You Don’t Have To Like It

I can go a long time without doing it.

There are a lot of weeks — months, even — when I don’t care at all what strangers are saying about my books on the Internet. But when I do care, and I feel vulnerable, and I need more than anything else to stop making myself vulnerable — that’s when I go looking. Compulsively.

Not for the good reviews. Those, I skim right over. I’m glad they exist, but I don’t read them. I graze my eyes down the page until I find the one- and two-star reviews, and then I linger there, stomach bottoming out, limbs doing that weird tingling floating thing that feels bad, like a tongue on a D-cell battery contact, buzzy and sick.


People talk about authors behaving badly, flipping out when they read negative reviews, calling on posses of readers to back them up because no one, no one, has the right to hate their books.

I wonder who these people are.

I read my own negative reviews and feel sick and think yeah. Yeah.


If I’m not careful — if I don’t stop myself, reframe my mental conversation, redirect my energy — I can make it so I can never think of one of my books without wincing. A book I worked hard on, that has hundreds of four- and five-star reviews. A book half a dozen people have written to me to say, This meant so much to me. Thank you for writing this.

I can make it so that book is shit, in my mind. It’s a failure.

I can make it so when I think about the next book I’m going to write, part of what I’m always thinking is, Whatever you do, don’t make THAT mistake again. Because that sucked. You sucked, there.

The funny thing is, I’m one of the most well-adjusted people I know. But I’m a writer, and yeah.



So sometimes I think about U2. It must have been after I had a few books out that I first started doing it, after I  experienced the mitigated joy of having my books compared. This one’s not as good as that one. These are better than those. I wish she’d go back to doing that. And so forth.

I was thinking about how, when you’re U2, you put out a few albums, and one of them is Boy. Then one of them is Joshua Tree. And people love Joshua Tree. Four bazillion people love it, and they’re not just university students or depressed teenagers, they’re moms in minivans and kids in elementary school, grocery store clerks, mechanics, everyone. I mean, some people fucking hate it, and they have to tell you so really loud, because the love threatens them. But for the most part, yeah. Joshua Tree. That album fucking ruled.

So you’re U2. You’re a band. You put out another album, and it’s not Joshua Tree.

It’s never going to be Joshua Tree again, right? That’s the thing. It’s just not. It’s going to be something else. And wow, do a lot of people not like the next album that isn’t Joshua Tree. And the one after that, which also isn’t Joshua Tree.

I mean, some people do. Some people like the new album more. Some people like all the albums equally. Some people like Joshua Tree for when they’re sad and the new album to make them feel happy, and they like this live album to remind them of the time they were nineteen in Dublin, and the album from the early 2000s didn’t really do it for them, but whatever, it’s cool.

Some people wish you’d keep making Joshua Tree over and over again until you die, and other people wish you’d never recorded in the first place, because obviously Boy was your pinnacle and it’s all downhill from there.

But you’re U2. You have to not care about any of that. You have to make whatever album it is that you’re making right now, and not care. You have to assume that your job — your only job — is to make music, and you have to appreciate that in fact whether or not or how much people like your albums isn’t any kind of objective measure of anything. It doesn’t prove definitively that an album is good or bad, even, or demonstrate that you shouldn’t have made it. It’s just … noise. Noise you have to learn to ignore, if you’re U2, and if you want to continue being U2 for the next few decades.

Now, let me just say, I’m not U2, obviously. Nor is this supposed to be a thinly disguised screed about how I am a genius but people are being mean to me or not liking my books or something. If you’re squinting and trying to read my post sideways, like, What did I miss?!?! please relax. Everything’s cool. I’ve been very lucky, and mostly people do seem to like my books, and everything’s cool.

I just wanted to talk about how I’ve learned to think about U2 when I need it, because it helps me remember that not everyone is going to like everything, ever. That everyone liking everything is not even a real thing, or any sort of reasonable goal, and that trying to write while also trying to think about whether people (WHO? WHICH PEOPLE?) will like what I’m writing is the best possible way to guarantee I’ll end up miserable.

Also, it doesn’t work to write that way, because not everyone will like it.

They don’t, in fact, have to like it.

Mary Ann Rivers was telling me the other day that I need to read Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and that there’s a great part of that book where Fey is talking about how her friend Amy Poehler helped her understand this part of being a person, being a woman, and being an artist: not everyone is going to like what you do all the time. No one has to like you, and no one has to like your work, and actually that being liked is not the fucking point. The point, if you’re Fey and Pohler, is to make comedy that speaks to something you care about.

The point, if you’re U2, is to make music.

The point, if you’re an artist, is to make art. And everything else is just noise.

What I try to remind myself to do, when I’m thinking about U2, is write love stories that matter to me, that say things I want to say, that dig into characters I find interesting, and to do that as best I can, always. And to tell myself, on the bad days, that no one has to like it.

This statement is complicated by the fact that I want to sell books, and that my agent has to like it, and so does my editor. But it’s not as complicated as you might think. If you make the music that means something, write the books that matter to you, look inward for your material and your truths instead of outward, people will like what you produce.

Some people.

Maybe not a lot of people. Occasionally, just your mother, or your spouse, or two of your friends.

Or maybe as many people as liked Joshua Tree, or Fifty Shades.

You can’t know. It isn’t your job to try to know. Trying to know is crazy making.


My husband and I recently watched Cameron Crowe’s documentary about Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam 20, which was interesting for a lot of reasons (one of them being the near-complete absence of women from the entire movie, HOMG). What I like about documentaries like this — or Last Waltz, about The Band’s final concert — is what they have to say about making art over a long period of time.

Because what these sorts of movies do is dig up all the ways in which people support each other in making art. How they learn how to do it and keep doing it. How they start out as four or five awkward teenagers who just want to hang out in their rooms and play the same four chords six hundred times, but twenty years pass and they’ve managed to become adults and friends who play and collaborate together nearly every day.

I like the reminder that this is somewhere you can end up if you begin in the right place, and if you learn the right stuff as you muddle through the middle. If you have enough support, and work you want to do in the world, and some tenacity, and if you decide at all the right points, Yeah, let’s keep going like this. I want to.

All of these documentaries, the stories about bands like U2 and Pearl Jam, the tales I hear from writers who have been in the trenches a long time — they have a part in the middle about the time they almost quit. The six albums in a row they put out that all but their most die-hard fans hated. The contracts they lost, the agents who dropped them, the dive bars they ended up playing in.

And when they talk about coming out of those periods of their careers, of their lives, they often talk about this music they had to make, this book they had to write, and they just couldn’t care. They knew no one would like it, and they couldn’t care, because they had no fucks left to give about whether anyone liked it. No one had to like it. They just had to make it.

Who did you write that for? they’ll be asked, and they’ll say, For myself.

For the band.

Because I had to. Because I wanted to.

Because this is what I do.

You don’t have to like it.

About Ruthie Knox

Ruthie Knox writes witty, sexy romance novels for grownups. Read more >
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31 Responses to You Don’t Have To Like It

  1. Cara McKenna says:

    Ah yes, the great paradox of the writer!

    1. You can’t produce a book readers will love if you don’t let yourself care deeply about what you’re writing.

    2. You can’t function as an author if you let yourself care too deeply about whether readers love your books.

    I try to love the process, instead—the pregnancy. Gestate the shit out of that thing! Because once you pop that sucker out, it’s not yours anymore. People are going to swaddle it and cuddle it and coo and praise your loins, but they’re also going to drag it around by its hair through dirty puddles and tell their friends your other baby was WAY CUTER.

    I try to detach as soon as possible, the second the book fledges…though of course it never works!

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I often envy how much you seem to enjoy process. It’s something I go back and forth with, but I think what I acknowledge only rarely is that what messes with my enjoyment of process isn’t process, it’s me projecting worry about everything that comes after onto the process itself. So that gives me something to work on.

  2. Good thinking, Ruthie. The longer you’re in this, we all eventually find our own equivalent of U2, I think.

    Mine was at a low point maybe 4-5 years ago, and I started thinking about Hilary Clinton and the constant media fire she came under back in the 90s for changing her hair style, her make-up, her clothing, etc and *nothing* that woman could do would please everyone, or meet everyone’s expectation of what she should be doing or what she should look like. She shouldn’t have bothered trying (I think she figured that out, too, eventually). Obviously, none of that held her back at all, either.

    Same with writing, and I would go so far as to suggest it *even* applies to editors, agents, etc, to a reasonable point. We are professionals, and we work with people who help us attain our goals, but we can’t do that by compromising our own artistic sense. Luckily, there are always enough options that we don’t really need to.

    Thank you for the good thoughts.


  3. Oh, fabulous. This, this! Failure is hard to take, but if you only get 4-5 stars on all books, you suck in an kind of worse way, and you can’t grow, because you’re not willing to fail, but failure is so, so, hard to take. Seth Godin says something in his Icarus Deception book (so amazing on this subject! esp. the second half) about the need to fail bigger, to fail better.

    So funny, your thoughts about U-2. I think about them, too, but always like, they led a charmed artistic life I covet. I love that you bring this new thinking.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Thanks, Carolyn! It’s possible that the trick with U2 is that they managed to make it look like they were leading a charmed artistic life. Which is a whole separate thing from whether they were, or how they were feeling at any particular time.

  4. Amber Lin says:

    The irony of the people who complain about critical book reviews is that those same people *will* complain about some form of art if you watch. The corollary of not everyone will like your book is that you won’t like everything either.

    If you listen when you’re walking out of a movie, the most common thing is to pick the movie apart. I liked this but didn’t like that. And if there’s a major director, I liked this other film better. When the reality of the film industry is that so many people are dying to be in that position and make something close to that good.

    That doesn’t make the criticism or the comparative opinions wrong. It’s just part of the process. It’s the way that some people process what they’ve seen and the way they share that experience with their friends. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but that doesn’t mean that Stephen Spielberg needs to be in that movie theater hallway, taking notes, either.

    Maybe some marketing guy is doing that at focus groups and it somehow feeds back into the system. So they make another movie about subject X instead of subject Y. And an author knows that a book about A would likely sell more copies than a book about B. There’s nothing wrong with making judgments like that either, but when the director is on set, and when the writer is sitting alone with her keyboard, there is no place for that kind of commentary. .

    That is someone else’s truth. And how can I write my vision if I’m picturing someone else’s? I can’t, that’s the bottom line. So when they say reviews are for the readers that’s not just for the reader’s benefit, it’s to the writer’s benefit as well.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      “That doesn’t mean that Stephen Spielberg needs to be in that movie theater hallway, taking notes” — God. That made me laugh AND wince.

      It’s funny, because I know this on so many different levels. I used to work at a press for five years, and we had to get outside readers’ reports on every book. A book had to have two positive readers’ reports recommending publication, at a minimum, in order for us to take it to the Board for approval. I managed and read and digested and dealt with hundreds of readers’ reports in that five years, and the number of reports that I saw that said “This book is great! Publish it as-is!” was precisely zero.

      That’s just not how we engage with the world.

  5. I was tempted to simply leave a smiley face on this post. ;-)

    But then I had to add my +1 to Bossypants AND that particular bit. I even framed a blog post around it a while back, because that resonate so deeply with me.

    Loved this!

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yes, me too! +1000 Forgot to mention that. I have the audiobook of Bossypants and listen to it at least twice a year. I find famous people’s candid flailings extremely soothing. Same reason I reread Sedaris every year. Now if only Amy Poehler would write a memoir… She totally wouldn’t care if we like it.

  6. Sarah Wynde says:

    When I finished my second book, I knew that some people wouldn’t like it, that my heroine was highly unsympathetic in many ways (technically a sex offender, also a mother who abandoned her child, reasonably close to a cold-blooded murderer, ha) and I didn’t care. I loved her.

    I finished my third book about two weeks ago and this time, I truly wasn’t sure whether I would publish it or just stick it on a USB drive and let it live in my desk drawer for the rest of its natural life. But it also felt so close to my heart that I didn’t know. Maybe it sucked, but maybe it didn’t. I needed readers to tell me.

    The difference between “I don’t care what you think, because I love this,” and “I do care what you think, because I don’t know what I think,” stinks. I don’t want to have to find validation in other people’s opinions. But at the same time, if my writing doesn’t work for at least a few readers, then it doesn’t work. Sometimes reviews are the way to find out. That said, a passionate negative review can be a lot more satisfying to get than a positive review that might be of any book on the planet. (You know the kind, “really great book, you should read it.” When I get those I always wonder whether some relative is trying to brighten my day.)

    At the end of the day, though, writing something that I love, even if no one else will, is so satisfying. You described that feeling beautifully in this post.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Thanks, Sarah! I’ll be watching to see what happens with the latest book. I know that when I finished MAKING IT LAST, I honestly didn’t want anyone to read it. Or if they had to read it, I didn’t want to know what they thoughts. Gradually it’s moved farther away from my heart, and now I’m happy to hear people’s reactions, which fall across an impressively broad spectrum.

      Also, I am so intrigued by that first heroine…

      • Sarah Wynde says:

        I put my favorite reader comment about Sylvie on the book cover, because it entertained me so much. It’s “Sylvie just made my ‘Fictional Characters I’d Want Around in the Event of the Zombie Apocalypse’ list.” It still makes me smile — Sylvie would definitely survive the zombie apocalypse. Plenty of people didn’t like her, but I do, so I’m okay with that.

        As for book 3, I asked for beta readers on my blog, with the idea that people who don’t know me personally would be willing to be honest. Or turn out not to be willing to write the hard email and therefore not respond, silence being sufficient to indicate that it didn’t work for them. That was ten days ago or so. Of the thirteen people that I sent it to, nine have sent me feedback already, and, well … um, excerpts, “addictive like crack,” “loved it on so many levels,” “at the risk of sounding overly fangirl-ish,” and “can’t think of a single thing I would change.” So, yeah. Obviously a biased audience (it seems safe to assume that if they read my blog, they already like the way I write) but I think I can probably feel okay about publishing it after it goes through a couple rounds of edits.

  7. Shari Slade says:

    “Trying to know is crazy making.”


    I needed this today.

  8. “What I try to remind myself to do, when I’m thinking about U2, is write love stories that matter to me, that say things I want to say, that dig into characters I find interesting, and to do that as best I can, always. And to tell myself, on the bad days, that no one has to like it.”

    This is a good reminder to those of us who are just starting out. Why I’m interested in may not be out there yet and maybe it’s not there because no one is interested but me, but I can’t know or predict that. The only job I have is to do the work, to tell my story, and to do it the best way I can. The rest is noise. Sometimes important noise, but noise none the same.

  9. Shelley says:

    This is where I hope I can fall back on twelve years of librarianship, and know I probably will struggle to do so. There’s a reader for every book, and a book for every reader, and all that matters is that a book find its reader. Not every book will be loved by ever reader, and people are weird, and they read for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes a book will be full of appeals that will hit a bunch of readers all at once, and some books will have a few that will hit just a few readers exactly the right way, but either way the book is doing its job.

    Which is super easy for me to say, because I get to be the front line book matchmaker, saying, “Oh, you love the Florida Keys and quirky characters? You should try Roman Holiday!” and then hear back immediately when the reader returns three weeks later. (Sometimes I also get to say, “I know the author, but I won’t tell her if you don’t like it,” which gets me, like 1000 Mysteriously Powerful Librarian Points.)

    It’s much, much harder when you haven’t gotten to have years of that kind of experience, of readers who aren’t traumatized by not liking your book, but who put it down and move on and try your next one; of perspective on readers and how most readers read, really, out in the world– and a million times harder when it’s your own work that’s out there.

    Someone remind me of my ability to be all calm and have perspective this summer when it’s my own book that’s out.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I will make a note in my calendar. I think this kind of perspective really would be valuable. But also, it’s the kind of perspective we gain with time, as well, and the reason in those documentaries that it’s so much easier for, say, 20-years-down-the-line Pearl Jam to shrug stuff off that would have messed with their heads when they were just baby musicians.

  10. I’ll just say yeah. :-)

  11. Serena Bell says:

    Love this so much.

  12. willaful says:

    I saw U2 in concert once. And at one point, they announced they were going to sing a song by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. And I’m the only person in a stadium of a zillion people clapping wildly and going “Woo hoo!”

    Or as Joel from MST3K once said, “We don’t worry about who’s going to get the joke. The right people will get it.”

  13. Fiona McGier says:

    Thanks for this post. So many people assume I’m rolling in money because I’m an author. When I tell them I still have to work multiple other jobs, that no one I know makes FSOG money, they ask, “Then why do you do it?” I’ve thought of so many answers, but none of them make sense to most people. Somehow “Because I must”, or “To keep the voices in my head happy,” doesn’t help them understand.Your words say it so much better. Thanks.

  14. Penny Reid says:

    Thank you, so much. I needed that.

  15. Jackie Horne says:

    Your post reminded me of Nick Hornby’s JULIET, NAKED, and his musician, Tucker Crowe. When he finally comes out with an album after ten years of silence, his rabid fans are distraught that it’s so different from his earlier work. But then we see a few folks posting to the fan board, listeners unfamiliar with his earlier music, writing about how they like what’s going on in this album. Different listeners, and different readers, want different things at different points in their lives. The myth that you can please everyone all the time is a fantasy of marketers, but a reductive view of human life in all its crazy diversity.

  16. Lexxi says:

    I love this post!!!

    The Joshua Tree is the perfect album and my favorite. I love ever note and every word…U2 never have to record another album for me because that one is such a gift. How could we ask for more after that? Seems greedy.

    Not so much with Pearl Jam. I loved Ten. It is not as perfect as the Joshua Tree but it’s close. Then their second album came out and I remember listening too it with my mouth open in horror….until recently, I was still angry at them for Vs. That’s twenty years of simmering disappointment with a shade of rage.

    Then my first book came out this year and actually got pretty good reviews. Reviews I was thrilled with, even the negative ones because they were helpful. So ok, then let’s get book two finished…

    Sat down to write and about ten seconds later I immediately forgave Pearl Jam for that second album. I don’t know how anyone has the nerve to put out a second album or a second book. It’s scarier than letting anyone read the first one.

    So I loved your post, although, not as much as I love About Last Night. But that book is wonderful, you don’t ever have to write another one. (But please do)

  17. sofia says:

    Liking or disliking something is so very subjective. It does not only depend on the object, be it a book, a song or a person, but also on the reviewer and the kind of mood he is in, the kind of day or life he has had and a million other small factors. A bad or good review sometimes exist at that point in time with the grace of God. Maybe if the book had been read just a day earlier the reader would not have had that fight which effected his mood which then effected his reading and vice versa. A review in the end is not solely a judgement of a particular book and author but also a statement about the reader at that particular point in time.

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