When the Person Behind the Book Fights Back

Caption_AMB_Misfortune of Knowing Blog

There is a woman or man behind every book I read and review: the author.  They have put their emotions and countless hours into their creative work, sometimes to widespread acclaim, and sometimes just to have a complete stranger rip it apart.  Aware that authors are also people, people with feelings, I often decide not to post a review at all if I’m ambivalent about the work.  However, there have been a handful of books I have flamed, metaphorically speaking, when I wish someone had warned me about the book’s flaws before I shelled out my hard-earned money.

So far, the worst response I have received to one of my negative reviews is nothing more than “unhelpful” votes from other customers, possibly defensive fans or people whose taste in literature simply differs from mine.

But what if the author responds?

I have been thinking about this issue since coming across an author’s (or at least someone purporting to be the author) response to someone else’s negative review of a book that I also disliked intensely.  That reviewer said, “I’d set the book on fire, but it’s on my Kindle.” The author’s short response was sarcastic, but not particularly offensive: “Sorry you didn’t care for it. Where shall [I] send a copy of the hardcover and the matches for your book burning?”  Perhaps shooting off a snide comment like this feels good on some level to the author, but is it worth taking the risk that such a response could backfire?

Conventional wisdom suggests that it is foolish for an author to respond to criticism.  I tend to agree, except when the response is done right, a difficult goal to achieve.  A few months ago, I wrote about author Patrick Somerville’s public response to inaccuracies in the criticism of his newest book, This Bright River. His respectful reply on Salon.com introduced me to his other work, including The Cradle, which I loved.

The range of ways notable authors have responded to criticism is fascinating:

(1) Using a decades-old form letter response, Robert Heinlein merely checked the box next to: “You say that you have enjoyed my stories for years. Why did you wait until you disliked one story before writing to me?”

(2)  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. responded with dark humor to Salman Rushdie’s negative review of Hocus Pocus, saying in a letter addressed to author Avatar Prabhu/Richard Crasta, “While in deep hiding, he gave a corrosively unfavorable review of a book of mine, so I have put out a contract on him.”

(3) Children’s author Enid Blyton, whose work from another era is considered controversial in the same way Little Black Sambo is today, wrote a letter in response to criticism she received five decades ago from then Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies.  She said: “I think you must be mistaken in the author’s name – it could note (sic) be mine, because I would never write an immoral or terrible book for children.”

These three examples came from letters, a much more private form of communication than the methods most of us utilize today: email (easily forwarded), Twitter, Facebook fan pages, blogs, and other websites.  These days, an author’s response to criticism could go viral, impacting that author’s reputation either in a good way (as in the case of Somerville) or in a bad way (as in the case of Emily Giffin, at least in my opinion).

What if the review is truly unfair?  

I can imagine an author believing that harsh words against their creative work are defamatory (false statements), and it well could be under U.S. law if, for example, the reviewer did not actually read the book.  That is the theory behind such defamation cases as Plotkin v. LaBan, a restaurant review case that settled confidentially (according to the article describing the suit: “False statements of fact, as opposed to opinion, can be the basis of libel suits even in restaurant reviews.”).

Still, even if there is reason to believe the negative review is defamatory and not merely honest criticism (which is not defamatory in the United States), there are great risks involved in either filing a lawsuit or responding in any public way.  A public response from an author, whether it’s a tweet or a legal filing, has the potential to draw attention to the review, perhaps catapulting relatively unknown reviewers/bloggers to their own 15 minutes of fame and cementing their view of the work in question (the latter of which happened to conservative historian Niall Ferguson when he threatened a critic).

That can’t be what the maligned author wants.

28 thoughts on “When the Person Behind the Book Fights Back

  1. Pingback: Enid Blyton, Are We Mistaken? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. Pingback: Are “Angry” Book Reviews Funny? Do Such Harsh Reviews Deserve an Award? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. I’ve followed a handful of my favorite authors on Facebook and most of the time I wish I hadn’t, based solely on how they engage. One is an arrogant lout, another is argumentative and overly dramatic, a third apparently scours Amazon looking for book covers similar to her own then accuses the other authors of stealing her ideas. I guess what I’m really finding out is even if they write a book I enjoy, they’re just people. And some people I just don’t like. 😉

    1. Your comment made me laugh! I can relate–the few authors I started following either turned out to be pretty boring or extremely pompous! I could not stand all the pleas to make their book a #1 bestseller, as though #2 or 3 were something to cry about. There’s a risk in “getting to know” the “person behind the book.”

  4. I kinda thought the authors had humor in their responses even though a bit deservedly sarcastic. I thought the book burning one was funny. I can see not liking a book but to say you would burn it? I can see I am in the minority by your comments, but authors are artists and being so negative seems uncalled for.

    1. Hi Donna! Yeah, it is a little harsh to say you’d want to burn the book. While I didn’t say that in my review of that book, I can tell you that if there is any book I would’ve wanted to burn this year, it’d be that one. I shudder thinking about it even now! The author’s response might not be so bad, but it does look unprofessional to respond in any public way. It’s better to just leave negative comments alone rather than draw attention to it by responding (for example, I never would’ve posted it on this blog, if the author hadn’t responded).

  5. Absolutely fascinating. I have never considered this issue, although it’s not dissimilar from learning how to manage your “voice” as an administrator if you want to be effective. I wonder if I’ll ever encounter such a situation as an author?! Thank you for making me think, AMB.

    1. Thanks! I think every author is bound to have a negative review every now and then. That’s just life. The trick is knowing how to handle it. I probably wouldn’t respond, but I can only imagine how difficult it would be for me to bite my tongue!

  6. I thought I responded before on my phone but apparently not. I wanted to see what others were saying about the post, so I stopped back in and noticed I had apparently not commented. I find it interesting that authors actually respond to the reviews directly. I agree with the first commenter that it’s unprofessional. I just wrote about receiving reviews recently, and basically said it’s best to just suck it up, actually I said “Bite it, that’s right I said bite it.”. This has been a topic of heavy debate on both Goodreads and LibraryThing lately. Someone actually posted a blog post by an author where the author directly addressed certain reviewers (leaving them anonymous). While I found her answers quite amusing; I could only think, what if that reviewer just happened to visit her blog and knows its them she’s talking about. That could create an icky situation. While I used my post as a way to air my feelings, I was speaking of cumulative experiences that I had from reading reviews that were from all sorts of authors, including both main stream, self-pub and indie, and my experience writing reviews and realizing the way I wrote them needed to be adjusted.

    1. I agree that it’s best to just suck it up. I imagine it’s very hard, though, especially if it seems like a reader just didn’t understand something. Still, it’s probably best to leave it alone. I know that I’m much less likely to read a book by an author who attacked another reader, even if the author’s response is understandable on some level. Hopefully, you won’t have many negative reviews to deal with, but every book is bound to have some and that’s probably an indication of making it into the big leagues (as Jae said).

  7. I’ve been attacked by authors twice. Once for a three star review where I complimented the world-building, side characters, and plot. There was just one paragraph of the five in the review that complained of the main character rubbing me the wrong way and why it hurt the story for me. I was told by the author and her friends that I must lack a sense of humor because it was just snark. Never mind that my review mentioned other books in the same genre with snarky characters I liked without a problem. I suppose it was just the way this one was written that got to me.

    The other book I was attacked for was a four star review where I complained of too many typos and a heavy use of current lingo despite it being sci-fi/futuristic novel with space travel. Otherwise, I liked everything else about the book and gave many compliments. The author tried to defend herself about the lingo, but her defense was illogical and mentioned no where in the book to help the reader understand. She also wanted me to remove the typos complaint because she planned to fix them. All of this was said publicly, so I emailed her privately in response saying her actions were unprofessional because she shouldn’t call a reviewer out like that online. She then replied to me saying I made her cry. The whole thing was rather frustrating.

    Sometimes, reviewing can be a thankless job, but I’m grateful when I do receive nice comments on Amazon for my reviews. They are what keeps me going.

    1. Wow. I can imagine how even mild criticism could make an author cry after they have poured their heart into a novel, but I cannot imagine lashing out on that reviewer. I’m sorry you were on the receiving end of that type of defensive/retaliatory behavior.

      1. The author who cried asked me for an honest review of her work. I posted the review on Amazon and my blog. She actually left comments on both to complain, and beleive me, she wasn’t nice about it. I paid for the book myself and felt I had a right to say there were editing issues (and formatting issues for that matter) but I did caveat it by letting readers know I still enjoyed the story despite that. What is the point of reviewing if you can’t be honest and forthright? I took great pains to write it so that nothing came out harsh or hurtful. It was all said in the most gentle way possible. I actually deleted that review off Amazon as it was easier to just be rid of the whole problem.

  8. It must be hard if your very first review is a panning. In cricket (I know, an odd English sport’) a kindly bowler will often give a batsman ‘one off the mark’ before commencing to bombard him with fast deliveries.
    I’ve written very few reviews but I imagine I’d try to find one or two saving graces in even the worst book.

    1. I try to be balanced in my reviews, but there have been two books I’ve reviewed on this blog where it was very, very hard for me to say anything nice about it and I was annoyed by how much I had to pay for such terrible writing ($10.99 and $12.99 for ebooks). From a consumer protection standpoint, I think readers ought to know those criticisms are out there so they can decide whether it’s the right book for them. Some people might love those books for the very reasons I hated those books.

  9. fransiweinstein

    Very interesting post. My perspective? You’ll get good reviews. And you’ll get bad reviews. Comes with the territory. Accept them all graciously and move on.

    1. That’s the best way to handle it! I imagine it’s hard for many to resist taking reviews too personally. For some, it’s probably best not to read the reviews at all!

  10. Authors quickly learn NEVER to engage readers on GoodReads, because the trolls there will rip you to shreds. Having inadvertently gotten involved in such a witch hunt, I now steer well clear of the place, rarely going there even to read reviews (which, on average, are a full star lower than I usually get elsewhere).

    We all want to think we’re witty and clever and can come up with the perfect response to an unfair review, but it’s almost always better to keep one’s mouth shut and move on.

    1. I agree. I also dislike Goodreads. I don’t like having someone else’s review in my face before I can make my own judgement. People write horrid things in their reviews. I like the old saying, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

      1. Genealogy- I often feel the same way–that it’s better to say nothing–but there is a problem from a consumer protection standpoint when reviewers are too nice. I really, really wish I hadn’t paid $10.99 for the same ebook that other reviewer wanted to set on fire! There weren’t many reviews when I purchased it, and I think several were far too nice, even though I admit that some people might have genuinely enjoyed that book.

          1. Libraries are wonderful, both for the selection and the cost-savings. Still, even with library books, it’s a matter of wasted time. Time is important, too.

    2. Fen- Everyone always says that avid readers need to be over at Goodreads, but I just don’t have the time for it. I’m unfamiliar with its rating system, but I was under the impression that a 3 star at Goodreads is like a 4 star on Amazon. That might explain why your reviews are a full star lower there. I hope someone else can clarify this, though. I don’t know much at all about Goodreads!

  11. I think when an author gets a negative, they should just grab their favorite drink and toast themselves because they’re running with the big dogs now. I’ve heard from countless self pub bloggers to embrace them, because it gives your book a certain legitimacy to your book in balance. People will see your reviews weren’t all just written by friends and family, but real people.

    Not saying that it’s easy to get a harsh review. But I agree with your sentiment, not worth the effort to respond and no sense in giving any trolls 15 minutes of fame.

    1. It does look weird when a book has only 5 star reviews, and so a handful of 3 stars can be a very good thing. I’m not so sure anyone rejoices over a 1 star, but as a consumer/reader, I find them helpful. I’ve bought books because of bad reviews when I think my taste is different from the reviewer’s taste. The worst reviews are the ones that come with zero explanation, and I wish Amazon and other vendors would delete those puny reviews.

      Also, as hard as it may be for an author to learn that not everyone loves their book, that’s just life. A harsh review isn’t necessarily a troll or sockpuppet. No book is going to please everyone.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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