Jun 7, 2009

Responding to negative reviews

I read somewhere that, as an author, you're never supposed to respond to bad reviews of your work. No matter how tempting it is. And I think this is very good advice! Granted, the review landscape is changing. It isn't just ivory-tower NYC intellectuals writing for elite newspapers and journals anymore. This whole Web 2.0 business lets everyone and his alligator write reviews of everything they set eyes on.

But all this might not change the fundamental fact that you aren't going to gain anything by responding to your negative reviews. It's easier than it used to be, and it's certainly tempting to get a comment in there right below the review in question that rebuts all the points the reviewer has made. But still...

This hasn't happened to me yet, though I'm afraid that at some point in my reviewing history I'm going to get snarked at. I'll tell some author that their work is unreadable, and they'll fire back that I'm a disgraceful illiterate child who wouldn't know great art if it was inserted into my nostril. And I'll probably cry...I'm much too sensitive for the internet.

I'm such a rambler! What I'm trying to get at is that this one reviewer on the site I write for said this one book was badly edited and did weird things with character voices and really just needed another good go-through before it was printed. And the author of this book fired back with a just-this-side-of-civil missive that really only made her look, if not worse, then really quite unlikeable. I'm not likely to read historical drama on the subject of slavery and redemption by an author who sounds like my cranky 9th grade English teacher on a bad day.

The points the author makes are, I imagine, the classic responses of somebody whose work has been belittled in public. She says she's heard from readers who really liked it, that she's sold many copies, that she had tons of people read it before it went to print to check for errors, that she intentionally did that thing with the dialogue (and even has a professional source who told her it was okay!), and, zinger of zingers, that there was a typo in the review. Meow!

The thing is, none of these arguments mitigate the situation. A reader can sympathize if you've had tons of people check for errors, but that doesn't make it less annoying when they bump into them in the text. You can explain what techniques you've used all you want, but if the reader doesn't get it and just thinks it's weird, none of that matters. Even if an Important Personage gave you the thumbs-up.

This isn't to say that a reviewer may not be totally off-base, miss the point of your work, and not enjoy something that piles of readers will eat up. Goodness knows that's happened more than once in the history of book reviews! But you as an author will come off as more gracious, and more triumphant, if you haven't started catfights with all the reviewers who put you down on your way to the top. The proper time for such behavior is when you're accepting your major literary award and you throw in a snide comment about all the people who put you down and didn't recognize your genius.

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