An article in the New York Times last week got me thinking (again) about reviews (hey, I bet most authors have a small part of their brain devoted to the ever-present background angst about past or future reviews/criticism of their work). The article (which you can find clicking on this link) is an interview with the author Curtis Sittenfield on the thorny issue of how professional authors handle criticism.
Now we’ve all heard of the unfortunate instances where authors have directly responded to negative reviews or criticism – usually through an ill-advised rant on twitter or a hot-headed response on Goodreads or Amazon. If you’ve forgotten or unsure of what some authors have stooped to doing, I recommend reading some of The Guardian’s book blog posts on the matter (see: how not to handle reviews; how not to respond to a bad review for example).
Curtis Sittenfield provides a useful quadrant tool that many authors could use. Basically she divides up reviews into four quadrants: smart and positive (definitely read!); smart and negative (still read); dumb and positive (read for the ego’s sake); and dumb and negative (do not read!). Many authors get into the greatest hot-water when they allow themselves to get embroiled in a debate over what they consider to be ‘dumb and negative’ reviews. Now, maybe it’s too hard to resist the temptation to read these kind of reviews but it’s up to every professional author worth their salt to resist the temptation to respond to them. You just can’t take it all so personally (being a professional writer means recognizing this is a business after all). As Curtis Sittenfield notes: ” I literally don’t think I’ve ever read a letter from a writer complaining about his or her negative review that made the writer look good. You’re better off just biting your tongue.”
But, as Curtis goes on to point out, there are many instances in which harsh criticism can identify a real weakness in a book or an author’s approach to their material that, while humiliating, can all be part of the process of learning to be a better writer. Even in these instances though, the best response from a writer is no response at all. For Curtis, her nightmare reviewer is one who has an agenda that precludes them from responding sincerely to the book – and I think this is (again) where many authors come unstuck. There’s a lot of mean people on the internet who have their own agenda when it comes to reviewing a book or adding comments on a thread regarding someone’s work. Sometimes they are angry and bitter, sometimes they may be jealous, sometimes they want to indulge in a personal attack just for the hell of it (some are just plain trolls after all). But there can be nothing gained from responding to a scathing comment or a harsh review regardless of the reviewer’s real (or imagined) motive. Anyone who’s been on Facebook or other social media recently can attest to the fact that you are never going to change someone’s mind through an ill-advised post, comment or flamewar!
As professional author, how should we behave when it comes to the question of negative reviews or criticism (no matter whether they fall in the ‘smart and negative’ or the ‘dumb and negative’ quadrant)? By biding our time, biting our tongue, retaining our dignity and ignoring them (maybe the ‘smart and negative’ can inform our development as better writers but even so, that doesn’t mean anyone has to know this!).
So what do you think TKZers, how should authors approach the issue of reviews and criticism? As a writer do you also review books and if so, how do you approach the issue from the other side? What are your expectations as to how an author should (or should not) respond? And if you have any horror stories from the tenches feel free to share (hey, it might be be cathartic!)…