Authors taking issue with reviews have my condolences

I’m scared for today’s authors.

Our access to the internet and immediate gratification is dangerous.

We should be monitored.

Recently, author Alice Hoffman complained on her twitter page about a bad review. According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, she had these things to say about the reviewer:

“Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? And give the plot away.”

“Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman?”

“No wonder there is no book section in the Globe anymore — they don’t care about their readers, why should we care about them”

(Her twitter page is no longer available.)

Author Alain de Botton, too, is voicing his disagreement with a review of his work:

Caleb [Crain]…In my eyes, and all those who have read [Pleasures and Sorrows of Work] with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. … You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. … I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

I understand the temptation to argue with reviewers. Too well. For instance, someone on Goodreads.com recently said of Homefront, “Think [Lifetime network's] ‘Army Wives,’ but a lot more stark.”

I wanted to choke. “Army Wives“?? I have written countless blog posts and a review for a newspaper criticizing the thinness of the show’s writing, its irresponsible shirking of an opportunity to address a complex and profound experience, and now my book (written before the show aired, by the way) is being compared to that?

So you see. I can certainly empathize with authors who take issue with professional reviewers. Had the Goodreads reviewer been a professional, published, paid reviewer – and not a reader on goodreads – I would have had to handcuff myself to the deck railing (a bottle of wine within reach) to keep myself from responding. Not only did I have a number of arguments to make that address that little, tiny part of the reader’s review, but had the review been one read by a wide audience–a potentially large market–the urge to disagree would have been compounded by the feeling the reviewer’s inaccurate assessment was messing with my livelihood.

(Of course, I’m guessing the power of a review only applies to books published by traditionalĀ  publishers. Good reviews don’t seem to affect small-press book sales, so it stands to reason a bad review wouldn’t, either. But mainstream authors have a bigger reputation to protect, and every bad review may affect the sales of the books to come later.)

The reason I feel bad for Hoffman (who, you’ll remember, has – since her twitterburst – taken down her page) and Botton is because their public attacks of critics not only erodes the Author aura only a widely distributed author can achieve, but it, in the same way reality TV does to stars, makes it difficult to separate their work from their now-public persona.

I feel bad for Hoffman because, if the removal of her twitter page is any indication, she must be embarrassed. She has to feel exposed. No doubt she felt justified in reacting the way she did when she did it (giving away too much of the plot is truly inexcusable and unprofessional and sloppy), but her page is down now, and typically, pages don’t comeĀ  down unless someone wants to hide from the internet.

I don’t know if “artists” are any more temperamental than anyone else, but they are certainly subject to more criticism because it’s part of what they do. Which means they’ll be tempted to respond to the criticisms they don’t particularly like or agree with. Not too long ago, that would have meant writing a letter at a desk, putting it in an envelope, and mailing it to the reviewer (or, maybe the Letters to the Editor section). There was time, then, to think. Time between folding the letter and putting it in the envelope. Time while licking the stamp. Time while walking to the mailbox. Time to take it out of the mailbox if it’s one at the end of a driveway.

Now, writing and sending takes place in a matter of minutes–long before the initial anger fades–and can’t be re-thought once it’s out. And taking down your twitter or blog page doesn’t remove the posts someone has already managed to snatch and then publish in a magazine like Entertainment Weekly.

Authors, I beg of you: step away from the computer. Pick up a pen. Light a candle and take out some nice paper. Do it the old fashioned way.

(And then please, please remind me of this. I’m scared for myself, too.)


4 thoughts on “Authors taking issue with reviews have my condolences

  1. Thanks for the reasoned and insightful addition to this topic, Kristen; the combination of immediate public communication and artistic temperaments can only lead to tragedy. It would be nice if some sort of brake existed on Twitter and blog comments that enforced a cooling period; maybe a clearinghouse where review responses could go for level-headed assessment by neutral parties who would let the witty and devastating bon mot pass, and send invective and spleen to the digital graveyard.

    I haven’t read “Homefront,” but I’ve added it to my short list. I grew up as an Army brat at the tail end of Vietnam and the height of the Cold War, and the lives of soldiers’ families have seldom been handled well in fiction. The scenes in “We Were Soldiers Once” where the CO’s wife takes over notification duties are devastatingly true, and Stephanie Vaughn’s stories in “Sweet Talk” sketch a good portrait of life in the military, but otherwise it’s an area of our experience that gets little attention.

    Best of luck with your novel, and with keeping your cool in the critical furnace!

  2. Thanks, Michael. I enjoyed your piece on the authors’ reactions to their reviews, as well – and I agree wholeheartedly about the need for a Twitter or blog brake. Oh, the failing nature of self-control!

  3. Beautiful.

    I clearly couldn’t have said it better myself, for, while those who have never published a work of narrative fiction in their lives will no doubt have a field day in eviscorating Hoffman to the utmost extremeties, the rest of us are more inclined to feel sorry for her than anything else.

    I don’t believe for one minute that she actually meant the words that she ultimately twittered for the rest of the world to see, and plenty can relate to utilizing every derogatory term in the book in the event of receiving what we perceive to be unfair criticism of something we hold dear. However, the accessibility of the internet and the ease at which an impulsive statement can be relayed to the eyes of millions of people only increases the likelihood that irrational impulses can result in a simple reflex that can destroy, or severely compromise, one’s long-cherished reputation.

    Like you said, stay away from Twitter and the blogosphere in the wake of reaping the untimely effects of unfair criticsm. Spill your guts into a fixed form of media that necessitates a considerable time period between composition and exposition, then finally take time to decide whether actually mailing this letter is really such a good idea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s