An exciting debate sparked by a negative book review has been taking place over at the Self-Publishing Review.

In short:

Reviewer doesn’t like book.

Supporters of said book read the review and then leave comments questioning the reviewer’s authority and/or credentials and/or ability to write a review, period. They follow their questions with high praise for the author and his book.

In a subsequent thread of comments (these, too, defending the author and criticizing the reviewer) that follow an interview with one reviewer who liked the book in question and the other reviewer who didn’t, commenter “Christa” quotes part of Alain de Botton’s earlier (and highly publicized) defense of himself, another negatively-reviewed-author, thusly:

“Authors should not always turn the other cheek. . .Authors are totally powerless in the face of reviewers. Someone can go into print and say ‘This person has published the worst book on Earth’ and basically the author can’t do anything about it. . . .There’s an onus on the reviewer to be halfway fair. Essentially, give the reader a sense of what’s going on, try and give its merits and demerits.”

(A link to the full article on de Botton’s response to reviewer Caleb Crain, which quotes him as saying to the NYT reviewer, “I will hate you until I die,” can be found here.)

This was my response to Christa:

Christa quotes Alain de Botton as having written, “Authors should not always turn the other cheek. . .Authors are totally powerless in the face of reviewers. Someone can go into print and say ‘This person has published the worst book on Earth’ and basically the author can’t do anything about it. . . .There’s an onus on the reviewer to be halfway fair. Essentially, give the reader a sense of what’s going on, try and give its merits and demerits.”

Yes. Someone can go into print and say “This person has published the worst book on Earth” and the author can’t do anything about it. The review is out there and people have read it.

I truly, truly understand how upsetting that can be. But, on the other hand, “Authors are totally powerless in the face of reviewers”?

First, and at the risk of sounding mean, that’s just whining. Stop it.

Second, the author isn’t powerless. The work is out there to defend (or destroy) itself.

The author has written the work. The author should know that once it’s out there, it’s open to criticism. Or praise.

As to the onus being on the reviewer to be “fair”…

If a reviewer praises something in an author’s work but does it as a result of a misunderstanding – “The way Mr. Rugshow uses an electrical cord as a metaphor for love is absolutely genius” even though Mr. Rugshow didn’t intend to do that at all, for example – do you think the author, Mr. Rugshow, will write a note saying, “Uhh…actually, your review is stupid because I didn’t mean to use any such metaphor”?

Maybe, but it’s doubtful.

The author has his or her chance to present a case: that’s the work itself.

The reviewer then presents his or her case: that’s the review.

It is what it is. Some will like it, some won’t.

And while some reviewers are probably really, really bad at reviewing (they’ll post a synopsis of the book, essentially, and leave it at that), the last person who should criticize the reviewer is the person being reviewed (or their family and friends).

I’m scared for today’s authors.

Our access to the internet and immediate gratification is dangerous.

Questions:

1. Do you think authors are powerless against reviewers?

2. Should authors (not) always turn the other cheek?

3. Does an author’s arguing with the reviewer help or hurt the author?

Discuss.

(And don’t forget to enter the Backword Books contest – win 7 free paperbacks! Deadline is September 30.)

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Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Well the author is in turn calling the reviewer’s work garbage , also. So like it’s kinda circular.

    I don’t think a reviewer has any commitment to anyone other than their employer, and their own sense of how they felt about what they’re reviewing.

    Professional critics are more marginalized than ever, anyway. I’m just as likely to give as much weight to a review on Amazon as I am to a professional review.

    Reply
  2. There are a hundred reasons I don’t do book reviews, and this business with “Winter Games” encapsulates most of them.

    As for how authors ought to behave when their work is savaged, I subscribe to what you’ve laid out here. Keeping a stiff upper lip can be difficult, but I see nothing to be gained and much to be lost from a public temper tantrum.

    Reply
  3. Authors aren’t totally powerless, but I’d say it’s usually smarter to hold back your frustration rather than get into a fight… because no matter how powerful you may be, the biggest weapons in your arsenal are stones, and you’re going to look petty or deranged if you start throwing them.

    Every rebuttal you offer shines a light on your insecurity (and honestly, we’re all insecure about reviews, aren’t we?), and chips away at the mystique of being a writer. A bad review is a bad review; but a bad review where the author fought back is one that obviously hit a nerve, and that gives the reviewer a lot more credibility. You want to bury bad reviews in an avalanche of good ones, not put a flag on top and call everyone to see it.

    Actually, my biggest fear is something like what happened at SPR, where the fans fought the war on behalf of the author… it’s something you have no control over, and it can do all the same kinds of damage. But it’s a nice problem to have, I guess 🙂

    Reply
  4. 1. Do you think authors are powerless against reviewers?

    Nope. As you mentioned, the work itself is out there to speak for itself, as are any positive comments and/or reviews.

    2. Should authors (not) always turn the other cheek?

    For a negative review, I think yes. Grin and bear it. If it’s an attack on the author personally, that’s a different story…but you still want to tread with caution.

    3. Does an author’s arguing with the reviewer help or hurt the author?

    Hurts, definitely. It makes the individual author look petty and by extension (in the case of self-published authors) often reflects badly on all of us.

    Reply
  5. Hm – that would be a tricky one to handle, a personal attack on the author. I think I’d find it impossible to not respond, but the response would certainly have to stay calm, logical, rational, and in no way “attack” in kind.

    Reply

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About Kris Tsetsi

Kristen J. Tsetsi is the author of the novels "Pretty Much True..." and "The Year of Dan Palace" and the short fiction collection "20 Short Stories," all published under the name Chris Jane. Website: http://kristenjtsetsi.com

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