Some More Incoherent Thoughts on the Author/Reviewer Relationship

My last post generated quite a bit of discussion. Some people seem to be under the impression that I was saying authors shouldn’t reply to any reviews at all. In my capacity as lord god of the internets1 I only forbid responding to negative reviews or reviews the author perceives as negative.2 I have yet to see an author respond to a bad review in any way that didn’t make them look like a petty loser. Responding to positive reviews is a whole other thing and as Diana Peterfreund points out can lead to very interesting discussions.

Though I have seen authors respond to positive reviews in comment threads and unintentionally shut the conversation down because everyone panicked on realising that the author was watching. That’s why I no longer drop in to thank a blogger for a positive review. But I definitely don’t think it’s a terrible thing.

Walter Jon Williams talked
about how annoying some online amateur reviewers can be:

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.

Sad fact: most readers are crap at it. We read too fast and carelessly. We judge books by what we expected to read so often don’t see what is actually there. We get mad at books for not being the book we wanted them to be. We read when in a bad mood and blame the bad mood on the book. Most of us suck at noticing all the carefully laid foreshadowing, backstory, clues that the hardworking authors wrote for us and then we have the gall to blame them for our own stupidity in not seeing them. Damned readers!

Sadly, there’s zero percentage in going after them and pointing out their stupidity no matter how much we writers ache to do so.3 Because this is the biggest power imbalance of all. Amateur reviewers on good reads or Amazon or Barnes & Noble or on their almost zero-trafficked blog are the least powerful criticism that can be made. Sometimes authors do attack them. I heard from a blogger who wrote a negative review of [redacted well-known author] and had said author set their fans on the blogger who was inundated with hate mail for months. Authors, DON’T DO THAT!

And reviewers please don’t do the opposite. Adrienne Vrettos said:

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.

How extraordinarily rude. While I’ve never (thank, Elvis!) had anyone tell me in person about their hate for my books I’ve had reviewers write me with their lack of love. I have no idea what these people want from us authors. To make sure that we read their review? Why does that matter to them? Reviews of books are not for the authors, they’re for potential readers. So leave us authors alone! Thank you!

Robin Wasserman said:

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!

Sure. Feuds can be extraordinarily entertaining. I enjoyed those spats mightily. You’ll note that most of them were between equals with roughly the same reputation and access to media. Most of the flare ups in the past few years have been well-known author going after much less well-known reviewer and/or punters on Amazon. Which I happen to think is flat out awful.

And while I enjoy those stoushes between equals, I enjoy them in the same way I do seeing what hideous outfit Chloe Sevigny or Gwyneth Paltrow are wearing right now. Fun for me, sure, but embarrassing for them. I enjoy their sartorial mistakes mightily just as I enjoyed Mailer and Vidal etc posturing. But I still think they’re arrogant self-obsessed drop kicks. I will always advise other authors not to follow their lead.

  1. Yes, that is a joke. []
  2. And that’s a whole other thing. I have seen authors go berko over a starred review that had one negative phrase in it: “while occasionally overwrought”. []
  3. And, boy, do we. []


  1. Nicholas Waller on #

    Nit: “I have no idea what these people want from us reviewers” – you mean authors, no?

  2. Pam on #

    I like the idea of authors complementing and thanking reviewers for good reviews. Even if the author deserves a good review, thanking the reviewer is thoughtful.

  3. Patrick on #

    “I have yet to see an author respond to a bad review in any way that didn’t make them look like a petty loser.”

    Umm, have you met John Scalzi?

    Have you seen the Brad Meltzer video?

    PS. I would happily proclaim you lord of the internet if you made Thursdays “Internet U****rn Day!”

  4. Karson on #

    It is very ironic that just a few hours ago I started a blog where I review young adult books! Yes, I am an amateur reviewer, however, the goal of my reviews are to promote reading to teens; specifically the students I teach. Authors may not like to hear opinions from amateurs like me, but at the same time, my students and I are that very same author’s target audience; don’t you think our opinions matter…possibly a lot?

    Also, “their almost zero-trafficked blog are the least powerful criticism that can be made.” Ouch a little bit…

    On the flip side, I do know that authors put their hearts and souls into their writing, so I would never knowingly slaughter them in a review. I just want to give my honest opinion about a book based on what I have read and what I know my readers will like.

  5. Justine on #

    Nicholas: Fixed. Thanks!

    Pam: I think in the abstract it’s a nice idea but I have heard from plenty of bloggers that they’re freaked out when the author shows up. They start to feel like they’re being watched. I don’t want to freak anyone out.

    Patrick: John Scalzi’s a good friend of mine but that was not one of his finer moments.

    Karson: We all start out with zero-trafficked blogs. I sure did.

    I am all for honest opinions that’s why I think it’s better for authors to butt out and not respond to reviews. I know that for many bloggers it’s very difficult to give a bad review to an author they exchange emails with. Which is a shame. I have nothing against bad reviews. They can be helpful and cathartic.

  6. Terry Weyna on #

    I make it a point to email authors when I’ve written a positive review of their books; but if I’ve written a bad review (a fairly infrequent event, as I’m pretty good about picking books I know I’m likely to enjoy reading), I don’t. No author needs to find that out from me.

    I’m bemused, however, at authors or editors who respond to reviews that are overwhelmingly positive but contain some tiny germ of disagreement with what the writer/editor has done. I’ve just said your book is essential; why are you yelling at me because I disagreed with one of your strategies? But then, perhaps I’m just as bad at taking criticism as is the author or editor in question!

    By the way, there’s a new feud going on: Alain de Botton is very displeased with the review The New York Times Book Review provided for his latest book in this last Sunday’s issue, and has responded most intemperately on the reviewer’s blog. Here’s the link:

  7. Patrick on #

    Justine – I’m not sure which incident you are thinking of. I think he has handled some negative reviews with quite a good bit of humor. I think, if you are going to acknowledge or respond, that’s the way to do it. I think Jay Lake also links to all reviews whether good or bad without comment.

  8. Justine on #

    Patrick: Obviously we’re going to have to disagree on this one. I think there’s a real danger in someone as popular as Scalzi engaging with bad reviews that it will lead to a pile on. I have seen several popular blogging authors respond to bad reviews and as a result there have been massive pile ons. I see it as a misuse of power. Scalzi has never intentionaly done that. But I think the danger remains.

  9. Carla on #

    RE authors responding to good reviews, I reviewed a book for Broad Universe’s The Broadsheet and the author tracked down my website (which isn’t that hard, to be fair) and left me the sweetest thank you comment. I can see how sometimes it might feel that the reviewer is being watched if an author came to engage, but that particular time I thought it was just a lovely gesture. She was very nice and I liked knowing my review had touched her in some way. But she didn’t have a huge web presence; if she had, it might have felt more intimidating.

  10. Eric Luper on #

    Now that I think about it, I did blog about a bad review once because the reviewer loosely made the claim that since my book had characters who made questionable moral decisions, I as an author must share these morals. It raised an interesting philosophical question and spurred a really fascinating discussion.

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