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