Last week, the Twitter- and blogosphere were abuzz with two tales of authorial bad behavior: much-published author Alice Hoffman's Twitter meltdown over a poor review (Hoffman tweeted several angry messages about the review, including one that provided the reviewer's phone number and email address and encouraged fans to "Tell her what u think of snarky critics;" Hoffman's publisher subsequently yanked her Twitter account, and Hoffman issued an apology); and philosopher and author Alain de Botton's blog explosion (de Botton posted an angry comment on the reviewer's blog, concluding "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make"; he, too, subsequently apologized, excusing himself by saying "It was a private communication to his website, to him as a blogger...It's appalling that it seems that I'm telling the world." Well, duh).
Although you can blame these errors in judgment on the social media phenomenon, which encourages us all to tweet (or comment, or post, or email) before we think, they are hardly isolated incidents. Authors wigging out over criticism is nothing new.
This past April, a Russian court ordered a journalist to pay compensation to a writer who objected to the journalist's review of his novel. Compensation amounted to US $1,000; the writer had originally demanded much more. Per the news report of this incident: "Observers have commented that this judgment creates a very dangerous precedent, opening the way for lawsuits based on subjective opinion. Some have even suggested that if a book reviewer can be sued, a reader who did not like a book can sue the author for making a bad quality product." Holy frivolous lawsuits, Batman!
A recent article on the Hoffman debacle from Salon.com provides several more examples of authors behaving badly over criticism. Authors Caleb Carr, Jonah Goldberg, Stanley Crouch, and Richard Ford have (respectively) written invective-laden letters to, blogged obsessively about, slapped the face of, and spit upon/shot holes in the books of reviewers to whose analysis they objected (one of those reviewers, ironically enough, was Hoffman herself).
In 2007, Stuart Pivar sued blogger PZ Meyers for libel for Meyers's negative review of Pivar's book Lifecode, which proposed "an alternative theory of evolution." Most observers dubbed the charges "frivolous" and "empty." Pivar eventually dropped the suit.
Also in 2007, author Deborah Anne MacGillivray organized a virtual lynching of an Amazon reviewer who gave MacGillivray's book just three stars. Despite the reviewer's attempts to notify Amazon of harassment by MacGillivray and her posse, Amazon suspended the reviewer's posting privileges (though not, apparently, her privilege of spending money on Amazon products).
MacGillivray isn't the only author who has cracked up over Amazon. In 2004, bestselling author Anne Rice posted a long, angry, barely coherent screed addressed to negative Amazon reviewers, testifying, among other things, to her "utter contempt" for them. So weird was this rant that some people speculated it might be a hoax, but Rice herself confirmed it in a later message on her website.
Then there was the late Michael Crichton, who struck back at a reporter who wrote a less-than-flattering article about him by making the reporter a character in his 2006 novel, Next--a really disgusting, evil, morally corrupt character. At least, the reporter thought so.
In 2001, author Jaime Clark contacted a list of literary editors, offering a $1,000 bounty to anyone who would tell him the name of the author of a negative review of his book in PW. (No word on whether anyone did, or what Clark planned to do with the information.)
In 1998, science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer sent an angry letter to a Canadian magazine protesting negative comments about his latest novel, alleging that the reviewer was waging a vendetta due to Sawyer's earlier criticism of the reviewer's own writing. The reviewer turned the tables, suing Sawyer and the magazine for libel.
I've been on both sides of this issue. As a novelist, I've gotten negative reviews--some of them thoughtful, some misguided, some just stupid (such as the one from a major review publication in which it was clear that the reviewer did not read the book). Do they upset me? Yes, probably much more than they should--especially the more thoughtful and intelligent ones, the ones that make points worth considering. Am I ever tempted to respond--by contacting the reviewer, bitching in public, getting Amazon to take down the review? Never. Never ever ever. Bad reviews go with the territory. If you launch yourself into the public sphere, you have to expect that not everyone will appreciate you. You need to learn to suck it up and act like an adult. A bonus of behaving professionally: the sense of moral superiority it can confer, especially if the review is really dumb. (It can take a while for this to kick in. But trust me, when it does, it helps.)
As a reviewer, I've written negative reviews (though I have to say that over time, I became ever more reluctant to do so). I had some rules for those, however. I never wrote a review--negative or positive--of a book where the author and I had a connection, either personal or professional. I never reviewed a small press or self-published book unless I could mostly say nice things about it (small press and self-pubbed authors have enough to contend with already). Large press-pubbed books were fair game, but I never wrote a negative review without fully reading and carefully considering the book--in other words, I did my best to write the kinds of negative reviews that I, as an author, could respect. Over my nearly 10 years of reviewing, I heard from just two authors whose books I criticized; both disagreed with my criticisms, but thanked me for taking their books seriously.
Bottom line: all of us need to remember how little privacy we really have professionally, especially those of us who are active on the Internet--not only because of how widely any bit of information can now be disseminated, but because of how long it can stick around to haunt us.