Some Incoherent Thoughts on the Author/Reviewer Relationship

Recent events have gotten me thinking once again on why I feel so strongly that authors should never respond to bad reviews. I think I’ve previously talked about it in terms of politeness, and of not looking bad, stuff like that.

But what I think I really mean is that most authors have more power than the reviewer. Often reviewers aren’t as well known as the person they’re reviewing. So when the disgruntled writer says, “What about my rights? Why can’t I respond?” The answer is that you can. But what will it gain you? Besides you already have a reply to your critics: your books. Your last book, your current book, your future books.

Why does an established writer with an army of books feel the need to go after a critic who happens to not like their latest book? They have a much bigger audience than that critic does. Many more people will read the book in question than the bad review. It’s madness.

Even when the author is brand new and has only one book what will they achieve by going after a critic? They’ll make themselves look small and petty minded and incapable of taking criticism. If you’re irked by a bad review respond by making your next book even better.

I have yet to see anything good come out of an author turning on a specific critic.


  1. Q on #

    I read those articles, and yes, that is rather ridiculous.

    Why I never write negative reviews for my blog, not that the author would see them anyway. There’s just no point, because I”m not getting paid for it.

  2. Keren David on #

    In among all the very human grouching about the review, there’s another point – how infuriating it is for writer and reader when the reviewer gives away the plot. I think this is fair enough to complain about – you’ve slaved away for months, even years to come up with a killer twist at the end of your masterpiece and then a reviewer carelessly lets it slip to your readers. With the army of reviewers out there on blogs, Amazon and the like, quite apart from newspapers, is it fair enough to ask reviewers to keep crucial secrets?
    Having said that, so many wonderful YA and children’s books don’t get reviewed at all that one might wonder what she’s so upset about. Books pages in newspapers are getting smaller, literary editors are being sacked and the space available is heavily weighed towards non-fiction. That’s true of the UK anyway, maybe different elsewhere.

  3. cbjames on #

    I think you’re right. How many goods books suffer from bad reviews? I just don’t think very many do. If a book is good, a bad review here and there won’t hurt it. Even if they hurt a particular book, they won’t hurt a good author in the long run. Just clip the review and save it for some future anthology of bad reviews. But,if there are lots of bad reviews, well, buyer beware.

  4. Michelle Sagara on #

    As a reviewer, it’s hard not to give away part of the plot. I generally under-plot (one of my favourite comments from GVG was: “Same complaint as usual: need more plot”) because I know people hate spoilers.

    But if I give no sense of plot at all, the review has no solidity, and people can’t quite glean enough to decide whether or not it’s something they might like. (One person who hates almost everything I like was kind enough to say that I give him enough information to make a decision regardless of my skewed interpretation *wry g*).

    As a writer? I try to avoid reviews and discussions about them because as a reader very few things upset or annoy me as much as a book. I can rant on a book I hated for days, because I engage so heavily with the act of reading. I know that most people do not want to upset strangers, and they don’t want to deliberately hurt my feelings if I show up in a comment thread or review, so I know that by presence alone, I stifle conversation.

    But… I also know that anything I write is bound to bore or offend someone. I don’t do it deliberately, so I prefer that people say OMG I HATED THIS BOOK, instead of OMG I LOATHE THIS AUTHOR, but even then, there’s no point in engaging. I will say that “A writer I loathe” in a review does stick with me, although “A writer whose work I loathe” would not. This is semantics.

    If I am feeling brave enough–or stupid enough–to search out every word about anything I’ve written, I accept that some of it will be negative, some positive. If I am in a place where the negative will hit me in a certain way, I don’t look.

    And… yes, Justine: there is an element of the bully about the whole “attack the reviewer”, except in cases where the reviewer is so much more prominent a person than the writer. And I have knee-jerk reactions about bullying; they make me really, really cranky.

  5. Summer on #

    Twitter is a dangerous thing, isn’t it?

  6. Benjamin Solah on #

    Is this for technical critiques? What about critiques of the content. Say, if you write a political book that has a strong opinion on something. What if a reviewer says you’re wrong? Can you respond to that? It’s more a debate that way about facts rather than say, the personal tastes of individual reviewers.

  7. Jaye on #

    I understand that a knee-jerk reaction to a bad review will almost always turn out very badly for the author’s reputation, but I can also see the value in watching an author thoughtfully respond to a reviewer’s criticism. In fact, I think this would be really interesting to read, particularly after having read the book. Should an author *attack* a reviewer? No, but a carefully considered defense might reveal a lot about the author’s character and his or her view of the book she wrote. The difference in opinion could be very revealing indeed. Of course, as authors our work is very near and dear to our hearts, so it’s hard to react rationally to an attack on something that’s such an extension of ourselves.

    Obviously, the attack in the linked article was entirely inappropriate and doesn’t do anyone any good or, hopefully, sell any books.

  8. Walter Jon Williams on #

    I’ve never responded to reviews, except on a couple of occasions to tell a reviewer to his face how perceptive he was. (This means you, Russell Letson!)

    Which isn’t to say that I haven’t been tempted. It’s not the professional reviewers that bother me (and most of them have been very kind anyway), but some of the amateurs who turn up online drive me absolutely up the wall.

    Some of them are just bad readers. They miss major plot points and then complain that the plot makes no sense, or they say that something is impossible when it’s something I’ve actually done, or they complain that a plot twist is unmotivated when I’ve foreshadowed it sixteen dozen ways . . . these guys I’m sometimes tempted to respond to. Not in abusive way, of course, just by way of information. (“If you would do yourself the kindness to reread Page 173, you would realize that your chief complaint is without foundation.”) That sort of thing.

    But I have restrained myself thus far. Because I’d like to think I’m above all that.

  9. Patrick on #

    I want to read Page 173 now. It sounds very exciting!

  10. Adrienne Vrettos on #

    Once I had a reviewer who had written a not very nice review in a widely read trade magazine approach me at a crowded event to tell me – in detail – what exactly she didn’t like about my book.

    I had *no* idea how to handle it. I stammered out a ‘thank you’ for reviewing the book, which now sounds suspiciously like ‘thank you sir, may I have another?’, and hurried away.

  11. robin on #

    While I find Alice Hoffman’s reaction to be ill-advised (largely because of the inevitable blowback that someone should have warned her of before it was too late, not because I have any principled objection to public fits of temper), I have to admit that I miss the era of loud, passionate, messy literary feuds, so have been pretty entertained by this whole mess. Norman Mailer vs Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe vs Updike/Mailer/Irving, Dale Peck vs everyone…those were the good old days. (Authors — and it seems important to note that Hoffman’s reviewer is also an author in her own right — still have plenty of books and authors that we despise, we just do our despising behind closed doors.) And this morning I discovered that after Alice Hoffman published a horrible review of Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter,” Ford got a gun and shot a bunch of holes through Hoffman’s latest opus. ( So maybe she can be forgiven for her misunderstanding of “appropriate” behavior!

  12. Chris S. on #

    Reviews are tricksy little beasts. As a bookseller, I know they can provide valuable information. In fact, we write short reviews in our store, mostly to give our customers a place to start.

    But I also know that reviews are very personal, and utterly subjective. Customers who share my tastes will probably like the books I review. Others won’t, because we don’t read for, or like, the same things. Responding to people’s personal tastes is a losing game.

    I’ve only seen one author response to a review that did NOT make me think, “Oh, you shouldn’t have done that”. Mostly because the author said that the reviewer “…said I was wearing a Tom Wolfe white suit. I hate to contradict him, but I was wearing an F. Scott Fitzgerald white suit”. It actually worked.

    (Of course, the above only applies to real reviews: thoughtful, nuanced reviews. Amazonesque “This book sux!” reviews don’t count, any more than the sounds my nephew makes with a pot and potato masher count as music.)

  13. Benjamin Solah on #

    No response to my point? I really want to know if this applies to political disagreements with a book.

    I certainly agree with the general case you make though.

  14. Justine on #

    Benjamin: I’m only talking about fiction. Non-fic is a whole other thing.

  15. Benjamin Solah on #

    But even political fiction, or personal-political disagreements i.e. when a reviewer disagrees with gay characters in a book. A lot of the time this is clouded over by other criticisms to do with the writing rather than the content; they’re aim is to discredit the work regardless of how good it is to undermine the political message.

    I suppose my first thought is trying to pick out that the review was say, homophobic, would fall into that reveiwers trap.

  16. Justine on #

    Again it would depend on the power of the reviewer. Is it some mad person with a tiny blog? Or even someone with a well-trafficked right wing blog. Usually there’s no point in engaging with lunatics. Let them quietly fester in their own filth.

    If it was something really outrageous I might respond on my blog to the specific madness but without linking to the review or naming them.

    If they are trying to get your book banned then that’s not a review that’s an attempt to thwart the US constitution. That’s when you get in contact with whatever civil liberties or library body or media contacts you have. Censorship has to be fought at every turn.

  17. Eric Luper on #

    The one instance where I think it was justified was when a certain children’s author received a bad review from the same reviewer in completely different journals. He got double-dipped from the same reviewer because of greed. This author pushed back and an apology was issued. Not sure if either journal re-reviewed the book, though.

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