Critics and Authors Part 2: Not Even Once.

People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise. – W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, Chapter 50.

Photo Courtesy DeltaMike @ Flickr

Now let’s get one thing straight: I don’t think the current battles between indie writers and critics/reviewers are anything particularly new. Critics and authors have been sniping at one another for a long, long time. You’d see dust-ups happen when a critic might hit a particularly sensitive nerve on an already-sensitive writer, and it was time to go off to the races. There were even some particularly well-documented long-running battles between critics and writers; Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson had a particularly famous falling-out over Wilson’s review of Eugene Onegin. Nabokov famously wrote that Wilson was a “commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say six hundred basic words.”

So in some ways, what’s going on now is something of a time-honored tradition. I’ve mentioned it before: a great deal of the publishing world worships tradition. Some of it is almost knee-jerk for us at this point. The thing is, none of that makes it right. I hesitate to call out fellow indie authors by name, but here’s a broad view of some of the things that I’ve seen:

  • A writer who responded to criticism of her work by accusing the critics of pushing an anti-indie/anti-disabled person agenda, rather than simply not caring for her work. Any attempt to build a dialogue asserting the latter was met with personal attacks.
  • A group of writers selling negative critics as little more than bullies and pulling on the veil of persecution. Again, more personal attacks ensued from both sides.
  • A positive review was greeted with a negative comment about a sample chapter from said work; the author melted down on the commenter in a post with a positive review of her work.

Photo courtesy francisco_osorio @ flickr

There is a common theme here: a sense of persecution and overvigilance at negative reviews. I don’t think this is a coincidence and I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, let’s be fair to the authors above: some of these critics are mean-spirited and dedicated to tearing down books (not necessarily authors, though, there’s a key difference). There’s just no other way to put it. They serve as the trolls of the literary world. They just have to be, because any sane person who truly believes that 99% of books are garbage – and I’ve honestly noticed this percentage with a few – would have given up on the hobby altogether by this point. I won’t speculate on their reasons for doing it, but they’re absolutely out there.

But you know what? That negativity and hostility doesn’t make it okay to trash them. You don’t have to love them, embrace them, or even pay attention to them. In fact, the latter is probably the safest bet, as one of the oldest Internet rules is to never, ever feed a troll. This rule exists for a reason: any angry engagement with a troll only ends up making you look worse, especially since these reviewers are bashing the work, not the author. You likely never entered their mind, even if they are the most bitter of critics – it’s about a relation to the work itself.

Image courtesy cogdogblog @ Flickr

That raises the question: is it ever right to respond to a critic? I don’t think so. Even if you’re insanely positive and syrupy, it can still be taken the wrong way, and the odds are just way too high that you fuel the troll and make yourself look bad. Personally, I only read reviews from peers whom I know and trust. The others do nothing but charge my emotions and I learn very little from them. Your peers are the ones you should be listening to! Readers bring their own sets of rules and biases to works that might be completely out of line with your own. As Morris Workman pointed out yesterday, John Locke himself shared some wisdom on the whole thing:

 I never got a one-star review on any book until I got in the top 100. This is because you never get a bad review from your target audience. If you get a bad review, it’s because someone outside your target audience has found your book and gave it a shot. It’s no reflection on them as a reader, and no reflection on you as a writer. –If, as an author, you don’t understand this, your writing will suffer, because you’ll be writing not to get bad reviews instead of writing to reward your target audience.

Now like I said, I think he’s mostly on the mark, but there are some reviewers out there with an agenda, no question. It doesn’t matter, though. Never, ever take the bait. Not even once.

I suspect a lot of the problems we’re experiencing now have to do with the line between critic, reader, and writer becoming almost non-existent. Once upon a time, things were easy: the critic looked at the story with an eye toward both art and the reader, the reader took both the critics’ word and his or her own taste into account, and the writer…well, wrote. Today, I’m not sure that any of those distinctions make any sense. With the lines blurred, we can lose sight of the formality that once kept things in a semblance of order. That’s why it’s incumbent upon someone in this system to step back and realize that those lines are necessary for a myriad of reasons. If the reviewer has already overstepped his or her bounds, it should be you that takes that step. If you’re really angry or sad, take that emotion to the page and put it where it belongs. Your career can only benefit.

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  1. As a writer, I feel very…odd….sometimes reviewing the work of other writers. I review how-to books for writers on my blog and only once did I have an author melt down in the comments. I could have deleted the comment, but she never attacked me personally (only my review) so I let it stand. Fair is fair.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Yeah, that’s a weird one. I struggle too – how much to criticize? How do you do it without being mean? Ironically, I find it easier when it’s someone that I know well because all of my writer friends can handle it.

      I’ve already decided to let meltdowns stand…I’d rather have an honest discourse rather than a neutered hugbox.

  2. More good points, Jonathan. Part of the problem may lie in the fact that negative comments hurt. No sense pretending they don’t. No hope in thinking you’ll ever outgrow it. It just plain doesn’t feel good and it never will.

    I think writers will do themselves a big favor by acknowledging the pain and dealing with that. You put your work out there and it’s fair game. Sometimes reviewers are thoughtful, sometimes they aren’t. Nothing the writer can do about it. But writers can learn to deal with the hurt. In private, with close friends, with the knowledge that hey, at least they were brave enough to put their work on display in the first place, so even a negative review is an accomplishment.

    On a side note, only slightly off topic, a warning to those who are buying reviews and urging friends to leave them. Readers are catching on that you are gaming the system. It’s reached the point where if this reader sees mass quantities of glowing reviews and they all sound as if the same person wrote them, I pass. I’ve heard others say the same.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Yep, that’s why I just don’t read my reviews. Negative reviews do hurt, and I know that I’m not strong enough to keep them from driving my art off-course. I already faced that earlier this year and won’t let it happen again.

      Good point about dishonest reviews. I can spot them a mile away now.

  3. Well said, Jonathan. A writer just can’t win battles with critics. It’s best to save yourself stress and turmoil and move on.

  4. Personally, I only read reviews from peers whom I know and trust. The others do nothing but charge my emotions and I learn very little from them. Your peers are the ones you should be listening to!

    Great advice, Jonathan. I’m going to ingrain this in my brain and stick to it when I get my first novel out the door.

  5. Very nice post. I have found it to be a bit like John Locke says with my own books, but I also look to see if the critique has some words of wisdom that I might use to improve my writing. Sometimes it’s there, other times the reviewer just seems to thrive on being snarky. Luckily I have very few negative reviews…but any writer has to build a thick skin because they will come. You can’t please everyone all the time. If most people seem to enjoy your writing, then you’re probably on the right track. If the reviews are saying the same thing (bad writing, flat characters etc) then maybe it’s something the writer should look at. Just my opinion.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Well, yes and no. I think there is some value to reading reviews by informed readers (even if I don’t personally do it because it can mess with my vision for what I’m writing at that moment), but I think that sometimes the bad writing/flat character/bad grammar charge can be a matter of stylistic differences of opinion. I know I had a few readers contact me telling me that I had grammatical errors in my book that were quite intentional stylistic choices. I can see a danger in relying on that when you don’t know the background of the reviewer.

  6. I don’t think an author should ever respond to a reader’s critique unless the reader personally queries the author. Reviews on GoodReads and Amazon are for readers, and not there for the benefit of writers. I also agree that it seems most low ratings come from a book getting read outside of the target audience. Yesterday, Lindsay Buroker tweeted a link to this post about the mystery of Amazon 3-star reviews. It’s an interesting read about the tendencies of reviewers and, although not related to the discussion of engaging reviewers, does speak a little to the fact of why books tend to get similar ratings from most readers (as long as it isn’t terrible, and as long as it stays within target audience).

  7. I think you nailed it in your last paragraph. The lines are becoming indistinguishable. As you said, the lines used to be more distinct. I do believe as a writer I can also be a critic, but on the other hand, I look at a book from a much different angle than your standard reader.

    I also believe a big part of the problem is the availability and ease of interaction between author and critic. Used to be that a critic was either a professional for a magazine or newspaper, or that the critic was just some guy telling his friends what he thought of the book. Either way, an author didn’t really have the ability to attack those critics (at least not as easily as they can now with the simple pushing of “submit comment”).

    When I taught Creative Writing, I wouldn’t let the authors of pieces that were being critiqued respond to the other students’ comments in class, because as I told them (which is obviously changing), “if you are ever a published author, you are not going to be able to follow your story to the house of every reader and defend it.”

    Anyway, good two part piece.


    • Jonathan D Allen

      Very good point, Paul. I know that my reviews look at far different things than the average reader, and while I’m okay with that, I also would understand if a reader or writer took some exception to it.

      “if you are ever a published author, you are not going to be able to follow your story to the house of every reader and defend it.” Oooh, that’s a really good one. I might have to steal that for a future post 😉

  8. “If, as an author, you don’t understand this, your writing will suffer, because you’ll be writing not to get bad reviews instead of writing to reward your target audience.”
    Words every writer should live by!

  9. I once had an email off some one telling me how much he hated my book. I replied with a thank you for reading and feeding back to me. But he was persistent and emailed me again, and in the end I got dragged in. Never again.
    You’re absolutely right, just best to ignore the bad reviews. Everyone is welcome to their opinion, it’s just a shame that some people have to express it so negatively.

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