Think Before You Answer Your Critics

I recently attended a conference that Digital Book World put on about “discoverability and marketing” for the publishing industry, where one of the speakers was novelist Elle Lothlorien, who was there to discuss her belief that authors should respond to negative online reviews. For Lothlorien, who comes at this with the philosophy that a writer is also a businessperson and a reader is also a customer, this is simply attentive customer service. As she would later explain:

1) You are not responding to negative reader reviews in order to get the reader to alter their review in any way.

2) You are responding to negative reader reviews in order to neutralize the negative feeling the customer has about Business You (often known as “the author”) and Your Product (better known as “your book”).

Lothlorien’s specific advice for authors when they choose to engage people who’ve reviewed their books negatively online includes several sensible guidelines about how to conduct yourself graciously and succinctly—listening, acknowledging, and moving on. It’s a great contrast to the bullying tactics of some insecure authors who actively seek to shame and harass critics on even the least possible slight. It also dovetails neatly with the recent discussions in literary circles about whether critics need to be more critical and what happens when criticism turns ugly.

I thought about her advice earlier this week, when an author took it upon himself to respond to my wife’s criticism of one of his books.

Mrs. Beatrice (which is what I call her in these pages, to protect her privacy) is in a monthly book club; last year, they read a book that totally did not work for her, and she explained why in exacting detail over at Goodreads. There was a solid concept for a book somewhere in there, she thought, but the author did a terrible job of executing that concept.

(I’m not going to tell you who the author is, or what the book is, either, because I want to focus on the underlying principles, not the gossipy bits. I’ll also be paraphrasing as much as possible, and I’d even ask you to refrain from trying to find the answers on Google; again, the point isn’t for you to identify all the players, or to put this author on the spot, but to think about the dynamics involved.)

For the sake of disclosure: I haven’t read the novel in question. I did read the book the author wrote before this one, which I very much admired, and all the contact I’ve had with him in email and in person has been very congenial. (Mrs. Beatrice didn’t know this when she read the book or wrote the review, however; I just double-checked with her, and she doesn’t recall us ever discussing it, even after she posted the review. Whether or not I did mention it then, I would neither have suggested nor requested she do anything about it.) I hadn’t read the book when it came out because I wasn’t reading much fiction at all that year, and between Mrs. Beatrice’s lack of enthusiasm and the effort of keeping up with new releases, I hadn’t made a priority of circling back to it. Which is to say, I hadn’t written the author off, but I was essentially waiting to see what he did next.

Anyway, last week the author finds Mrs. Beatrice’s review, and asks his friends on Facebook what he should do about it. Interestingly, he admits right off the bat it’s a smart review, and it stings because some of the points she raises are good ones. As that conversation unfolds, he even concedes the novel is simplistic and immature, not the sort of book he’d ever write again. And yet he still feels like he’s been punched in the nuts, and that Mrs. Beatrice (although he’d have no way of knowing from Goodreads that she’s my wife) is “talking shit” and being a “screaming asshole” about his novel.

Now, I’ve gone over this review a couple times in the last few days, and I don’t see it as a personal attack. I think the closest it even comes to anything like a personal criticism is the implication that the author was (to put it in my own metaphor) boxing well above his weight class, and that it seems like the novel keeps hitting readers over the head over and over because the author either “doesn’t trust the reader or doesn’t trust himself.” I understand how lousy it must feel to read that, or that the whole thing reads like it came out of a creative writing workshop where the author got a lot of encouragement but hardly any real help. But those aren’t criticisms of the author, they’re criticisms of the work on the page—criticisms, let’s remember, that the author himself agrees with, at least in their broader strokes.

(I’ll just mention, too, that unlike William Giraldi, Mrs. Beatrice doesn’t lean on a two-dollar vocabulary or borrowings from Ezra Pound and William Arnold to make her points, and I think she raises the right amount of objections to fully demonstrate her problems with the novel without resorting to overkill. She also doesn’t attack the fundamental premise of the book; in fact, one of the reasons she’s so disappointed with the novel is that it could’ve been so much better than it actually turned out to be—again, something the author seems to recognize.)

Back to the Facebook discussion: What, the author wonders, is he to do? Should he say something? Should he let it ride? Many of his friends advise him to let it go, some of them putting a “let her stew in her negativity while you keep making art” spin on it, which is understandable coming from the author’s friends. (And certainly more justifiable than the suggestion from one asshole to “kick her in the taco.”) John Warner, another author with whom I’ve had intermittent but always pleasant contact, shared a link to an amazing article he wrote about engaging his worst reviewer in dialogue. Warner’s conversation shows how Elle Lothlorien’s advice can be used effectively; he explains himself, but he doesn’t try to change the reviewer’s mind, and he listens closely to that critic’s explanations of why he didn’t think the book worked. At the end, they still disagree, but respectfully so.

Spoiler alert: That’s not going to happen in this story.

Thanks to a connection between her Twitter and Goodreads accounts, Mrs. Beatrice tweeted a link to her review when she went in and inserted some spoiler tags at somebody’s suggestion. (In retrospect, that’s probably how the author found it.) The author retweeted that tweet—a move that, on the surface anyway, echoes some great advice from John Scalzi (a good friend, and one of my favorite writers) about owning your one-star reviews. Except that where Scalzi encourages writers, “Accept them, own them, and then move on from them,” the author decided to ask Mrs. Beatrice a sarcastic question about the review, to which she gave an equally-if-not-more sarcastic response about his being pouty, to which he responded, “I’ve been eviscerated by much more important people than you. Shoo, fly.”

THAT, by the way, is the reason it’s taken me several days to think about writing about this. Because I wanted to reduce, as much as possible, the possibility that what I wrote in this post was being driven by the fact that this author had just been a dick to my wife. Ultimately, the real issue is that he was a dick to a reader. “Shoo, fly”? Granted, Mrs. Beatrice’s response to his hostility was more hostility, but… really? Any chance for a Warneresque dialogue just disappeared, right there.

Word of advice, authors: Never state publicly that any of your readers are more or less important than any of your other readers, even if you’re foolish enough to actually believe it. Yes, there are some readers who can “do more” for your literary success if they like your book, whether they’re reviewing books for a major newspaper or buying fiction for a national chain of bookstores. To circle back to Elle Lothlorien, though, every reader is a customer, and even an unsatisfied reader can be a repeat customer—unless you’re actively condescending and dismissive to them.

I discussed this with Mrs. Beatrice just before writing these lines, in fact. Despite her intensely negative reaction to this book, if this exchange had never taken place, would she have given the author’s next book a chance? Yes, she said, if somebody whose literary judgment she respected was convinced that the new book was excellent, she would have been willing to read it and see whether the author’s voice had changed, whether he’d stopped doing the things she hated about that one-star book. “Shoo, fly” put the kibosh on that—and, frankly, despite my admiration for his first book, it also makes me disinclined to give his forthcoming novel a look, because I don’t know how long it’s going to be before I can separate whatever impatience I might or might not have for the words that are on the page from my feelings about him being a dick to my wife, which means I’m not going to be able to read that book fairly.

I mean, I’m trying to stay focused in this post about the universal lessons to be learned from this situation, but my emotional engagement with the situation should be obvious, and the author deserves a better reader than I’m capable of being this year and maybe even the next.

So that’s a minimum of two “sales” lost, from one tweet—plus, you can bet Mrs. Beatrice isn’t going to recommend or accept the author’s next novel for her book club, nor will anybody see the recommendation I might have made if I’d read that book and liked it. It’s not like this is a make-or-break situation; certainly any number of other people loved the novel that set this whole thing off, and the author has enough literary prestige (and support from his peers) that his next book will probably do fine. (Heck, based on what the author himself said about the accuracy of Mrs. Beatrice’s barbs, it very well could be a significantly better book.) Still, I’m thinking about something my friend Sarah Wendell wrote earlier this year about the conversations readers have amongst themselves online:

“We’re still angry that readers are honest about what they think about books? WHY? I’d rather honesty than false admiration and condescension.”

“Criticism that we don’t like is part of what we signed up for when we published,” she adds; or, as Scalzi puts it, “I think as a creator you owe your audience your best efforts, but if at the end of your best effort some of them are still not happy, the best response is, oh, well, maybe next time.” And definitely not “Shoo, fly.” As Elle Lothlorien might say, that’s just bad business.

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7 October 2012 | theory |