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.