Professor Wu's Rulebook

What do you do when your writing receives bad reviews? Follow Walt Whitman’s example and write a glowing one of your own work


Every writer faces two inevitabilities: rejection and criticism. In our modern, cut-throat publishing world, aspiring authors must expect to receive countless rejection letters from literary agents and publishing houses. And, when their work eventually is published, they must accept the fact that there will be literary critics out there who either take umbrage with their work; or else deem it to be of poor quality; or even dismiss it all together.

Of course, it is often said that it is an easy job to be a critic – and negativity sometimes comes easier than positivity or congratulations. And while negative reviews can hurt one’s pride or self-confidence, they will not necessarily affect one’s book sales. You need only look at the record breaking sales figures of those books that receive nearly universal negative criticism, such as 50 Shades of Grey, to see evidence of this.

But a negative review is still a negative review, and it’s natural to feel a bit put out when you receive one (or several). So, what should you do?

Some may advise, sage-like, to ignore reviews, or to accept them as constructive criticism of your work and try to use them to improve your writing. Be Zen, they may say; be calm and reflective. But where’s the fun in that? Indeed, why be Zen when you can simply fight back?

Here, you may wish to follow in the footsteps of one of the greatest literary titans of all time: Walt Whitman.

After self-publishing Leaves of Grass – a monumental poetic tome inspired by a 1844 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson – Whitman received multiple scathing reviews from critics and literary contemporaries. Many urged readers to throw the book on the fire, with others variously describing it as “stupid filth” and unable to “attain any wide influence”.

Whitman’s response? Simple. Write a 3000 word glowing review of his own work, explaining exactly why he was a literary genius and why the work was so important, and submit it anonymously to The United States Review.

Talk about patting yourself on the back: the first paragraph alone sets the tone for the self-congratulatory tone of the rest of the review:

“AN American bard at last! One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his posture strong and erect, his voice bringing hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old. We shall cease shamming and be what we really are. We shall start an athletic and defiant literature. We realize now how it is, and what was most lacking. The interior American republic shall also be declared free and independent.”

And then, a couple of paragraphs later:

“Affairs then are this man’s poems. He will still inject nature through civilization. The movement of his verses is the sweeping movement of great currents of living people, with a general government, and state and municipal governments, courts, commerce, manufactures, arsenals, steamships, railroads, telegraphs, cities with paved streets, and aqueducts, and police and gas—myriads of travellers arriving and departing—newspapers, music, elections and all the features and processes of the nineteenth century in the wholesomest race and the only stable form of politics at present upon the earth. Along his words spread the broad impartialities of the United States. No innovations must be permitted on the stern severities of our liberty and equality. Undecked also is this poet with sentimentalism, or jingle, or nice conceits or flowery similes. He appears in his poems surrounded by women and children, and by young men, and by common objects and qualities. He gives to each just what belongs to it, neither more or less.”

Whitman carries on, explaining that Leaves of Grass contains “ the facts of eternity and immortality” (not much, then). And finally, he concludes:

“Walt Whitman himself disclaims singularity in his work, and announces the coming after him of great successions of poets, and that he but lifts his finger to give the signal. […]You have come in good time, Walt Whitman! In opinions, in manners, in costumes, in books, in the aims and occupancy of life, in associates, in poems, conformity to all unnatural and tainted customs passes without remark, while perfect naturalness, health, faith, self-reliance, and all primal expressions of the manliest love and friendship, subject one to the stare and controversy of the world.”

Every author will receive bad reviews from time to time. When it’s your turn, feel free to follow the example of Walt and heap glowing – and anonymous – praise on yourself to combat the negativity. After all, in a world where Donald Trump can become the presidential candidate for the US Republican party, and where human CO2 emissions reach beyond carbon tipping points, and neoliberal capitalism erodes the general fabric of society; we could always do with a little more positivity.

You can read Whitman’s full review here.

1 comment

  1. What a fine judge of his own character the man was.

    Love the chutzpa (?).

    ‘More front than Myers’ is the Australian expression that seems to fit (Myers was/is a very large department store.



    Liked by 1 person

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