Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Authorfail: When Authors Attack

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.

29 comments:

LouiseBohmer said...

Excellent read, Victoria. Thank you for sharing this. I agree. Authors must remember that once your book goes out to the reading public, it's no longer your book exclusively. Not everyone will enjoy it.

Being a new author, I try to take the negative reviews that are constructive and learn from them. I thank the reviewer. To me, it's just good decorum.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I spoke of this yesterday myself Victoria over on The Pod People Blog. Seems like commone sense, but...

Over several articles on the blog, using reviews of my own work, I have tried to help authors deconstruct a review before it deconstructs their sense of professionalism. I am not saying we should be dispassionate, but we do need to remain in control of our faculties.

We have also talked extensively on the blog about the reviewer code of conduct and the academic art of reviewing. I quoted Updike's five principles in my article yesterday. I think every reviewer should take them to heart.

And I think instead of focusing on the spectacle, new authors should be focusing on the message. An ounce of professional restraint is worth a pound of reputation.

The Unbreakable Child said...

Well said, Victoria. I received one very negative--nasty review. It stung, it made no sense. But. I managed to pull myself together to compose a thoughtful letter to the reviewer, thanking them for purchasing my book and taking the time to read it. After all, they did invest in me.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting post, Victoria.

I think if we have any longevity in this business, we have to expect some lukewarm or poor reviews.

Twitter, especially, is one of those networks where you need to THINK before you hit send. It's too easy to just blurt something out, otherwise, and not be professional.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Marian said...

I recently reviewed a book that I had requested from a service that advertises self- and vanity-published books. The book was printed by PublishAmerica, and had certain serious problems (among them a lack of editing).

For the first time, I found myself reluctant to write the review, mostly because I felt badly for the writer. It didn't occur to me until reading your post that being sued was also a possible consequence of such a review.

But the writer responded very nicely and professionally, thanking me for the review and saying that he found it helpful. That was quite a contrast to reactions like offering a bounty (!) to be told the name of a reviewer.

Victoria Janssen said...

Excellent article. Thank you.

Jessica Scott said...

Excellent article, Victoria. Putting ourselves out in the public is something we authors must take seriously. One bad tweet can explode into something worse and it will never go away. Thanks for the reminder to think before you tweet!

Abigail said...

There's always going to be negative reviews, whether authors like it or not. Not everyone is going to like the book, even though many would love to believe so. It's just not possible. Everyone has different taste than others and sometimes, the book might not be appealing to them.

However, even though that is the case, whining about it and giving personal information about the reviewer is acting really immature and wrong. You don't give out personal information of someone to anyone, ever.

Negative reviews are going to be everywhere. You simply cannot stop that. The reason to have your book out there is to have people read it, and when it comes to reading something, there are going to be negative and positive views. You just have to simply take that and not let it get to you. Sure it may hurt and feel like it's not right, but people are going to review negatively--some more than others, and some taking it a little bit too far and question if they have even read the material to know what they're talking about.

Nonetheless, I think it's silly and immature for some authors to act like that, when they really should be taking it in with the positive reviews and know that it will happen. It shouldn't discourage the author, but it shouldn't throw them into a frenzy either.

The article was great to read and I enjoyed it.

Weronika said...

Of all artists, I've always considered writers to be the ones that could handle negative reviews, etc., most easily (considering the revision/editing process that occurs pre-publication).

I do, however, understand the frustration of authors, especially in circumstances where the reviewers failed in doing their job 100%.

Thank you for the excellent post.

Genre Reviews said...

In my reviews, I try to point out things that may bother some readers whether they bother me or not. I'm trying to help people find books they'll like rather than just tell people which books I like. Sometimes I think this makes my book reviews sound more negative than they're meant to be.

I also try to include positives even when I didn't like the book. My rule of thumb is to write a review as if the author will see it and the author is my friend. But I think I'm still learning how to word my reviews in a way that is useful without being hurtful.

SB said...

This is so true. I've seen unnecessarily harsh reviews and responses too many times already. The problem I've noticed for most (not all) of them is that both parties tend to take themselves far too seriously. Either the reviewers think too highly of their own opinions, or the writers have led themselves to think that their work should be *immune* to negative reactions.

Like you said, this kind of thing *does* come with the territory.

Ann Somerville said...

"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)."

Hmmm. I think you have worthy motives but you're ignoring the fact that even a negative review wins some attention for books that struggle to be reviewed at all because of their origins, and what you hate in a book can often be exactly what turns someone else on.

My line - and only because it cuts down on the wanking - is not to negatively review a book sent by the author personally (unless they say they are happy for me to go ahead), but anything sent by a publisher of any kind is fair game (in the genre I review there are only small publishers and smaller publishers.)

Authors need to remember that reviews aren't for them, never for them and they are best to ignore them. Hard to do, but without at least pretending to ignore them, an author will lose sanity and reputation at doublequick time.

Bob Fleck said...

I always tell authors that no matter what they think of the review, they should write a polite thank you note to the reviewer. If it was a bad review, it just messes with the person's head all the more.

Ann Somerville said...

"it just messes with the person's head all the more."

Trust me, reviewers know what you're doing, and it always fails to impress. Depends on whether you want to have other books reviewed by them or not.

Victoria Strauss said...

Just as I've never lambasted a reviewer for a review, I've also never thanked one. That's just me, though. I got quite a number of author and publisher thank-yous as a result of positive reviews I wrote, and they always made me feel good, especially when the author felt I really got what they were trying to do.

It's definitely not obligatory to thank reviewers, though. They don't expect it.

Ann Somerville said,

Hmmm. I think you have worthy motives but you're ignoring the fact that even a negative review wins some attention for books that struggle to be reviewed at all because of their origins, and what you hate in a book can often be exactly what turns someone else on.

Well, I always reviewed from a writer's as well as a reader's perspective, so my reviews often included comments on structural and style issues. When I felt I couldn't review a self-published book, it generally wasn't because of liking or disliking it, but because I felt it was badly written or conceived. I don't think that's the kind of attention that helps.

Also, at the time that I was starting to get more review request from small press and self-pubbed authors, I was starting to become more uncomfortable with negative reviewing in general (which in turn was part of the process of becoming burned out on reviewing). So that played a part as well.

Emily Cross said...

Here is an article from the sunday times: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article6634103.ece

My favourite part:

"Reviewing the second volume of Bevis Hillier’s exhaustive biography of John Betjeman, in 2002, A N Wilson wrote that it wasn’t just badly written, “it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together”. Hillier took a revenge so elaborate that some might actually admire it. Knowing Wilson was also working on a biography of Betjeman, he pseudonymously sent him a fake love letter supposedly written to the poet, which Wilson duly included in his book, published in 2006. Only then was it revealed that the first letters of each sentence in Hillier’s forgery spelt out the words: “A N Wilson is a shit”. As a response, this is no more dignified than de Botton’s petulant outburst, although it is infinitely more cunning. "

christine tripp said...

Just as I've never lambasted a reviewer for a review, I've also never thanked one.

I did write to thank a reviewer, once, but I was new to the world of trade book reviews and it was just so exciting to see your name there in print and to have good things said of your work, that I couldn't help myself. With the subsequent book reviews I have contained myself, sitting alone in the studio and telling my dog, what a brilliant person this reviewer, that reviewer, is!:)
A bad review must be devestating, it's hard enough to take client critique, I can only imagine if those same things are said about you in public. That's the thing, it's hard, if not impossible to seperate your self from your work, so it isn't just business, it becomes personal. Still, that's what we set ourselves up for, it comes with this sort of job.

ALC said...

I've recently signed on to review books for "nothingbinding.com". You have the luxury of listing your top 3 picks to review & then the authors are to send them to you. I intend to make a point of only requesting books that stand a chance of being good. If the writer can't write a decent, appealing description of his/her work then I certainly don't want to read the work itself. Also, if the description & blurb are badly written & dotted with errors - not going there.

I hope to find some of those gems I've been searching for on Lulu & in other venues. They seem few & far between. Regardless of the quality of the actual books I receive, I intend to be fair, kind & diplomatic. The only way I'd ever give a truly, blatantly bad review is if the book is seriously mis-represented by its description AND badly written, OR if it turns out to be complete & utter dreck (something I'm carefully trying to avoid getting sent to me in the first place).

I think anyone reviewing a book should remember that there's a difference between constructive criticism & outright maliciousness.

My one real concern with critiquing self-pub work is that so many self-pub writers seem to take any form of criticism as a personal attack (hence the ire directed towards the "gatekeepers" as it were). Hopefully, anyone who can write grammatically correct sentences & decent descriptions & breakdowns of their own work will be a bit more diplomatic.

Mark Orr said...

I can't put my hands on a link right at the moment, but Harlan Ellison recently went ballistic on somebody who merely referenced a mildly-not-quite-laudatory review of one of Ellison's books, as if the referencer were the actual reviewer. An example of overreaction at second hand, I suppose, that does nothing to dispell Ellison's reputation as a bit of what some folks might call an eccentric.

Anonymous said...

A bad review is much better than no review. Think about it: if you could consisently write a book that would generate 1,000 bad reviews within 1 month of being on Amazon, you'd be rich!

1,000 1 sstar reviews every 4 weeks is priceless. Most books on Amazon are lucky if they get 100 reviews in their lifetime, good and bad.

The key is to write something so horribl that thousands of people feel a burning need to let you know how horrible it is.

ALC said...

An interesting theory, AND one that might actually work for a well known, popular author - if sed author wasn't afraid of losing his/her fanbase for churning out something so terrible. Of course, most people would not bother to "buy" a book by a popular author if it was consistently receiving really bad reviews. They'd simply go to the library & check it out to see for themselves.

As for an unknown, or, heaven forbid, a self-published author - cranking out a bad novel will not set you apart from your peers. Quite to the contrary. To be exceptional in the world of self-publishing one must write an excellent, compelling, unique novel & polish it to a high shine.

No one will pay good money to buy a novel that is obviously badly written. Someone has to go to the trouble of purchasing & reading your novel to care enough to review it on Amazon.

The World Aflame said...

Do reviewers not put themselves into the public realm when publishing a review? Are they then not open to criticism as well? It really doesn't seem that big an issue. Let's keep it simple: Calling a reviewer a big, fat idiot is okay. Supplying their personal contact info is not okay. And suing anyone over an opinion just makes you look dumb.

Ann Somerville said...

"Calling a reviewer a big, fat idiot is okay."

Sure - if you want readers to hate you and think you're a horrible douchbag. Authors who throw shitfits in public about reviews are regularly mocked and thrown on Do Not Read piles for such idiocy.

Keep the tantrums private, and remember, reviewers are also readers too. If you can't cope with diverse opinions of your work, you're in the wrong job.

realthog said...

Thank you for an interesting piece.

such as the one from a major review publication in which it was clear that the reviewer did not read the book

I've had one of those too -- and from PW, of all places. As a result, when reading in your article about Jaime Clark's reaction, I confess I had a certain reflexive sympathy for him . . .

James Davis Nicoll said...

I got this message when I tried to look at the Jaime Clarke link:L

Firefox has detected that the server is redirecting the request for this address in a way that will never complete.

Crystal said...

Great post. I can see both sides...I have meltdowns from time to time, but authors can carry few secrets...whatever they choose to do should be chosen wisely. :)

Roxanne Rhoads said...

I work on both sides of the fence as an author and a reviewer. I understand getting a bad review and feeling like you should lash out, the key is to rant in private. You work is public, looking like an idiot should be a private affair.

The authors that go overboard and sue reviewers...doesn't that kill free speech and go against everything we as writers stand for?

And the judges that allow such things...that's bullshit. You shouldn't be afraid of getting sued for having an opinion.

I agree with you about not printing horrible reviews. If I really hate a book I just don't write the review or else I try to be kind enough about it to say something nice. To rant and rave about how horribly stupid or awful something is can really hurt feelings.

Anonymous said...

You state here that you8 are opposed to "bitching in public...". What a joke. That's all you blog is.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymity is the last refuge of a scoundrel.