desiccate. Wine tasting and good company proved to be an antidote for self-pity until I got to the bookstore. I stood in front of a stack of fresh first editions, and I seethed. This is what I asked for? What did I do wrong? What was I thinking, being a writer? Doubt attached itself to my hip. Hello, old bean.

Sunday, November 20 arrived. I was at the Miami Book Fair International. That late morning, I had to read with three well-known authors. I wasn’t worried about the reading in the least, not only because I don’t get stage fright. As I sat alone near the auditorium—I kid you not—I imagined thousands of bed-headed, caffeine-needy people skimming the NYT Fiction Chronicle. Reading my novel’s review. I considered the danger of seeing someone with a copy of the newspaper. After all, the place was lousy with literati and their admirers.

At the airport, I called Todd. He said he’d read the review online. Yes, it was bad. He ranted not only about the review but also its writer. An extensive Google search had occurred. In another time and place, I suspect Todd would have challenged this person to a duel.

My determination not to read it lasted one week. Alone, at my desk, a quick Internet search, and there it was. My head, neck, and torso throbbed as if I’d been pummeled. My mind formed a judgment. The review was cruel. The words seemed chosen with contempt for my work, my home, my people, and me.

I can count on one hand the number of people I told about this review. I tried to hide from it, but there was no protection. More was to come, from friends and acquaintances.

The first was a bookstore owner I knew relatively well. He mentioned outright that he’d seen the review. Wow, that was awful, wasn’t it? I couldn’t speak, so I shrugged.

Please, sir, may I have another?

The second was a writer friend who e-mailed to congratulate me that I got a NYT review at all. What an honor. Then she said she was sorry about the coverage. It wasn’t fair. I e-mailed back some trite mumble about thick skins.

Please, sir, may I have another?

For whatever reason, a few others were compelled to mention the review to me. Not that I think they intended to salt the wound. I suspect they assumed, by appearances, I was just fine. They couldn’t imagine how conflicted I felt about my book or how one review could shake me so badly. Yet it did.

Not long after these events, I settled into work on a second novel. One of the books I read for research was Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Basically, it’s about the evil that human beings do to each other. In a chapter about Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the author referenced psychologist William James. James wrote about the possible reaction of seeing one’s own manuscript collection physically destroyed, which causes “a sense of shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness.” Ding, ding, ding! I didn’t have to watch my work get ripped up or tossed into a fire. I knew exactly what James meant. The NYT review had the same effect.


I spent years on that book, doing my honest best. My first novel is an extension of me. It reveals a few personal beliefs and unanswered questions, some nameable, some that remain ambiguous or unconscious. It revealed an appreciation, even love, for the South and its people that I thought I didn’t possess. The Mercy of Thin Air shares my lifeblood as much as any organ or limb. It is not a fallen hair, a trimmed fingernail. The word-made-flesh has a spine holding it together. My reaction to the bad review was a feeling of negation, that what I wrote, even I, didn’t matter.

Ergo, a matter of ego.

Almost four years later, I’ve accepted the extremes. I realize that I gave way too much power to the Dark Side. The Shadow came to call. It was the umbra opposite my fiery effort to finish the novel and get published. The review incarnated my worst fears, hidden and denied. My work—therefore, I—was unoriginal, talentless, ridiculous.

Although the advice to have a thick skin was well-meant, it is emotionally dishonest. Sharing one’s writing is a naked act not intended for the meek. Harsh words can—and sometimes do—undermine the most confident, successful writers. It’s human. It’s okay. It will pass. Now, my guidance to myself, and others, is to have a permeable skin, one that doesn’t resist or trap the good or the bad. Reviews, critiques, comments come in, then move on. Then there’s space, inside and out, for something new.

Today, I can hold the tension of both/and, along with what flows in between.

My novel is, in fact, one of the worst books some people have ever read. An insipid waste of paper. Readers writhed in agony at florid prose, gnashed teeth at familiar characters, fumed at confusing shifts of time and place, and grimaced at the triteness of it all. There are unsubstantiated reports of eyes bleeding.

My novel is, in fact, one of the most amazing books some people have ever read. A soulful work of beauty. Readers found peace while grieving lost friends and family, bonded more deeply with people they care about, and enjoyed the story long past their bedtimes because they couldn’t put it down. This book changed lives.

I’m a horrible writer, and I’m a brilliant writer. Next time, I won’t need reviews to reveal this. Lesson learned.

Source: James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1. London: MacMillan and Co., 1891. p. 293.

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RONLYN DOMINGUE (pronounced ron-lin doh-mang, equal emphasis on all syllables) is the author of The Mapmaker's War and The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Books 1 and 2 of the Keeper of Tales Trilogy. The third book is forthcoming in 2017. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent UK, Border Crossing, and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. She holds a MFA degree in creative writing from Louisiana State University. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

29 responses to “My Horrible New York Times Review”

  1. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Comment by Jessica Anya Blau
    2009-11-03 05:42:20
    Holy moly! I couldn’t bring myself to read the review. I don’t want to read it. When does your next book come out?
    Junot Diaz wrote a great piece in October Oprah Magazine about spiraling down in the writing process. It wasn’t about bad reviews, but it was about writing in spite of anything and everything. Writing even when it seems that the outside world is saying you shouldn’t. That, he says, is the sign of a true writer. So you are, indeed, a TRUE writer.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Jessica Anya Blau
    2009-11-03 05:43:46
    By the way, just read your bio and see that the book was bought for publication by ELEVEN different countries. So I see it was a HUGE hit in spite of the N.Y.Times review!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 06:19:05
    Please, read the review! It’s cathartic–really. I haven’t seen the Diaz essay, but from what you stated, I think I’ll relate to it. As for the international deals, that was totally unexpected.

    I have no clue when Novel #2 will be finished. This one is much more intense than the first. MERCY took about four years to write, and I finished the third year of work on #2 only days ago. Thanks for asking!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Will Entrekin
    2009-11-03 06:04:56
    Wow. Good, honest stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    On the idea of who reads the NYT, this is something I’ve wondered. I know lots of people who read the paper itself (I live in Manhattan, or nearenoughto); many skim the reviews, but in a way that’s more intellectual than emotional. No connection there, certainly. Nobody who does or doesn’t read a book based solely on its review in those pages. So who reads it, really?

    I tend to think it’s the same audience as reads literary magazines. You know the ones I mean. With titles like Tuppence Post and Dimer. Some people, certainly, but for the most part it’s a readership comprised mainly of writers who plan to submit a story at some point in the near-distant future. Publishers care about NYT reviews, certainly, because they can put it on a cover, and authors do, and writers do because we’re all envious of any such coverage good or bad (because we’re all masochists, at least a little bit).

    I want to read your book now.

    Oh, and no pull quote? Really?

    “Earnest, sentimental . . . Readers interested in heartbreaking ghost stories from New Orleans will do well.” – The New York Times

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 06:30:59
    You bring up a good point about reviews. There’s a public awareness component to it–simply getting an author’s name and title out there. Skimming a review might well be mainly intellectual. The emotion comes in when a friend or bookstore staffer says the magic words, “You HAVE TO read this book.”

    I had a conversation with a small group last week about literary magazines and the insular nature of them–writers reading writers. We had no earth-shattering revelations about it. We were sort of perplexed by the whole thing.

    For the record, your suggested pull quote is freakin’ brilliant. Career opportunity in publicity?

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Mary McMyne
    2009-11-03 14:31:33
    I concur. BRILLIANT PULL QUOTE. Ronlyn, that’s website material! TAKE THAT, NYT Book Review!
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Reply here

    Comment by Richard Cox
    2009-11-03 06:09:15
    Oh, jeez. It’s hard to know what to say. Any published author can understand how you felt, and personally I would have been devastated. In a way it makes me glad neither of my first two books were reviewed by the NYT because I can’t imagine they would have had much good to say.

    But as Jessica pointed out, by most measures your first novel was a success and has touched many people. That’s more important than any review. So congratulations, and good luck on the next.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 06:35:41
    I can honestly say right now that I’m GLAD this happened with my first book. Yes, it was terribly painful, and I couldn’t find any silver lining until a few months ago. What I see now is that the bad review didn’t kill me or my book. In the future, with other bad reviews, I’ll likely get my fur ruffled but I’ll have this experience to remind me to let it go.

    Thanks for the congratulations. Absolutely, what readers think is what counts the most.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by jonathan evison
    2009-11-03 06:18:40
    fuck ‘em

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 06:36:04
    I believe in karma….

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Diane Pecnik
    2009-11-03 06:24:51
    The oldest trees survive because of the very wounds that have threatened their extinction. Tough skin comes from injuries that have healed over and it is this texture that makes them most interesting . I addressed this, with a piece that I called ” That Which Makes You Stronger” – a not-so-original title given to two Birches leaning on each other, full of scars – a childhood lesson. It was a . . “naked” statement, as you said, put out there with angst, in a world of mixed reviews. It was eventually purchased by the Federal Reserve for their permanent collection.
    Validation for risk.
    It is so much safer to just keep producing leaves in a diurnal world.
    Bring on hibernation so the longing for spring can begin.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 06:40:40
    I had no idea that you’d been given this honor! Send me a photo, please.

    “Validation for risk.” Well put. And good advice as I journey with #2, a big old bowl o’ risk.

    You work poetry in clay and words.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Robin Antalek
    2009-11-03 06:35:28
    As a first time novelist with a debut novel to come in January – I am right there in that sweet spot where only a few dozen of people have read my book, and given quotes or reviews. I have been extremely fortunate so far, but being who I am, I am waiting for the drop – that gut wrenching moment where I discover what I’ve imagined all along comes true: some people will hate my book, my so called writing, my ability or lack there-of to formulate plot, scene and dialogue. I type: so be it, but I know it will sting when it eventually occurs. A part of me is with Jonathan: fuck ‘em. A part of me is Sally Field in her famous acceptance speech where she screeches to the audience while wielding her award: “You like me! You really Like me!”
    This was an amazing honest piece … thanks, Ronlyn.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 06:46:47
    Congratulations on your debut! Crazy time of waiting, isn’t it? Many good wishes for a fabulous launch.

    Yes, some people will not connect with your book. It’s inevitable. But the beautiful thing is that it’s a given that you’ll hear from readers who really enjoyed your work. Writers are on the giving and receiving ends of the power of words.

    Enjoy your accomplishment!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Sam
    2009-11-03 06:44:34
    I was never a fan of ‘reviews’, they are nothing but one single persons opinion about something that might mean something very different to everyone else.

    Also, reviews thereby ruin the whole concept of a novel.

    It should be like a song, it should be adopted as something different by everyone who takes on it. It should have a different meaning to every single reader, tightly connected to their own life and experiences.

    Also, I fear most reviews are typed in an office, over a cold cup of coffee, by someone with one foot already on their way home. They are rarely a real opinion. More a job, I fear.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 09:46:19
    Sam, you wrote, “It should have a different meaning to every single reader, tightly connected to their own life and experiences.” Wonderfully put. Once a writer is done, that fictional world unfolds exponentially to meet its readers.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Aaron Dietz
    2009-11-03 07:27:30
    Wow, what a great lesson! I suck AND I’m awesome!

    Now I’m seriously ready to start the day!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 09:46:46
    Let’s all strive for awesome. Hope you’ve had a great day.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Christine
    2009-11-03 07:46:00
    I have this to add regarding the review…Back when the movie, “The Outsiders” came out, my sixth grade class did an in-depth project on the book and were the first to see the movie when it opened at the Westwood. We loved the movie and even talked to S.E. Hinton. The reviews came out in the paper and it was horrible. I was completely flabbergasted upon reading Rex Reed’s harsh criticism of it. I even responded to it. I said something about him not having been young before and he just could not understand the content, etc. My point here is, think about how many times that movie has played to this very day. My kids have seen it and they still read the book in school. The movie is timeless…and think of all of the big actors that got their real starts in that movie! Critics get it wrong and they do not always have their finger on the pulse of the general population. I personally have not read a book like yours and it is unique. It is something you should be proud of, regardless of the naysayers. I am proud to have read it and to call you a friend…

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 09:57:13
    I wish I’d been in that class! (Poor old Westwood…) Good for S.E. Hinton that her book is still read. My little paperback copy is positively ragged. This is a good example of resonance–so many young people connect to it all these years later because it SPEAKS to them.

    I vaguely recall the mixed reviews for the movie. Among the kids who loved the book, who cared what was said? The film did justice to the story. And you’re so right about how many young actors went on to have great success. (Rest in peace, Mr. Swayze.)

    Surely you expected something unusual from me. And I am very proud to call you my friend, too.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Michelle Daly
    2009-11-03 08:53:39
    I’m sorry that I haven’t had time to read all the quotes but I would have to say that I learnt more about the critic than your book and the fact that it made the NYT makes me want to buy it anyway!!
    Well done!!!!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 09:58:33
    How’s that for reverse psychology?!! Thanks, Michelle.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Don Mitchell
    2009-11-03 09:08:53
    “My reaction to the bad review was a feeling of negation, that what I wrote, even I, didn’t matter.”

    I understand what you’re saying and I’m not going to suggest you should have felt otherwise, but when I read what’s clearly a negative review I’m often interested enough in the book to look at more reviews, or even buy it. It got to somebody.

    I don’t pay much attention to tepid reviews. If the reviewer couldn’t get excited one way or another, I probably won’t either.

    I wrote an academic book that got a couple of ho-hum reviews, and I was devastated. Not even anything to hate? Shit!

    I have your book on my desk, but I have to finish Gina’s first. You’re up next!

    Finally, Christine — who is a worse reviewer of anything than Rex Reed? He was doing lame music reviews even back in the sixties. What a dork. My first wife wrote a letter to Stereo Review complaining that, contrary to Rex Reed’s seeming belief, rock and roll bands didn’t grow up to be Baja Marimba bands.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 10:03:39
    So it’s true…any publicity is good publicity?

    You made me chuckle with the bit about nothing to hate. Based on what I’ve seen on TNB, you deserve the kudos you get from your loyal readers.

    Thanks for the curiosity about my novel. I’m honored.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Gina Frangello
    2009-11-03 09:22:48
    Oh, man. This is indeed both a cautionary and inspirational story, Ronlyn. And truer words could hardly be spoken than “Sharing one’s writing is a naked act not intended for the meek.”

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 10:04:57
    Many thanks, Gina. Time to bravely face Novel #2 for the day.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-11-03 09:37:31

    The people who do the book reviews in the Times, and the New Yorker also, are all a bunch of effete snobs who think they are smarter and better than everyone else. They delight in poking holes in the hearts of writers. Screw ‘em.

    The fact that your book is being published in other languages is enough validation. Someone should go fire that bitch.

    Now I’m going to order your fabulous book!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 10:08:10
    It’s okay. Mine healed. There’s hope for everyone who’s been skewered by a reviewer. And what goes around, comes around. (I appreciate your interest in MERCY.)

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-11-06 03:31:39
    I just downloaded your novel to my kindle for our next trip. Easy as pie. Can’t wait to read it!
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    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-06 04:51:01
    Wow. Thanks!!!!

    Reply here

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-11-03 10:11:19
    I’m with Jonathan and Irene – Fuck ‘em and fire that bitch…

    This was a great write, Ronlyn. Brave and honest and heartbreaking and strong.
    The thing I’ve learned about thick skins is, usually the people who inhabit them are not particularly nice people. I developed a so-called thick skin when I was a journalist, but basically my ‘thick skin’ just meant I was an asshole.
    Thin skinned people are the best kind of people because they feel. And I can tell that you feel deeply. You shouldn’t ever want to lose that.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 12:59:10
    Takes one to know one, Zara–being thin-skinned, that is. I still have my days in which I want the hide of an elephant. Or whale. Whichever beast’s is thicker.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Amanda
    2009-11-03 10:27:30
    Once, I enrolled in a writing workshop, looking forward to meeting people outside my circle of creative peers. Instead, the class made me crazy. Stock characters and florrid prose were the best we could hope for most evenings–stories about apple-cheeked kids dangling their Oxfords over too-tall chairs while gaggles of fun cousins romped together at the farm; or, peroxide-blondes waking up in skeezy motels and swearing this time was the last time (if only to spare the character’s bastard child from the shame of and unwed *and* drunken mom).

    Critique sessions were the worst, with classmates patting one another on the back, and then flexing their insult-muscles on my stories. The ladies shredded my pieces, starting with small details and moving swiftly to things like, “I just don’t get it.” The instructor suggested that the ladies were easy on the crummy writers because they weren’t destined for much, but sensed potential in me and figured I’d benefit from a suitably rough round of criticism.

    Your NYT review was indeed seering and ouchy, but perhaps compelled you to “greater things”, so to speak? Some reviews are just plain mean! But…maybe if you’d received a glowing one first time around, you’d have descended into the swelled-head territory of briefly shining literary stars, destined to write crap forevermore. Good on you, for remaining tough!

    : )

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 13:09:01
    Does that workshop method really work? Seriously, does anyone improve as a writer by going through an experience like this? It might inspire some people to work harder, but is it ultimately helpful–or healthy? When I taught fiction writing, I insisted on fairness. It’s possible to be critical without being cruel. I hope the students got more out of a class structured to encourage meaningful criticism.

    Having a swelled head isn’t my style. Maybe the review did me a favor.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by jmblaine
    2009-11-03 10:58:47
    Ah this sort of honesty
    and humility is
    good medicine.

    I much admire those
    who are able to look critique
    in the face for what it is
    make no excuses
    and say “OK, what can I learn from this?”
    And “What parts of this are true?”

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 13:10:04
    It took me a long time to get here. Wow, did I learn plenty.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Matt
    2009-11-03 12:58:20
    I’m going add my voice to the growing “fuck ‘em!” chorus, and to also point you at this quote of sci-fi author Robert Heinlein’s:

    “A ‘critic’ is a man who creates nothing and thereby feels qualified to judge the work of creative men. There is logic in this; he is unbiased — he hates all creative people equally.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 13:11:25
    That is one heck of a point to ponder. It must go on my quote radar.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Mary McMyne
    2009-11-04 09:19:29
    Ha! But see counterpoints in Matthew Goulish’s essay “Criticism” from 39 MICROLECTURES: IN PROXIMITY OF PERFORMANCE. I do believe there is a purpose in serious, thoughtful criticism. I just don’t think this review qualifies as serious or thoughtful. More like just plain old snark.
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Reply here

    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-11-04 07:44:42
    Good one, Matt!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Simon Smithson
    2009-11-03 13:11:34
    Talk about your thoughtful wrights, Ronlyn… Yeah, nothing hits in quite the same way as a bad review. But it sounds like you learned some important lessons from it. As my friend Bec is fond of saying, lose the battle, win the war!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 13:18:26
    My solar plexus gets a little sore when the weather changes. Brutal world sometimes.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Mary McMyne
    2009-11-03 14:37:21
    This is brave and honest. Thank you for sharing. I will come back to it, later, I think, and reread whenever I need a lesson about ego….

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 16:35:52
    Yeah, I’ll go back to it, too. I’m bound to forget something between now and the next book.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Susan Kirby-Smith
    2009-11-03 15:12:54
    Hysterical narration of an achingly terrible experience! Exquisitely, wisely concluded.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-03 16:37:26
    Thanks, Susan. It WAS terrible, but at least now it’s sorta funny.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by David S. Wills
    2009-11-03 18:23:45
    Fuck the critics. It sounds like you’re doing damn well without their nasty words.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-04 04:27:12
    No complaints. Now.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Joi Brozek
    2009-11-03 20:50:14
    I, for one, do not read the NYT book reviews to find my reading material or even just out of curiousity. I, for one, LOATHED The Lovely Bones, found it contrived, sentimental and cliche. I know this sounds insane, but I was practically screaming aloud AT the book as I read it.

    OTOH, as you know, I LOVED your book and in fact recommended it to many of my friends who are avid readers. I rarely cry when I read, but your book made me cry from the beginning, made me fall in love with the characters, and was very inspiring.

    I guess I learned something from this. Never trust that reviewer on the NYT Book Review or, better yet, read the books he or she hates!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-04 04:34:49
    Hey Joi! Your ongoing support makes me blush, really. It’s such a gift.

    I’ve been known to go the opposite direction myself. We had a friend who had a certain taste in movies, and he’d recommend them constantly. We realized after a few attempts that we weren’t of the same audience, so we avoided those he thought were wonderful.
    Different strokes for different folks–in music, movies, books. No judgment, that’s just how it is.

    Hope you’re well and warm. XO

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Marni Grossman
    2009-11-03 22:40:22
    The “thick skin” thing grates. If we weren’t sensitive, we probably wouldn’t be writers.

    I struggle with this. I understand that criticism is important, that it makes us better. But, at the same time, criticism also makes me spiral downward, makes it impossible for me to move forward.

    This piece was great and the NYT can suck it.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-04 07:28:29
    Depends on the intent behind the criticism and what the writer does with her/his energy. An “I’ll show ‘em” approach might well burn somebody out. When I got critiques from fellow writers, I chose to think long and hard about what they said. Sometimes, I disagreed, but the process often revealed answers I didn’t expect. Because of that, I believe I got better.

    The NYT review was one of many bits and pieces that sent me into a downward spiral, so I understand where you’re coming from. I went through this same hell in my 20s. It might happen again. Maybe not. I hope I’m wiser now.

    One thing I’ve come to appreciate about TNB is how much encouragement and support appear in the comments. Powerful and sincere. On those doubtful, paralyzing days, maybe you, Marni, and fellow TNB contributors can recall and find strength in the PROOF of how your insight, humor, and beauty affected readers.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by kristen
    2009-11-04 12:24:50
    Oh my goodness–it’s you! You know, I’ve seen your name in the sidebar before now, and though it was familiar, I couldn’t place it. Then, the other day, I was chatting w/ a knowing friend about a book she’d sent my way several years ago now, a book I’d loved loved loved and have held dear to my heart ever since reading, a book I intended to recommend to another friend yet was at that moment spacing on the title of. Did my friend remember this book? She did, and she gave me your name. I in turn texted the intended friend the specs, and there ya have it.

    I. Loved. Your book. I loved it for the very reason(s) I shunned The Lovely Bones. Your book, your story, your characters–they were real to me. Like I knew/had known them myself. TLB, on the other hand, was chock full of– Well, I’ll stop w/ the criticism before starting, as that’s of course not the point here.

    The point is, your work/that book stuns (can’t believe it was your first novel!), making that NYT reviewer completely insane and w/o merit. Anyway.

    Can’t wait to see what you come out w/ next!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-04 16:08:12
    Well, this is a nice surprise on a quiet Wednesday evening. Thank you most sincerely for the enthusiastic love-fest! This marks the first time MERCY has made an unexpected cyberconnection with a reader.

    And now I must go and read your work!

    Can’t wait to see what comes out next, too. It’s coming, really.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Alexis R. Osborne
    2009-11-05 03:57:55
    I loved how you said “In another time and place, I suspect Todd would have challenged this person to a duel”. It just resonates with me, as one who’s intriuged by History and Reincarnation. I am sure so many established and aspiring authors are greatly helped by this honest expression of how you’ve dealt with a negative review. I definitley appreciate it; I am also an introvert and the possibility of bad reviews in my future, if any, is a bit daunting. While I can normally handle criticism from the online writing group I now use, I worry how I’ll handle a terribly negative comment. Thanks for all you do to help other writers and for your encouragement when I corresponded with you on myspace. I was passionate for writing, but lost on how to grow, without spending money I don’t have. Can’t wait to read your next work, be it book, blog or article.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-05 04:32:08
    My intent was to share that I’d been through this and learned something as a human being in the process. Maybe it’ll help others who’ll face similar experiences–take the sting out just a little.

    Good luck with your writing, Alexis. Practice and persistence don’t cost anything!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Alison Aucoin
    2009-11-05 08:57:53
    Reading the review for the first time, something really jumps out at me: the last line. I can’t help but wonder what the reviewer would have written if all of America was not at that moment inundated with NOLA news. Late November would have been right about the beginning of the first wave of Katrina backlash. Of course your essay is right, some people will love your work & others will hate it but Katrina obviously had something to do with the intensity of his/her reaction.

    And can I just say, reviewer is Yankee. Got to be. You nailed not only the South but also New Orleans AND Baton Rouge. I was really surprised at the time that you got NOLA so right on (especially bee sting lady) since other than visiting me I’ve never known you to spend much time there. And nailing BR is just a plain old miracle because it’s an odd place of nothing and something. I think the distinction, which in my mind is really integral to the story, is lost on all but the most sensitive souls.

    My biggest gripe with Yankees who have ridiculous attachments to the cliches about the South is that they frequently cling to the ones that are false and annoying and demean us for clinging to the ones that are true and endearing.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-05 11:03:03
    When I first read the review, it did re-ignite some of my memories of traveling to promote the book. Countless times I was told, “You don’t sound like you’re from the South.” “No, I don’t,” I’d say, although uncertain what South I was expected to sound like. And as if by magic, because of one book set in that part of the world and my birthplace, I was instantly a “Southern writer.” Neither, perhaps naively, was I prepared for.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Alison Aucoin
    2009-11-05 14:42:57
    I get the you don’t sound like you’re from the South (or New Orleans) too but somehow Ella sounds like she belongs on an episode of HeeHaw. Where is she getting this? Of course I’m so proud of her verbal achievements but when she came out with “fixin’ ta” the other day I ’bout fell out!
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    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-06 04:31:07
    Was it the phrase itself or the way she said it? The “fixin to” slips out among those of us who know our grammar. Is the “fixin ta” emphasis regional? Must hear, must hear.

    Reply here

    Comment by Thomas Wood
    2009-11-05 10:22:03
    “Please, sir, may I have another?” is an interesting, though possibly accidental, combination. You’ve got the “thank you sir, may I have another,” from Animal house, the reluctant frat pledge begging for more punishment, and “Please, sir, may I have some more,” of Oliver Twist, where young Oliver shows his defiance of the system that would oppress him.

    Since everyone else did such a nice job with the appropriate, “fuck-ems,” about the review of the novel, I just thought I’d review the piece and pick out my own quote. Of course, I happened to like the use of this quote combination.

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-05 11:09:40
    You’re right, Thomas, I conflated the two. By accident! I like your interpretation of the original quotes and think both speak to the emotional tension I was dealing with.

    For the record, I don’t want another or some more.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Paul Clayton
    2009-11-05 20:23:56
    Ronlyn, you’re a brave writer. Don’t let it slow you down. Perhaps this reviewer dropped his or her prozac that day and was in a shitty mood. Personally, I would never review a book I didn’t like, didn’t see the beauty in. I don’t understand these people. As someone who’s received a few positive, with moments of snarkiness, reviews, I can sympathize. I wonder what I would do if suddenly confronted by one of these fools at a party. Actually, some of the reviews one can get from the peanut gallery on Amazon can be even more cruel. What can you say except, they can go to hell. But getting in the NYT! Way to go!

    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-06 04:35:49
    Brave, maybe. I found some humor in the experience all these years later. Finally! I’ve wondered why a reviewer reviews a book s/he despises. If it’s not worth reading, ignore it. Let it die. And you’re right about reader reviews on online sites. Wow.

    All best wishes for your writing and future reviews.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Greg Olear
    2009-11-06 04:21:12
    I don’t understand the point of writing a lousy review on a first novel like that. I mean, just don’t write it if you don’t like it. Save the claws for Dan Brown and other bestselling garbage.

    When I was in college, I directed “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” and it was easily the most ambitious play anyone had done on campus in years. The douchebag at the Village Voice-like campus pub trashed it, in that trying-to-be-cool first-person way that was then the rage. I hate that guy, and if I ever meet him in person, I will punch his lights out. And that play was, what, 15 years ago. You never fully recover from that stuff.

    That said, you have 80+ Amazon reviews, representing real readers, and your book is still between four and five stars, which means a lot of people really loved it. That’s worth more than a shitty NYT mention, it says here.


    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Ronlyn Domingue
    2009-11-06 04:49:08
    Your comment reminded me of a visit to San Francisco. A friend’s husband directed a play that opened when I was there. They were anxious about it. As I recall, there was a reviewer who’d actually write something, but people looked at whether the graphic accompanying the article was of a person sleeping, sitting, standing, or clapping. (You get the idea.) The next day, there was a lukewarm review. It was sort of like a kiss of death for the play. Sad, because maybe it wasn’t for everyone, but I liked the performance.

    I’m sorry that happened to you. To risk and believe in one’s work–then to get trashed–hurts like hell. As I said in a comment above somewhere, I believe in karma. That DB has it coming. And I hope you keep doing what you do, no matter what. You have your very own appreciative audience.

    Those Amazon reviews…that’s the light opposite darkness. Real readers speaking from the heart.

  2. Susan Henderson says:

    Just loved this and can’t wait for the new book!

  3. Neal Pollack says:

    I hear you, man. My first book got a really good review in the Times, but they DESTROYED me and my second book (and first novel). Not only didn’t they like the book, but they also called me fat. So it could have been worse. But take heart. The next book of mine they reviewed did pretty well. They assign reviews to different writers every time; there is no institutional memory.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Thanks, Neal. I wish the bad one hadn’t happen to you, but it’s excellent to learn you received a good one later. If the NYT takes notice of my future books, I’ll handle it with far more equanimity. All best with your next work.

  4. Rose says:

    This article was a good reminder to me not to get attached to my work; it is easy to think it is an extension of yourself, as you point out. Having taught visual arts, the idea is similar about criticism to take what is useful and discard what is not, to know that in the same breath one person will love it, another person will not. I would be inclined to check out your book even based on this bad review because I don’t take critics at face value, especially if it is intended to be humiliating. Don’t they say that behind a below-the-belt review like this is a frustrated and thwarted writer/artist themselves? Good luck with your second book. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Thanks, Rose. I do think a creative work is an extension of the person who made it. However, you make a good point about not attaching to it. The piece might reflect the creator, but it isn’t THE person himself or herself. What happens after it leaves one’s hands–“good” or “bad”–is outside of one’s control. Many good wishes for your creative arts.

  6. Gloria says:

    I couldn’t read this review…I have been so excited to read another book written by…I think you & your book are absolutely WONDERFUL…you have a rare talent your book pulled me in…I loved it…so please don’t ever stop doing what you love…for I want to read it…Thank you…Gloria Hugs

  7. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Dear Gloria: Thanks for your note. I am perhaps more emboldened now to do what I love (even when I hate it) after this experience. Novel #2 is coming, in its own time. Thanks for waiting. 🙂

  8. Bart King says:

    That’s a bad review, but it’s so bad, it nearly intrigues the reader to see what’s so horrible.

    On a smaller scale, one of my tweets got a bad review: http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2009/11/the_tweet_as_literature.html

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I laughed out loud at your comment about “what’s so horrible.” Choice!
      Wow, who would slam a tweet?! My blood went a bit cold when I read there are now itty-bitty reviews. *shudder*

  9. Madeline Hayes says:

    I didn’t read the NYT’s review at its publication, nor now. I think “The Mercy of Thin Air” was a beautiful book. In fact, I do a little writing myself, and I have often thought that it is much like the stories and memoirs I write.

    I often mention it as one of my all time favorite “little” books (and by little, I mean less well known). I admit to having lived in New Orleans (Garden District) and attending Tulane—so maybe that goes to explaining my love of the book. I also have a thing about reading and writing ghost stories in a similar fashion. Still, I think it was a captivating and original love story.

    I check your page every so often, waiting /hoping for your next book.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      I can totally live with MERCY being less well-known but well-loved. 🙂
      All the best with your writing. You never know where the effort will lead.
      Thanks for checking in. I promise–I’m working. Novel #2 is a handful….

  10. […] My Horrible New York Times Review. (Hat tip, Lee Lowe.) This seems as healthy a way of dealing with this sort of thing as any other. […]

  11. […] Books, Inq. — The Epilogue … My Horrible New York Times Review. (Hat tip, Lee Lowe.) This seems as healthy a way of dealing with this sort of thing as any other. […]

  12. […] the meantime, the Times keeps on crushing the will of debut […]

  13. […] on a life of its own, distinct from its creator. But sometimes it can be a struggle to accept this. In a recent essay on The Nervous Breakdown, author Ronlyn Dominigue eloquently describes such a struggle after receiving a nasty review of her […]

  14. JoAnn Danielson says:

    There’s no such thing as a bad NYT review. Even a bad one sells books. I read it myself and was intrigued by the subject matter. I then went and bought the book. By the way-I loved it. Everyone knows book and movie reviewers tend to be a snotty lot. Those who can, write. Those that can’t, write reviews for the NYT. By the way, what books has that reviewer ever written?

    All I can say is hurry up and finish your next book. Authors who write terrific first novels and then take forever to write a second one are a pain in the butt.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      You’re the first person to tell me you got MERCY because of the bad review. Guess there IS no such thing as bad publicity. And I am glad you loved it.

      When I first signed with my agent, she said that she never pushes her clients to write their second books. She finds the pressure is often great to hurry up and do something else, and that writer ends up with a sophomore flop. MERCY took me four years to complete. This one is now at three years and a few weeks. It’s a much more challenging book than the first. All I can do is hope it’ll be worth the wait, for readers and for me. (And believe me, I want to be done!!!)

  15. Caron Eastgate Dann says:

    I completely identified with your column. Ten years after getting a bad review for my first novel (in the very publication I was working for at the time, no less – the shame, the shame), it still hurts. The reviewer used the word ’embarrassing’, amongst others, but that’s the one that I can never forget. On the other hand, others have said The Occidentals (Caron Eastgate James, 1999) is one of the best books they’ve ever read and they couldn’t put it down. It got translated to German and has sold a total of 25,000 copies. Still, that awful review sticks in my mind and in a bottom drawer. Sometimes, I’m drawn to it (about every 3 years) and read it, incredulously, again.

    Similar things happen to friends of mine in other arts. One is an actor who I, of course, thought was brilliant in a recent play in New Zealand, to which I travelled from Australia to see. However, the major arts publication in that country gave her a caning. I guess this is payback to artists for being able to work in a field they love and for finding true happiness in their work, when most people are just plugging away in jobs they hate.

    Ironically, 20 years ago, I worked as a book and theatre reviewer for a major New Zealand newspaper. Perhaps I am getting my just desserts.

  16. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Isn’t it kind of twisted how we go back to those things that cause such agony? Before I finally made peace with the NYT review, if I even THOUGHT about it, I’d get angry and discouraged. Although I have to admit, I bet I’ll always remember the opening line.

    What if you took those positive reviews and stacked them on top of the unflattering one? That way, when the compulsion strikes again (and it will, won’t it?), the first thing you’ll see is appreciation for your work. Congratulations that novel’s success!

    As a reviewer and an author, now you know both sides. That’s not a bad place to be. 🙂

  17. Caron Eastgate Dann says:

    Hi again – I’ve just seen your reply, months later. Thanks for your best wishes. I agree about stacking the good reviews on top of the bad. One of my favourite reviews was on a tourism website in which a reader had said my book was perfect for taking away on vacation to a beautiful beach and whiling away the hours with. I thought it wonderful that someone would choose MY story to spend their well-earned break reading. A few years ago, while completing my PhD, I was working in a book shop. Funnily enough, my book was one of the ones on the shelf (!). A woman came in and was buying something else and I noticed she had a Thai credit card. I told her I’d lived in Thailand. She remarked on the book we had on display as being one that she’d read and enjoyed over there. How surprised she was when I told her I was the author!

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      The moment you had with the woman in the bookshop—those surprises are THE BEST! About a year ago, I went to our local university’s library and went to the reference desk to ask a question. The librarian was reading my novel. It was so shocking to me that I could hardly form sentences. Such a thing I hadn’t witnessed before.

      Many good wishes—and good thoughts for your writing.

  18. Book Review:
    He shows an artful use of capital letters and his adjectives describe nouns. His characters have names. The several photographs really are worth more than a thousand of his words. We could not wait to finish reading it. It is a real page turner. Like 20 at a time. This author should consider translations other than English for promotion. Sumerian or hieroglyphics may have an appeal. The book pages are numbered chronologically. We are sure his mother must be very proud of him. This author should explore additional areas related to writing. Perhaps working at the paper mill , a printing shop, or working in a pencil factory, just a few examples. He certainly has the literary talent to deliver newspapers as well. This author’s soft hued metaphors indicate he may be successful at producing coloring books. Besides a source of words to look at his book has multi purpose potential: a door stop, prop balance for a tilting table, shelf decoration , and as a missile to hurl at barking dogs in the night.

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