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Don’t Attack Reviewers

28 October 2014

From Ruthless Culture:

Last weekend, the Guardian published an astonishing piece by Kathleen Hale about her experiences tracking down someone who spoke ill of her and her books online. According to Hale, the negative reviews spiralled out into a more generalised form of online vitriol that motivated Hale to trace her reviewer’s real identity, travel to confront them and then write an article about it in the Guardian that paints Hale as the (moderately self-critical) victim of things like ‘trolling’ and ‘catfishing’ rather than a petulant and intimidating online presence. Anyone who has published a negative review online will read this article and shiver, particularly at the manner in which Hale presents the silencing of her critic as a signifier for personal growth:

I’m told Blythe still blogs and posts on Goodreads; Patricia tells me she still live    tweets Gossip Girl. In some ways I’m grateful to Judy, or whoever is posing as Blythe, for making her Twitter and Instagram private, because it has helped me drop that obsessive part of my daily routine. Although, like anyone with a tendency for low-grade insanity, I occasionally grow nostalgic for the thing that makes me nuts.

It’s nice that Kale was afforded the privilege of writing about her experiences in a venue as visible and respected as the Guardian and it’s nice that she was able to transform her defeated and diminished critics into stepping-stones on the road to personal self-improvement. I am genuinely glad that she is feeling better but the bulk of my sympathies still lie with her critic.

I feel quite close to this issue because, for the past ten years, I have been hanging out on the margins of science fiction fandom occasionally writing about books and commenting on the state of the field. In that time I have seen a partisan dislike for negative reviews of favourite books broaden into a more generalised taboo against negative reviewing and a related dissolution of the taboo against authors confronting their critics and responding to reviews. Given that Hale frames her encounters with critics in strictly psychological terms, I think it appropriate that I should begin by doing the same.

The first time I took a step back from genre culture was as a result of being stalked for daring to publish negative reviews. The stalking was limited to some creepy comments and a rather cack-handed attempt to run me out of town on a rail by posting a long diatribe in the comments of a number of widely-read blogs but It did give me pause for thought and a reason for cutting back on my reviewing.

. . . .

In February 2009, I reviewed Ellen Datlow’s anthology Poe for Strange Horizons. I liked some of the stories but not all of them and was largely unimpressed by the anthology as a whole. A few days later, the Hugo-winning editor Ellen Datlow appeared in the comments to take issue with things that I had said. She was later joined by the author Anna Tambour whose contributions make little sense even upon re-examination. Curious as to where these authors and editors were coming from, I backtracked and came across a discussion of the review on Datlow’s blog. I later commented in public about Datlow’s willingness to go after her critics and she responded by saying that she didn’t believe that I had actually read her work.

In hindsight, this type of stuff seems like weak beer. In the past five years, online discussion has grown considerably more hyperbolic and an editor linking to a negative review on their blog would most likely result in 110 comments rather than 11. However, I started reviewing under the principle that a reviewer’s right to express their opinion about a book was sacrosanct and when you realise that this right has suddenly been taken away it cannot help but make you feel alienated from your culture (am I *that* out of touch?) and just that little bit more careful when choosing which books to review (does this author have a history of going after their critics and do I think that my review might prompt such a response?).

. . . .

The changes in the social protocols surrounding reviewing show how the lack of distance between authors and fans has put fan spaces under pressure to conform to the requirements of the modern publishing industry: A literary culture built to meet the needs of fans naturally encourages robust criticism because robust criticism encourages fans to talk amongst themselves and a negative review is no bad thing (whether you agree with it or not) because it aims to prevent fans from spending money on books they won’t enjoy. Conversely, a literary culture built to meet the needs of literary professionals has no interest in protecting people from bad purchasing decisions. This type of literary culture emphasises not only positive reviews that help to sell (sometimes terrible and offensive) books but also coverage of the types of things that publishers want. Why encourage fans to find their own areas of interest when you can drive them towards the blogs of people who review the right type of book in the right type of way and at the right time? A literary culture built to suit the needs of literary professionals has no need for independent or idiosyncratic voices and absolutely no need for reviewers who dare to point out that the hot novel of the moment is a waste of money. However, a literary culture built to suit to needs of its bourgeois professionals may feel the need to set out a set of rules that the lower classes would be wise to follow, hence Robert Jackson Bennett laying down the law as to where and when it is acceptable for critics to express their own opinions:

In other words, when you leave your platform, your own personal space of the internet, and go to someone else’s, or even to a community platform, it requires a different code of behavior. This isn’t your space anymore, so you need to act differently. And remember, you’ve had your say back on your own platform. That’s the place to speak your mind.

What has changed in the last generation is that the book publishing industry has been bought out by corporations who see the literary world as nothing more than another domain from which to extract money. Thus, the infamously sloppy and old-fashioned publishing industry was put under pressure to perform and in order to perform, belts had to be tightened and resources squeezed including authors who could no longer be allowed to sit around writing when there was marketing to be done. I understand when people like Robert Jackson Bennett say that they’re feeling vulnerable and exposed but it is capitalism and not fans who put them in this position.

Many of the writers who are now compelled to interact with fans in fannish spaces were not members of those spaces prior to becoming authors. Having been told by agents and publishers to set up a Twitter account and get branding, they arrive in fannish spaces expecting the cultural equivalent of an eBay account: Put effort in here, extract money there. Brought to these spaces for entirely selfish reasons, it is not surprising that these authors should find themselves alienated from a set of cultural values devised and maintained by people intent upon using those spaces for different reasons. Faced with a disconnect from the cultural values they have and the cultural values that benefit them financially, some authors choose to either lobby for a new set of rules (as in the case of Robert Jackson Bennett) or lash out at reviewers (as in the case of Kathleen Hale and Ben Aaronovitch) who refuse to act according to the rules that many new authors were lead to expect by publishers who don’t have the time to promote the books they themselves chose to publish.

Link to the rest at Ruthless Culture and thanks to Laura for the tip.

Reviews, Social Media

51 Comments to “Don’t Attack Reviewers”

  1. I have a whole bunch of anthologies edited by Datlow and I trust her name on an anthology, so it really disappoints me that she went after this legit reviewer. This is not a crank/troll/twit. This person actually discusses the pros and cons of a work.

    While I agree with the advice to let the reviewers review and stay quite, authors; part of me thinks, “If it’s okay for them to express themselves openly, then why cannot an author respond?” Why are authors/editors muzzled in ways reviewers are not? Where is the free speech in that?

    I still think the default wisdom is: STAY OUT. Let them talk. Walk away. Nothing to see here.

    I mean, nothing stops and author or editor from blogging whatever they want about their own work, explanatory or whatever, without referencing any reviewer or critic. Blog away. Leave the reviewers alone.

    (Again, I still have a bit of a divided heart here, because I have seen utterly cruel and unfair reviews that leave me jaw agape, really, and I would not blame the author for jumping in and calling the reviewer a total a** with minimal reading comprehension skills and a deformed soul.)

    Well, I had my vent: http://mirwriter.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/authors-as-stalkers-reviewers-as-insensitive-snarks-my-own-little-rant-aka-it-would-be-nice-if-we-were-all-polite-sane-self-controlled-and-respectful/

    • “If it’s okay for them to express themselves openly, then why cannot an author respond?”

      So in agreement here. Literature is, at its best, a conversation.

      Me, I’m of the mind that once a book is published, its author becomes, hopefully, merely one reader among myriad, and ceases to be able to say what a story means. They can talk about intention, I suppose, but I’m not sure being the author of a work really bestows authority over it. Interpretations have to be pretty much as subjective as people argue the idea of quality is, right?

      • I am totally okay with people saying, “I got X out of this story. I thought Y was a metaphor for Z.” That’s subjective truth – a person cannot be wrong about how something makes them feel.

        OTOH, I also greatly empathize with the sentiments expressed by this image.

        • @ Marc

          LOL. Yeah, it’s definitely possible to over-read meaning into a piece of writing. IMHO, that’s an occupational hazard of Lit teachers, whose raison d’être is to be profound, intellectual, and (ahem) utterly wrong!

          I recall reading a first-person account many years ago about someone taking an evening Eng Lit class at a local college. One of the books “analyzed” was a novel this very person had actually written decades earlier (under a pseudonym). The instructor had all these analysis points to make that were completely off-the-wall. The author tried to engage the instructor about these points (without revealing he was the author) and was soundly ripped to shreds by the offended instructor.

          The writer mentioned that he had written this book solely for money; he was young and literally hungry at the time. He wasn’t trying to do any sort of lit-fic profundities, yada, he just needed the money. 🙂

        • @ Marc

          LOL. Yeah, it’s definitely possible to over-read meaning into a piece of writing. IMHO, that’s an occupational hazard of Lit teachers, whose raison d’être is to be profound, intellectual, and (ahem) often utterly wrong!

          I recall reading a first-person account many years ago about someone taking an evening Eng Lit class at a local college. One of the books “analyzed” was a novel this very person had actually written decades earlier (under a pseudonym). The instructor had all these analysis points to make that were completely off-the-wall. The author tried to engage the instructor about these points (without revealing he was the author) in class and was soundly ripped to shreds by the offended instructor.

          The writer mentioned that he had written this book solely for money; he was young and literally starving at the time. He wasn’t trying to do any sort of lit-fic profundities, yada, he just needed the money. 🙂

      • I think it’s as if someone shows up at your workplace and loudly proclaims: You suck at your job and no one should hire you.

        IF that is not acceptable to the waitress, programmer, banker, nurse, engineer…why is it okay to be that harsh with a writer?

        I do not believe that. Sorry. I think criticism should have basis and civility. I may think that waitress sucks, but I am not gonna embarrass her in front of all the other patrons. I might go to the manager and say, “She got every single item wrong and never refilled our drinks and added up the bill incorrectly.”

        I know it’s not a one-to-one correlation–maybe more like reviewing the restaurant itself– but it’s as if reviewers forget authors are people and that book is their labor. The same consideration I’d give to the waitress not to make a scene right at the table, I’d offer the same thing to writers: Courtesy, even when incompetent at their work.

        In the car, when no one’s listening, I can call her every incompetent epithet in the book, if I want, but not to her face.

        A book, like a film, a painting, etc, is put out there and reviews are to be expected, good and bad, but I don’t think it’s out of line to expect reviewers to not be abusive jerks.

        • why is it okay to be that harsh with a writer?

          Oh, I still agree with you. Abusive jerks suck. Like that one organization that bestows a Hatchet Job award for negative reviews.

          I’m not saying negative reviews can’t be useful. They sure can be. Especially if they help prospective readers with their decision to buy/read the book in question.

          But there’s certainly a subset of negative reviews that are more about reviewers attempting to demonstrate how clever they are, or simply being jerks.

    • The book is what the author has to say.
      And it is packaged in a static, standalone format.
      The author exercised their free speech once it was published.

      The object of the book is for the author to present their case on their own terms in it. If their message is misunderstood or missed further engagement is not going to fix the mismatch. Books are not generally interactive or part of a conversation berween writer and reader, they are a one-way medium; they may spark conversation but are nit expected to be part of it.

      If you want a conversation, then say it in a blog or on Twitter; those are interactive venues for discussions.

      • I review how-to books for writers on my blog. Once, I wrote a 2-star review that was my usual 300 words long. I got a 3600 word response from the author where she basically rewrote her book in comment form. The comment was so long that WordPress flagged it and asked me if I really wanted it to go through.

        I let it go through and it’s still there in the comments to my original review. I felt like it told my readers everything they needed to know about this book/author.

        (It’s here if you want to see for yourself http://writingslices.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/first-draft-in-30-days-by-karen-wiesner/)

    • I routinely reply to reviews. Not all of them — just ones that interest me enough to reply. Sometimes it’s just to thank the reviewer if their comments really touched me. Sometimes it’s to tell them I laughed along with them if they were making fun of the book a little bit. (I’ve got a good sense of humor about myself and my books; I can enjoy a laugh at my expense!) Sometimes it’s to offer them something to make up for a negative experience if they had a bad time. (One reviewer was having a Kindle error that I’ve seen on my own Kindle before, and figured out how to fix… she interpreted it as a formatting issue, and I wanted to help her fix her Kindle’s annoying glitch.)

      The key thing here is that I’ve always been professional and level-headed. I’d never respond to a review if I were at all tempted to be snarky or defensive (not that I often feel that way about reviews; I just don’t take them so personally.) Because I can genuinely say “thanks” with real appreciation, even for bad reviews, I’m not viewed as a creeper author who’s intruding on the “safe space” of expression an honest opinion.

      I had one reviewer say she felt badly for giving one of my books two stars, because she liked certain aspects of it. I replied and told her not to feel badly — that we all like different things and it’s okay if she just didn’t click with my work. We have since become such good internet-friends that she’s bought and reviewed all my historical fiction since then! She’s only like one book out of five (all the rest still got two stars from her 😀 ) but even though she knows she won’t like some aspects of my writing, my genuine, professional response to her made her like me enough that she still supports my career. She’s awesome.

      I think the “Never respond!” advice developed out of a need to rein in hurt/defensive writers. Never respond if you’re going to imbue your response with one iota of unprofessionalism. But in my experience, if you remain professional and neutral, responses are welcome.

      By the way, the majority of my responses to reviews have been on Goodreads, where the readers are SUPPOSEDLY so much more harsh to authors. I have not found that to be so, but again, I don’t give a rip about bad reviews so I don’t get defensive or snarky over them. 🙂

      • Do you respond privately or in the public forum where the review was posted?

        Frankly, either of those can be problematical, and I avoid both.

        • Publicly. It hasn’t been a problem for me, but again, I never try to defend myself against their criticisms. I just thank them.

          There’s not a whole lot somebody can say to “Thank you for taking the time to write a review. I really appreciate that, even though you didn’t care for the book.”

          Now, “Thanks for the review, but when you said X was a problem, it’s actually not because Y…” that’s a different story. But that’s not the kind of response I ever give.

          • I know some say authors should NEVER invade the reviewing space, but when I see authors be gracious even to critical reviews, it UPS my opinion of them, frankly. WHen the responses are aggressive or clearly pissed off or offended, I think LESS of them.

            Before I went on my no-writing-for-7-years freakout, I had one of my stories publicly reviewed in a magazine and there were good and bad points. I took the bad points to heart in a good way–I reread the criticism as I began to write again to LEARN. I agreed with the criticism to an extent and want to use it to guide me to write BETTER. So, a critical reviewer, when they are thoughtful about criticism and not just snarking away to get laughs, can be an author’s friend, pointing out weaknesses we may not have seen. I appreciate it when it’s done professionally.

            But the snarkers: I have no respect for reviewers who revel in their mockery and abuse. None. I see them as bullies.

            • I agree, Mir. I know there are review sites out there where snark is the norm. I’m not a fan. However, I’d also say that if an author is submitting a book for review, they should do some vetting of the site. That doesn’t do any good if a reviewer decides to buy and review a book, but does protect the author from volunteering for treatment he or she isn’t going to be able to handle.

            • It’s SO much easier to be clever when tearing something down. I’ve felt that was a problem for reviewers since long before the Internet. If a reviewer’s most pressing motivation is to appear clever and funny to her peers, she can’t give a fair and considered review, and she’s going to have a problem setting this book aside and putting her energies into reviewing one she can recommend, which to me is a more useful service.

              • It would do us all good if they did just that–found gems to recommend.

                I sometimes have reviewed stuff that I thought was just okay, but could see where X reader would love it, so I say that: I found this A type of character frustrating, and this plot archetype overused, but for readers who love runaway bride heroines with secret babies and a hero who grovels for forgiveness for being a jerk to heroine, then this is the book for you.

                Cuz, some folks love exactly that kind of story. I know that and my 3-starrer might be heir 5-star Desert Isle Keeper.

          • I know some say authors should NEVER invade the reviewing space, but when I see authors be gracious even to critical reviews, it UPS my opinion of them, frankly. WHen the responses are aggressive or clearly pissed off or offended, I think LESS of them.

            Before I went on my no-writing-for-7-years freakout, I had one of my stories publicly reviewed in a magazine and there were good and bad points. I took the bad points to heart in a good way–I reread the criticism as I began to write again to LEARN. I agreed with the criticism to an extent and want to use it to guide me to write BETTER. So, a critical reviewer, when they are thoughtful about criticism and not just snarking away to get laughs, can be an author’s friend, pointing out weaknesses we may not have seen. I appreciate it when it’s done professionally.

            But the snarkers: I have no respect for reviewers who revel in their mockery and abuse. None. I see them as bullies.

    • He’s definitely a legit reviewer, but can be pretty harsh at times. He’s also one reviewer whose negative reviews make me more likely to buy a book, because his tastes are almost completely opposite to mine. So yes, even negative reviews can inspire people to buy a book.

      BTW, Jo Walton whom he also mentions in the part Passive Guy did not quote is a professional reviewer herself (at Tor.com) as well as an author, which makes the situation somewhat different than the Datlow situation. And indeed, the waters are further muddied, because some authors are also reviewers and vice versa.

      Though arguing with/responding to reviewers always makes things worse, even if you think the review was unfair. Best to walk away and ignore it.

      • Yep. Some negative reviews sell me.

        As someone who has a nearly-unbreakable rule (I can be swayed) not to review anything to which I cannot give at least 3 stars–my philosophy being that if I don’t at least think it’s okay, why would I finish it? It’s clearly not for me–I wonder sometimes at reviewers who just seem to enjoy or consistently sway toward the negative. I almost want to say: Hey, can you just go find something great to share with us and tell us why it’s great?

        What’s important is to find friends/reviewers who have “meshed taste” so when they say, “This was unputdownable,” you have a basis to believe it would be equally engaging for you.

    • I think though, it’s important to be aware that the writer of the piece under discussion can never come across in the same way as anyone else. For better or worse, they have a heavier presence and a bigger shadow.

      It’s a bit like when students discuss something in my classroom. As the teacher, I have to be very aware of my power, and the influence I have, and I cannot really participate in the same way.

      The analogy isn’t perfect, I don’t mean that the writer is like a teacher in other ways. Just that it’s a bigger presence, and people find that awkward.

    • Mir I think you might be wanting to fall into fantasy.

      There’s how it should be, and how it is.

      It should be a discussion, perhaps, but it’s not. Authors getting involved in the reviewing of their own work spoils the party.

      Even gracious authors thanking someone for a bad review need to butt the heck out. The reviewer doesn’t need the validation of the author, really.

      Authors being involved chills the discussion. It invades the space. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes the space unsafe, but it makes the reviews space less honest.

      EDIT: I’m not completely adamant about this, I don’t have a personal stake either way to be honest. This is just how I see it playing out in reality, outside of theory, outside of how we think it should be. I’d LOVE to jump through the screen and show these damn reviewers how to play my video games (I used to do hobby games before writing, still do a few weeks here and there). But you have to let the reviewer review…maybe it’s different with games. I don’t think so.

      • Chills it, or makes it more responsible and considerate? A person might be fine ripping someone who isn’t in the room. If they walk in the room, will I call them names to their face?

        I guess that’s the image I have when I review: There is a person who wrote this and they are out there in the cyberspace and can see what I write.

        If I won’t call a person names or insult their labors if they were looking right at me, why would it be okay to do so knowing that due to the realities of the internet they may be looking right at me?

        This is not fantasy. A review that is public is a review in the author’s face.

        Now, if I review on a private blog that only friends are allowed to see, that’s more like talking in private with the liberties that affords. But in the public sphere, a certain civility should be observed.

        And that’s my op and may be fantasy. 🙂 But I may say in private to my sister that that gal over there has the worst taste in clothes ever and looks hootchie, but I won’t write a blog post saying that if I know she can read it. It would hurt her feelings and, really, I could phrase it more delicately. “X Actress dresses with more flesh-showing than I might advise, and it’s not necessary as she has plenty of talent. Talent trumps transparent minidress.”

        In private, I might think:” Is she dressing to attract johns on Hollywood Blvd?”

        ::shrug::::

        My pastor would say that even in the private sphere, that would be unworthy. 🙂

        But I think every time there’s a movement to have society be a better place, it tends to start with some idea that seems like fantasy. What? NO slaves? What? Gay folks can be hired just like nongay folks? What? Women get paid the same as men? At one time, all those seemed idealistic and unrealistic ….

        Maybe civility in reviewing is fantasy, but one can dream.

        • I don’t think it’s the name-calling, face-ripping reviews that authors need to be worried about. Frankly, they speak for themselves, and any halfway sensible reader can see them for what they are.

          It’s the polite, considered, and rationally argued one star evisceration that we need to be concerned about!

          😉

    • I think there are two completely different questions that can be asked here. The one you are addressing is whether authors should be allowed to reply. It is very difficult to argue that they should be forcibly silenced.

      The other is whether it will actually help their situation to reply. As we have all so often seen, the answer seems fairly clearly to be that it doesn’t.

      It’s often said that our books are like our children. I agree. And one of the ways in which they are like our children is that we can’t fight all their battles for them.

      There are times when we just have to let them go, let them fight their own battles, and hope they find their own champions: people who love them not because they’re their children, but simply for what they are.

    • As long as the review–or blog post or rant–is about the book and the book alone, I personally don’t see where the author has any place in the discussion.

      If I buy anything else and I talk about that–a phone, a chair, a car, tickets to a movie, a stay at a hotel–I certainly don’t expect any of the people involved in producing those to show up at the discussion and explain to me how I’m wrong about my experience with what I bought.

      Obviously, YMMV

      • Yes. I think when a person brings the AUTHOR into it, then it’s personal. It’s no longer about the product (the chair, the story, the corn chips) and becomes an attack on the individual.

        • In my previous comment I forgot to add: it doesn’t matter where I talk about the book, the chair, the phone.

          I am not inviting the makers/creators into the discussion simply because I’m publishing my opinion online.

          It’s a review of the finished product, open to consumers of that product only. Period.

          Yes, I’ve appreciated it when an author has pointed out a factual mistake I’ve made, or has thanked me for writing the review at all, but I don’t expect it nor particularly want it.

          Because, again, I’m not writing my thoughts on any one thing I consume/enjoy/use for its creator, but for myself first, and for my fellow consumers, second.

  2. I just had to look up the 2009 Strange Horizons review:

    http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2009/02/poe_edited_by_e-comments.shtml#comments

    I know a lot of argument is that authors should never respond (or, sometimes, even read) reviews. I can see why that would be useful for many. I read pretty much all of them. I think it’s good to know what readers liked and why, and some reviews are good for learning that.

    Respond? Sometimes I’ll thank reviewers for their comments. If a review notes an error or formatting issue, I’ll apologize and offer a corrected file.

    But that’s it. The idea of attacking . . . if I get annoyed by one (it’s happened), I just rant to my wife. She helps.

    • I agree. I read them all — that’s where I get my most useful feedback. I mean, I’m writing for these people specifically, not for my editor or for the same handful of beta readers. I want to know what does and doesn’t work for my audience.

    • I enjoyed those comments, actually. 🙂 If the comment threads under reviews were always this interesting, I’d actively encourage authors and editors to respond. 🙂

  3. “Having been told by agents and publishers to set up a Twitter account and get branding, they arrive in fannish spaces expecting the cultural equivalent of an eBay account: Put effort in here, extract money there. Brought to these spaces for entirely selfish reasons, it is not surprising that these authors should find themselves alienated from a set of cultural values devised and maintained by people intent upon using those spaces for different reasons.”
    ——-
    This.
    Reviews are for readers, not for writers.
    If a review doesn’t fit your marketting plan, move along.

    You are not entitled to glowing reviews and you are never going to please everybody. In fact, if your brilliant book is disappointing reviewers, it may be that your marketing is mis-aimed and targeting the wrong audience; getting sales from people who should never have picked it up.

    You see that quite a bit with movies that present themselves as one thing in the trailer but turn out to be something entirely different when the movie rolls along. The movie itself might be fine but expectations matter.

    Marketting is a tool like everything else and when misused can lead to disappointment. Going after the reviewer is only going to lead to more wasted effort and grief. Nothing good will come of it.

    In general it is best to ignore reviews but if you can’t resist and find bad ones, instead of shooting the messenger, try to figure out what led to disappointment. It might not be the book itself, but rather the marketting. And that can be fixed.

  4. I know Chuck has a spotty record but I quite liked this recent post on the topic:

    http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/10/21/five-ways-to-respond-to-a-negative-review-a-helpful-guide/

    SPOILER:

    The five ways are, and I’m paraphrasing here:

    1) Do nothing.
    2) Do nothing.
    3) Do nothing.
    4) I said do nothing, dammit, are you even listening to me? Go punch something (inanimate and suitable for punching) and get your mad out if you must.
    5) Fine, if you have to, but don’t be a d**k. I SAID DON’T DO IT.

    I tend to agree.

    I might respond to a review that was, say, obviously for the wrong book, with a polite, “The reviewer’s time is appreciated, but there may have been a glitch as my book is about sexy wizards and this review is about dinosaur porn. Apologies for any misunderstandings.” And if somebody posted objectively wrong information in response to a nonfiction book, I might post the objectively correct information and a citation to it as diplomatically as I could muster. Other than that, I’ve seen what happens when authors respond to reviews, and it’s almost never good.

    My own experience on the other side includes an author who responded to my critique of their nonfiction book in such a way as to indicate that not only are they not qualified to write it (which, ironically, I am) they are a narcissistic a*****e. I can’t help but think that didn’t improve sales.

    There was also the guy who put legal advice in a professional guide despite the fact that a) he’s not a lawyer and b) his advice was wrong. When I posted a comment to this effect, he responded. It didn’t go well for him either.

    • “It didn’t go well for him either.”

      I don’t think responding in the ways Libbie mentioned in her comments are going to be an issue. But a snarky or argumentative response is never going to go well.

      You can make the case that, just as the author releases their work into the wild and can’t control how readers respond to it after that, the same goes for the review. A reader not connected to the author, that should be (and I think usually is) the case.

      But I always go back to the same thing which I think should be the default position on most reviews. There are exceptions, but few. A review is an opinion. The world’s foremost expert on what any particular reviewer’s opinion of a book is, is that reviewer. Arguing that he or she didn’t really think what they say they did isn’t ever going to be correct.

  5. A recent review of book #1 in my middle-grade series has me puzzled. It says:

    “I love how you can wad them up and they don’t tear. I just wished they were smaller.”

    So I checked the reviewer and found she’d said this several times about other books, except they were cloth books for infants. Then I checked even further and discovered that she’s reviewed all my other books with this comment: “I love this series!”

    I guess her cut and paste got a bit muddled up this time, and while it would’ve been fun to comment, I didn’t.

    • “I love how you can wad them up and they don’t tear. I just wished they were smaller.”

      Put that on your cover, and then make an appointment with the buyer for Barnes and Noble. This cover blurb is sure to make your middle-grade series a bestseller.

  6. I don’t think Hale’s story even fits into the respond politely or don’t ever respond to a reviewer debate. I’ve heard rational arguments for both options there, but the story printed in the Guardian was a whole different ball of crazy.

    Reading it, I went from slightly uncomfortable to Steven King levels of spooked out of my mind. The admission of outright stalking and terror-inducing behavior, the violation of someone’s personal address by a publisher that was given it for ARC purposes, and leaving a “gift” on the reviewer’s doorstep? Calling her at work?

    By the end I expected her to flippantly admit she had the snarky reviewers body in the trunk of her car.
    She crossed more than a reviewer/author line, and obsessive doesn’t begin to cover it.

    I don’t care how many times her reviewer said the f word. Nothing justifies that kind of breach, and to admit it in public and just joke around about how crazy you were, didn’t seem like any level of apology for the behavior to me.

  7. As a reviewer and an author, I’ll just say:

    1) I hate being given a bad review. But if it’s a bad review, I like it if the reviewers actually offer constructive criticism. I tend to do that when I review. I like it if a reviewer is fair and knowledgeable about themselves and their own biases (especially when it comes to race, sex, and religion.)

    I’ve challenged reviewers about three or four times. All those challenges I considered valid:

    I once had a white reviewer lecture me on what Africans really think and why my story was wrong for the african anthology it was in. Apparently I — a black woman– didn’t know African culture as well as she –a white woman who had travelled to Africa– did. All the Africans I knew loved my story by the way. In addition this reviewer named what she thought was the best story: the only story written by a white woman. I answered her review/bog and said it was interesting that the story she considered the best was the only story in the african antho that was written by a white woman. She didn’t know the story she loved was the only story written by a white person but I could only think that she had been trained to like certain types of writing and was unaware how deeply inculturated she was while she was challenging me on culture. So I had to call her on it.

    Another reviewer hated one of my novels and said he couldn’t finish it because nothing happened in it. He said among other things he was tired of women being saved by men. I answered him that it isn’t a good idea to review a book one could not finish, that the format of that novel was a romance and romances had different rules, and reminded him that just because he wassick of women being saved doesnt mean blck women are sick of it. Black women saved by heroic princes was new for us. We were always the mules of the world and our vaginas were not on pedestals. So should minorities who are now just getting their literary voices shut up because white folks have”already said that.” I was right but I shouldn’t have done tht because some bloggers like seeming important. To this day this blogger/reviewer posts my comments everywhere. It seemed to make him feel important that an author challanged his review.

    The last reviewer I challenged hadn’t been so bad at all…he had “kinda liked it” but he was still dismissive about the writings of a black woman fantasy writer and I hated that dismissiveness. Moreover, I had been so suicidal and depressed while writing that novel that it hurt to see someone dismiss the novel that had helped me commit to live.

    So I try my best as a reviewer to remember how a bad review feels. I critique many stories by writer friends and I am a tough critiquer. So when I review published books I tend to fall into critiquer/beta reader mode. The trouble with this mindset is that the book I’m reviewing is already published by the time it’s in my hand. When I find myself getting annoyed with the book’s editor for not helping the writer, I feel the harsh relief is valid. Because I know I care about the writer’s future books.

    • Unfortunately for all concerned, being white in our society (and I am whiter than mayonnaise) comes with a built-in set of blinders labelled Invisible Privilege. We can’t see what we can’t see until one day we finally turn our heads far enough to see those damned blinders, and then we can start dismantling them. Until then we’re oh, so likely to stick our feet in our mouths up to the knee, as the reviewers you mention seem to have done.

  8. I thought that last paragraph was very astute. I suspect it is entirely true that many authors are being pushed into engaging with readers on social media, without having been participants or members of those communities in the past.

    The appropriate ettiquette in a given online space evolves over time. So it makes perfect sense to me that a relative newbie, with a perceived position of power, might step on toes in ways that seem minor – and violate the norms of the group.

  9. @Libbie and @BigAl- I used to agree with you that an occasional, professional response to a review was no big deal until I read a Digital Book World series on this topic. The comments from even the sane readers who disagreed with the advice of “ALWAYS respond to negative reviews” (respectfully ) were eye-opening to say the least. Then the bullies came out and it got UGLY quickly. I think they even closed the comments section. Then came the pitchforks and torches in the form of Goodreads and Twitter campaigns, etc…

    Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it.

    • Barbra,

      I’ve seen discussions like that as well. I know some people who review on Goodreads or Amazon say they’d “freak out” (some feel that way even if they receive a thanks for a nice review). Somehow it doesn’t occur to them that an author might read a review of their book.

      When I was responding I was thinking in terms of responding to a review on a blog or other review site. I didn’t say that and, TBH, I’m not sure it was clear in my mind when I commented. 🙂

      • It’s interesting isn’t it? I don’t think twice about responding to blog reviews (mostly because the ones I’m aware of are directly tweeted to me and favorable). I thank them for the review and move on. If I was directly emailed or tweeted a negative review, I still don’t think I’d respond, although I would be ticked, because, hey, my email, my FB page, my Twitter feed is my space. But I do believe the discussion I’m referring to above was solely directed to Amazon reviews.

  10. I just see so many reviews that stray into personal attacks.

    It’s one thing to say the book sucked.

    It’s another to attack the writer personally. And this happens all the time. The internet is “Mean Girls” writ large, and with no consequences.

    • Interestingly, I recently d/l a sample for a book written by an author who I’d seen on a panel at GGC.

      It wasn’t very good and was in desperate need of copyediting (ironically, the author just graduated with a degree in English.)

      Normally, if I’d happened across such a thing, I would have made a fairly cutting remark, especially since they put the degree-in-English thing right in their bio. However, since I’d been in a room with her, and I knew she was a nice person, my comment was as neutral as you can get while still saying, diplomatically, “This isn’t ready yet.”

      Or maybe I’m just growing up. *shudder*

    • I think Harris strayed into that by calling Hale a “rapist apologist.” No one wants to be called a rapist apologist.

      • And yet some people *are* rapist apologists.

        • I’m sure. But maybe they just wrote a story the way they wanted to, even if they didn’t personally like a character. One can’t know for sure what an author is thinking. All they know is what the characters are doing.

          Calling the author a rape apologist is an attack not on the story, but on the author. It’s not so hard to say “the story seems to come across as sympathetic to a statutory rapist and that bothered me. A lot.”

  11. I put up a two-star review once on Goodreads, and got a polite private message from the author thanking me for the review (sort of a better-luck-next-time wish). It wasn’t a bad two-star review – more along the lines of “This book wasn’t for me even though I normally enjoy this genre, but it may be appropriate and enjoyable for these other readers.”

    I was still a bit freaked out that the author replied. Because really, the intent was that the rating was for my own “library notes”, even if it is public, and the review was to qualify the rating for other potential readers. If I was writing a critique for the author, I would have said different things and the star rating really wouldn’t have even been applicable.

    To be fair, I do think the right to be anonymous on the internet is easy to abuse. Like any privilege, it comes with responsibilities, ie Wheaton’s Law.

  12. The thing is, reviews aren’t for you. The reviewer isn’t interested in having a discussion with you. If they were, they’d post on your Facebook page.

    Read your reviews only if you can refrain from responding. Screaming and crying in the solitude of your shower is okay. Whining to your best friend, who loves you no matter what, is okay. Otherwise, stay away.

    If you really need to talk to someone about your book, join a critique circle or a writer’s group.

    The only situation I can think of that justifies a reply is when a blogger takes your book to review at your request. Then the appropriate response is “Thank you for taking the time to review my book. I really appreciate it.”

    Are there bloggers who write nasty stuff, untrue stuff, or attack the writer? Sure there are. Don’t we wish we could get them to stop? Sure we do. There are a lot of things it would be better for individuals or society as a whole if they weren’t done.

    But we can’t make people do things the way we want. We aren’t their mother or father, we aren’t them. All we can control is how we act. And frankly, we can do a better job if we avoid worrying about reviews and write the next book.

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