Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Author's Attitude

Over at the All About Romance Blog, I came across a story about how an author in Russia managed to successfully sue a critic who'd given his book a bad review. He claimed that the negative review gave him health problems and caused his family mental anguish, and was awarded $1000 by the court. Cue "In Soviet Russia, Book reviews YOU" jokes. The blog entry continues to discuss not only the dangerous precedent this could set, but both the responsibility a critic has when writing a review as well as an author's responsibility when responding to reviews, which prompted me to make a post of my own.

I've encountered examples of bad behaviour on both sides of this issue - the author's and the critic's. Granted, I have more experience with the bad ways authors can react to reviews, but recent comments on my blog and others have shown me that a critic has a responsibility to maintain a certain attitude as well. I was going to do both the Author's Attitude and the Critic's Attitude in one post, but the Author's part turned out to be way longer than I expected, so the Critic's Attitude shall come later.

The Author's Attitude:
I can tell you first off that, yes, I have received negative responses from authors (or "anonymous" people who take my reviews suspiciously personally). In almost every case, they follow the same pattern of knee-jerk behaviour that demonstrates that, for the most part, the biggest objection they have to my review is that it is negative. So allow me to offer a guide (based on my own personal experiences of the responses I've received) to authors who read reviews they disagree with:

A critic can hate your books without hating you. In most cases, the critic has never met you and never will. Critics don't know what you look like, or how you walk your dog, or how you like to chew on pencils before you write with them. They are not reviewing you, they are reviewing what you write. Furthermore, a negative review does not demonstrate the critic's intent to hurt you, nor does it encourage others to do so. To put it plainly, a negative review is not, by definition, a personal attack on you. That's not to say that some few reviewers don't abuse their right to free speech, but in the vast, VAST majority of cases, a negative review simply means a critic didn't like your book. It doesn't mean they think you are a terrible human being and want to burn down your house and kick your dog.

From a writer's perspective, I'll admit that my first reaction to negative criticism is to feel angry and hurt. That's perfectly understandable. But give it a few days. Letting some time and distance come between you and reading that review should give you a sense of perspective. You can still think the critic is dead wrong about your writing, but after a few days (and some chocolate and comfort reading, heh), you can come back to yourself and remember that bad reviews, like rejection letters, are just a fact of life.

From a critic's perspective, I can tell you that I don't hate any of the authors whose books have received low grades from me. When I go to RWA Nationals, I'm not going to spit in Fern Michaels' face or punch Susan Mallery in the throat or push Barbara Pierce down a flight of stairs. They're probably very nice people. Not to mention they are authors who love to write romance - and that's something we have in common. ^_^

This ties into responding to negative reviews as if they are personal attacks - many authors who answer negative reviews try to give a little "tit for tat" and attack the critic right back, by insulting their occupation, fashion sense, appearance, or any other aspect of their personal life that is totally and completely irrelevant to their review. Do not do this. This makes you look like a jackass, because you will be the one making this argument personal, not the critic.

From a writer's perspective, I've felt petulant and childish over negative criticism. I shared a writing class once with a goth dude who wore eye-liner, studded boots, and a smelly black trenchcoat. I disliked him. I remember thinking when he gave me a negative criticism about one of my stories - Oh yeah? At least I don't dress like a fucking vampire. But I didn't say so - why? Because he was criticising the pacing of my story, not how disgustingly clean and colour-coordinated my outfit was. If I'd said my comment out loud, I would have looked like the idiot, not him.

From a critic's perspective, I had an author (or at least an "anonymous" letter written by someone who took my negative review as personally as the author would) snootily comment about my "little job filing books at a library" (I was briefly a materials processing assistant for my university library, as mentioned in my bio on the Green Man Review page), and I could almost picture him/her smirking at the audacity of such a peon reviewing their work. Riiiiight.

This is one of the most irritating faux-pas you can make in a response to a negative review, and also one of the most irritatingly common. Almost every very single negative response I've received has included this argument. A lot of the time it involves the previous faux pas of getting personal with the critic by insulting the fact they haven't been published yet. Authors often, however, imply that since the critic is not a published author, the author's writing is so superior to the critic's own that the critic is entirely unqualified to offer a negative opinion of it.

The main error in this argument is that it is fundamentally hypocritical. While unpublished drudges are pathetically unworthy of reviewing your books - you don't have any objection to them buying and reading your books. If you divided the world's population into Published and Unpublished, the Unpubbed would outnumber the authors tens of thousands to one. If the only people allowed to read books were published authors, well, authors would be making even less money than they already do. And no author wants that. The more readers, the better!

Basically, belittling your critic for their lack of published work preaches the idea that "anyone and everyone should read my books - but unless you're published you should keep your big mouth shut." Let me tell you, when authors engage in public spats with critics and use this argument, the general public tends to react badly. I dunno, I guess they have a problem with an author who wants their readership but doesn't think their opinions matter.

News flash: every single person who reads your book is qualified to review it. The only things a critic needs are: 1) first-hand knowledge of your book gleaned from personally reading it, and 2) the ability and means to express his or her opinion of it. Because that's what reviews are: opinions. Of course, it certainly helps the casual reader if the critic has some writing ability because then the opinions are fun to read and simple to grasp, but a publishing credit is not the sole indication of writing ability.

Hell, you'd think authors would prefer the writers of their negative reviews to be unqualified - if critics were truly bad writers, they'd have a harder time conveying their dislike of the books and thereby convincing other people they suck! It's hard for an author to maintain a position that their work is above the opinions of the vulgar masses when they are selling their work to the vulgar masses.

From a writer's perspective, I will readily admit that I've felt the knee-jerk impulse to prove my superiority over a critic of my work. In one example, I had a writing class with an older woman whose writing I thought was terrible. Poorly plotted, typos all over the place, and so grammatically incorrect I initially wondered if English was her second language (it wasn't). The first time the group sat down together to critique my work, I was strongly inclined to ignore everything she had to say. "What could she possibly offer?" I scoffed (inwardly, thank God). "She can't even write, herself! I'm ten times the writer she is, how dare she!" But I had to realize a lot of her comments made sense and improved my work - her skills as a writer weren't necessarily indications of her comprehension skills as a reader.

From a critic's perspective - well, I think opinions are opinions, and the critic's job is to express those opinions, and I get antsy with authors who think they hold the velvet rope to the club where "truely qualified" critics get to slam their work. Because, consider it this way - have any of you come across an example of an author questioning the qualifications of someone who praised their work? Thought not. I'm guessing the "truly qualified" club is really a party of one (the author herself, as her own worst critic, natch).

And now we have what comes after the author's accusation that the critic is unqualified - the amazingly original conclusion that the critic writes angry, stupid, wrong things about your work because they are secretly jealous of you and want you to be as miserable and dissatisfied as they are. If the previous argument is arrogant and hypocritical, this argument is just plain childish. Think of the Gretchen Wieners character from Mean Girls - the one who "apologizes" for making all the other girls feel jealous of her. And that's what it is - accusing an opponent of jealousy is the high school Mean Girl argument: it makes you look conceited and immature. Again, like all the other arguments, this is a defense mechanism. Understandably, the author wants to save face and invalidate the critic's argument by suggesting the critic has an alterior motive that makes the author look better in comparison. But it doesn't!

From a writer's perspective, I don't have much to say on this argument. I've never thought that people who criticised my work might be jealous. I've just never thought that way - then again, I was the kind of girl who was picked on by the Mean Girls, so maybe that's it.

From a critic's perspective, I hate this argument. Why? Because essentially it's an expression of the old adage, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can do neither, become critics." It's a belief held by artists of all kinds - writers, directors, painters - that the life of a critic is a cold, pathetic existence. That critics are lonely, untalented losers. That being a critic isn't a choice or a vocation, but the dreaded last resort for bitter, unsuccessful wannabes. I will tell you this up front, right now: I love being a critic. I chose to be a critic. I've had my book reviews in (e-)print for five years now, and I get paid nothing for my blog or my work at The Green Man Review. I do it because I love it, not because I'm spiteful, not because I want the authors who were published before me to suffer, and I hate people who imply that I do. I'm a writer who loves to read and loves to tell people about what I read and thanks to the Internet I get to do it!

I also love reading other people's reviews - comparing notes between what I think and what another critic thinks, learning new perspectives, learning what narrative elements work for me and what doesn't. I've learned so much over the last few years, I can honestly tell you that I believe my work as a critic has made me a better writer, overall.

Why? Ultimately, because it doesn't make a difference. That's not to say I don't appreciate the work that goes into writing a novel (oh God it's so much work), but the amount of work put into your novel isn't relevant to the review. The critic reviews the final product, and the final product is what matters. Think of it this way - I'm sure the lighting technicians and costume designers worked their butts off on the set of Gigli, but that doesn't make that movie any more entertaining to watch.

From a writer's perspective - I can understand the frustration. My novel's taken an age to get off the ground. I fully understand an author's disappointment and anger when the novel they've spent eighteen months crafting is torn down by a review that takes four hours to write. But telling the critic how long it took does about as much good as banging your head against a wall.

From a critic's perspective, how is the knowledge of how hard you worked on your novel supposed to affect my review? How am I - how is anyone, really - supposed to tell how many months and years were spent crafting each sentence, polishing each line just by reading the book? The answer: You can't. Not just because it's physically impossible unless you have one of Sylar's psychic powers, but also because everyone writes differently. Some authors take weeks to write a novel - others take decades. To some, beautiful writing and wordplay come easily, while to others it's an exacting task - when the end products are two novels full of beautiful writing, how is one different from the other based on the amount of difficulty involved?

Many authors, when responding to negative reviews, want to support their opinion that their books are awesome by mentioning all the positive reviews their books have already obtained. I once received a snide little note from a YA author saying, "I'm sorry you didn't enjoy my novel - I guess everyone has different tastes. All these other reviewers and teenagers and fans loved it."

The first question that comes to my mind with this argument is - if all these people loved your book, why the hell do you care that one critic doesn't? It's baffling - so many people supposedly love your work, and yet one negative review not only annoys you, but annoys you enough to make you go out of your way to contact them and inform them in no uncertain terms that you are Lit-Rah-Chur Personified. Methinks the author doth protest too much.

Also, this kind of response carries the implication that since the (alleged) majority of reviewers loved your work, the negative critic's review, by being in the minority, is somehow incorrect, biased, or any of the other excuses mentioned above. "Gee, I'm sorry - I must have missed the Universal Critic Memo that told me to love your book unconditionally!" Critics don't get together and decide how to review a book - a critic's review is based on individual opinion. There's almost always going to be one or two people who dislike a book - which again leads me to wonder, Why are you whining about ONE bad review?

From a writer's perspective, I can somewhat understand the temptation of contacting the few bad reviews when everyone else has been positive. It's the drive to have the perfect score, the 10 out of 10 (even with the French judge on the panel), the universal rave. You think, "Everyone else has loved my book except for this one person - maybe they just need a little push, a little reminder, a little explanation. Everyone else fell for my book so easily - surely one little e-mail can tip the scales?"

However, from a critic's perspective I can tell that this doesn't work. From the receiving end of these backhanded responses, I can say that it makes you look arrogant, hoping to intimate a reviewer with superior numbers. It feels like literary peer pressure - "everyone else likes my book, yeah, it's all the rage right now, you don't want to be the one loser geek on the Internet who doesn't - you'd be a total square." All I can do is reiterate that a critic doesn't base their opinion on others - they base it on themselves. Telling them that other people like your book isn't the way to convince them.

I currently publish reviews on two websites - this blog and the e-zine Green Man Review. Since both are unpaid gigs (although GMR staff get free books, hurrah!) and the all the reviewers at Green Man are volunteers, this provides endless excuses for authors to sneer how, "Anyone can be published on the Internet." This argument isn't limited to those who post reviews on the Web - basically any critic who gets a response somewhere along the lines of "No one reads your dinky little journal/small town paper/newsletter/quarterly review, anyway" is a victim of this argument.

My response to this is similar to the argument above - if my publication/website/journal etc. is so tiny and unnoticed, why do you care so much? Your vehement response only undermines your insistance that nobody reads our reviews and what we write doesn't matter - because, obviously, it matters to you - making you care enough to send us an e-mail stating how much you don't care.

From a writer's perspective - well, I'm still a little baffled. While I might tell myself that a publication that panned my book is not worthy of attention, I don't understand where one would acquire the motivation to actually write to them and tell them they're unworthy of attention.

From a critic's perspective, it all comes across as sour grapes. "What? You won't praise my book? Fine, I don't care - nobody reads you anyway." Which leads me to my final and most important advice to writers:


I know, I know - after a ginormously long post about what not to do in an author response, this is my last one? Well, I guess I felt like I had to provide examples of why responding to negative reviews is almost always a guaranteed author FAIL before flat-out telling authors not to respond to negative reviews.

From a writer's perspective, I can tell you that there is very, very little, next to nothing, that you can do to change a critic's opinion after they have read your work. During critique sessions, I argued my point until the cows came home but it couldn't change the fact that what my writing tried to convey just didn't succeed when it mattered.

From a critic's perspective, I concur - once I finish a book, my opinion's pretty much set. I can also tell you that responding in an insulting, negative fashion really isn't going to make your case, either.

You don't need to be an Historical author to understand that a negative review is not the same as calling someone out. You are not honour-bound to challenge a negative critic to a duel. You know what they say about authors who don't say anything about negative reviews? Nothing. Not a thing. Zip. There's a saying, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt." One negative review of your book might convince a few people not to buy your novel, but getting into a messy rant with a critic can do far worse damage because it attracts a lot of attention that almost never reflects well on you.

You do not look weak, you do not look conquered, you do not look cowardly for not responding to a review. Ignoring a critic does not mean the critic "wins" - because it's not a battle! The purpose of a critic isn't to stop books from being sold, but rather to suggest books they like while at the same time explaining why they didn't like the books they panned.

For every critic who pans your book and supposedly costs you readers, there's a critic who loves your book and actually gains you readers who might not have thought to try you before! Authors, I think we all know why the critics who write rave reviews don't receive childish, thoughtless responses like this, responses that are beneath you. Reviews are a fact of life for an author, and you get the good with the bad - the worm with the apple, the rain with the sunshine. You can't slam the negative critics for being critics and doing their job while embracing the positive critics for doing the exact same thing.

Tune in tomorrow (hopefully), for the second half of my long-ass discussion of reviews, when I take a look at the Reviewer's Attitude.


  1. Wow! What a great, thorough post. Every author who has ever considered getting snotty with a reviewer should read this.

    Awesome job.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Very nicely thought out and presented.

    As a dinky small time reviewer, so far I haven't had any run-ins with any authors. I've even had an author or two whom I gave a crappy review to say thank you, which raised them in my eyes even if like you say, it didn't change my mind about how I felt about the book.

    One thing though, sometimes reviewers get some things wrong and I think it's OK and good if an author points out a factual error.

    That happened to me recently and the author pointed it out and I made a public apology and changed that part of my review. I liked the book to begin with and that didn't really change too much about how I felt about the book, but I did change the review to reflect the truth.

    So sometimes it's good for an author to speak up. I'm glad she did.

    But I saw one of those "I'm sorry you didn't like my book but thank gawd everyone else did" type of responses recently and I thought, what a loser that author is.

  3. Jill --> From my own writing experiences, coming up with this article will be a great reminder for me when I eventually read negative reviews of my work. There's nothing weird about feeling hurt by negative reviews, but it's writing responses when you are still angry that will get you bad press.

    MB Leah --> Some authors called and thanked you anyway? That's pretty decent - and I guess bad press is still press, eh?

    As for factual errors, hmmm, that's still a tough situation. I mean, yes, it might change how you've seen the novel but does it change EVERYTHING about your reaction to the novel?

    Ultimately, of course, correcting an error won't go back in time and erase the bad experience in the first place, because critiques aren't based on facts but opinions. I wouldn't retract a review if I found I'd made a factual error - I might mention I'd made an error, but I don't think it would have a significant impact on how much I'd enjoyed the book as a whole.

    The communication from a writer to a reader is just that - a communication. It's a two-way street. Sometimes a reader just won't understand a book because of their own mindset, but sometimes its because the author failed to convey their fact in an articulate manner.

  4. Authors must keep in mind it is about the present work, we the reader and the reviewer are reading. It's nothing personal. And I look at it this way, if the review is not all bells and whistles, you can learn from it and perhaps your next book can been written better.

  5. I've sent "thank you for reviewing my book," and "I'm sorry you didn't like it, I hope you'll give my next book a chance." I've almost always received a you're welcome from the reviewer for those. But even in good reviews I rarely address the points made in the review. I firmly believe each review is one person's opinion, and I know that whatever I say won't change it. That was a tough lesson to learn, but a valuable one.