Why Does it Matter?

Seems the authors v critics/reviewers thing just won’t go away. Today I was asked why I think it’s so important that authors not respond to critics. Basically what the question boiled down to was: Why does it matter?

A close friend also demanded that I explain why I am so keen on silencing authors.

I’ll take the second one first cause it’s so laughable. The very idea that I’m trying to silence anyone. I am an author. I am full of opinions. I share them here every single day. There’s nothing I don’t have an opinion on. Seriously. Ask me about anything at all and I will have a large loud opinion.1

I am not saying that authors shouldn’t have a response to bad reviews. I’m saying they shouldn’t share that response with the intramanets. By all means bitch to your friends. I sure do. Scream your anger and woe and hurt feelings. Print the review out and burn it.2 Do whatever it takes.

But do not go after the reviewer.

Because you will look like a thin-skinned, self-obsessed doxhead.

Because most of the time reviews are not about you. All you did was write the book. The reviewer is engaging with the book you wrote, and their relationship with it. They are bringing to bear their entire reading history as they do that. They will see and feel things you did not intend them to see. But you are not your book. If you can’t make that separation you are in for a world of pain.

Because if the reviewer is going after you specifically that’s their problem. Ad hominem attacks disguised as reviews are not hard for readers to spot. The problem is they’re very difficult for most writers to identify because so many of us cannot make that separation between ourselves and our books. Many of us authors feel that any criticism of our books is an attack on us. Rarely is that so.

Because it may well hurt your sales. I can think of several writers whose books I will never ever buy because of the way they attack anyone who disagrees with them. Because of their constant insistence that everything is about them. A blogger uses cover copy from their book jacket to discuss class and how it affects who does and does not get published and down they descend like an avenging angel in order to talk about the injustice done to them. When the blogger was, in fact, opening up a discussion about class and the politics of publishing. That author has revealed that they are a total doxhead.

Because you’re a published author. You have heaps of power. You have a right of response. In your books or on your blog or in an article or essay. I think it’s always wisest to address the criticisms generally rather than respond to a specific review. I’ve had a few people be upset about certain events in books 2 & 3 of my Magic or Madness trilogy. I have responded to their complaints and explained why I wrote them the way I did. I did this because they came to me and asked for an explanation. By all means talk about your motivations, explain the bits people have problems with. But there’s a big difference between doing that and attacking someone specific for giving you a bad review.

See? I’m not saying authors should be silent. I’m saying we shouldn’t behave like lunatics. If you scream at every reviewer (on blogs, goodreads, amazon, the NYT, wherever) who doesn’t worship you, exhort your fans to tear out their entrails, you not only look like a thin-skinned crazy person, you’re wasting your own time and energy. Write another book already.

It matters that you not behave like a lunatic because there’s no percentage in it.

Here’s my newsflash to you:

No matter what a genius you and your fans think you are not all readers are going to agree. There is not a book in existence that isn’t hated by someone. Me, I loathe Moby Dick. I have ex-friends who hate Pride and Prejudice. That is how the world is.

Get over yourself already.

I am now done and dusted with this topic.

  1. Corks are an abomination! Jack Nicholson is a tosser! Don’t Ask Don’t Tell must be abolished! Radio National is the best radio in the world! Mangosteens are the best fruit! Ugg boots are hideous! I have to stop this! I could be here all year! []
  2. Though not very environmentally sound that. []


  1. Amy @ My Friend Amy on #

    I think your advice on how to address criticisms in a general manner is spot-on! Great post.

  2. J on #

    I agree. Rant to the people who don’t care… leave behind no evidence. that’s the way to go.

  3. caitlin on #

    Great post. Corks are nutty. Uggs Why would anyone want to look like Sasquatch? Flesh coloured tops ick! Plastic bags really time to ban.

  4. Justine on #

    Amy: Thanks!

    J: Oh, I like to rant to Scott. He claims to care . . .

    caitlin: I’ve been trying to come up with a different word for “flesh coloured” because I look around and we all have very different coloured flesh. Well, actually, our flesh is probably all the same colour, but our skin is very varied. I agree that for many pale skinned people wearing a top that’s very close to the colour of their skin looks awful. Pale pink on me is a total disaster. But darker skinned people look fine in dark browns. So it’s definitely mostly a white person problem.

  5. El on #

    You got me to finally look up “tosser.” I have learned something!

  6. Justine on #

    I am here for purely educational reasons.

  7. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    Most, most excellent post. Another thing, and this may not be the same for all authors: currently, I am aware that I am insane. My first book is just out, I read all my reviews obsessively, I have many opinions on them.

    They are crazy opinions. I am way, way more attached to and invested in my book than any reviewer could be, and in a state of feverish anxiety at times besides.

    Authors are not all crazed in the same way I currently am, but they’re all pretty invested, which is why their response to reviews might be disproportionate.

    So – don’t respond! Such a good rule. Means that later I am not embarrassed by realising I have blazoned my crazy to the world. Much better for us all to keep our crazy private, for our own sakes.

  8. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    Well said, Justine. A review is the public expression of one person’s private experience of a book. As an author, you’ve already made your public expression–it’s called the book. Let it rot, fester, and flourish in other people’s brains. But never believe you can control their experience of it. That’s not your job.

  9. caitlin on #

    Yikes! Thanks for catching me. My problem with the pale pink peach people wearing pale pink peach is that it makes them look naked.

  10. limeywesty on #

    On the subject of Pride and Prejudice, although I’m sure you know this already, a man called Seth Grahame-Smith has added zombies to Jane Austen’s classic. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and it’s so so much better than the original… (and I really liked the clsasic).

  11. Julia on #

    I agree revenge never ends well. Whenever I’m really angry or upset I usually pace around and form an entire speach in my head outlining my feelings until I feel better and never actually give the speach to anyone.

  12. AMV on #

    I’ve decided that when my next book comes out, I’m not only going to go after reviewers who respond negatively to the book, but I’m going after the real enemy as well: kids and their book reports. Do you realize that a negative book report can sully an author’s reputation to 15 – 32 classmates? Not to mention the word of mouth damage that can spread from that kid’s teacher, “you should hear what a stinker that new book by AMV is — little Kevin wrote ALL about it. I gave him an A+++ for warning us all.”

    And don’t even get me started on Book Groups. Let’s just say some of them will win a surprise guest appearance, so that I can eat their cookies and defend my work point by point.

  13. AMV on #

    Also, I’m joking! Please don’t get me out of book group!

  14. Justine on #

    AMV: I think that you and Alain de Botton need to get married!

  15. holly black on #

    Am eating mangosteen RIGHT NOW.

  16. Steve Buchheit on #

    There’s a saying that ends with the phrase, “.. and it annoys the pig,” that comes to mind when authors get all spittle faced on the internets about a bad review. It makes me wonder if those are the mythical writers who never suffered through a hundred rejection letter before making their sales.

    And these thoughts came to me as someone in my village wanted to throw a “tea-party” on the Fourth of July and was wondering about police coverage in case things got out of hand. I had to sit there at the council table and try not to shout, “You’re having a demonstration about wasteful government spending and you want me to have extra officers on duty on the day I have to pay them double-wages, on the very day we have to talk about lay-offs?” But I doubted they would see the irony. So I kept quiet and told them they needed to discuss it with the chief.

  17. Justine on #

    Steve: You’re kidding me. My mouth has dropped open. That’s just astonishing.

    And I just said the same thing three times. (Worst writing ever!)

  18. Steve Buchheit on #

    Justine: Hand to God, as they say.

    They ended up having four people wave placards at the traffic (one more step closer to the center of the road, please) and barely filled one pavilion (maybe 30 people including children).

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