Why Authors Should NEVER Respond to Reviewers
You can read the archived version of the exchange here—the reviewer is “Cait” and the author is “Dylan.” (You may have to scroll up to read her original review at the top of the page.)
I use Goodreads as a reader. I am a published author. There is a page that shows all of my books and each book has a page that displays all of the reviews people have been generous enough to post—and I mean that. As a reader/reviewer, I know just how time consuming writing even a short review can be. I don’t know how many reviews each book has or what the average star ratings are, nor do I know what the reviews say. And, really, I don’t care. I wrote the books because I loved the stories. I’ve heard personally from people who enjoyed them. I’ve connected with fans through other social media sites. Goodreads is not the place for that. Goodreads is the place for me, author nor not, to get to be just another reader. To curate my “library.” To be able to honestly and freely share my thoughts on the books I’ve read.
One thing that strikes me very clearly about “Dylan” in the linked exchange is that he has no concept of the one irrefutable, immutable fact about publishing anything: once you put it out there, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to everyone who chooses to read it. And, thus, they are free to love it, hate it, or feel indifferent about it—and post whatever feelings they have publicly in whatever manner they see fit. As American poet Anne Bradstreet put it (in the 1650s!):
The Author to her Book
Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did’st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos’d to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge). . . .
Almost 400 years ago, long before the days of Goodreads or Amazon reviews or even electricity, Bradstreet knew that by venturing into publishing, her work would be “expos’d to public view” and that “all may judge” the quality of her writing despite the fact that she sees her writing as children she loves and wants to protect. But even then, she knew she couldn’t protect her “babies” from the opinion of others. It’s the non-verbal contract we make between ourselves and the world when we choose to publish.
As Stephen King put it:
Gould said something. . .interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.
(quoted from pg. 47)
Have I ever been tempted to respond to negative reviews? Yes, in the beginning of my career. But (a) as a woman, (b) who writes romance, (c) who writes CLEAN romance, I had already been through the ringer of trying to major in Creative Writing in a traditional academic (read: LITERARY) program at a major state university. I dropped out in my third year after taking only two creative writing classes. There is nothing any reviewer on GR can say about my books that’s as horrible or undermining or belittling as what was said to me face-to-face in those classes.
I eventually went back and finished my college degrees (going on to get a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University with a romance novel as my thesis). I joined a national writing organization (and after a few years was elected Vice President). I worked with a succession of about 6-7 critique partners over the course of three or four years. I pursued traditional publication, and had my manuscripts rejected time and time again, sometimes in writing, sometimes through my agent, and sometimes face-to-face in pitch sessions at conferences. Eventually, though, my books found homes with publishers. And I’m so thankful I had that full education before becoming a published author.
But that’s a process that many authors now have never been through. They’ve eschewed pursuing traditional publishing, working with critique partners, or even hiring a professional to edit their books, because they feel like they know everything and there’s nothing anyone can teach them about their story or their writing. (I’d love to see how people like “Dylan” would have reacted in one of those Creative Writing classes that made me walk away thinking I’d never write again. Well, actually, he probably would have fit right in—as I recall, most of the students in those classes who were the “best” at attacking me and my writing wrote what I considered some of the worst drivel I’d ever read, but would defend it to the death because they were the worst at being able to accept constructive criticism and always took it as a personal attack/affront—and it sounds to me from the comments/reviews that what he’s written is very much like what they wrote.)
But then, I read something else interesting in a conversation on the page for the book that created this latest viral feeding frenzy. Someone asked if it was ethical for so many people to pile on and post one-star reviews of this book because of the author’s tantrum rather than solely on the content of the book. Goodreads user Andrew Lawston posted (in part) the following response:
The idea that you can divorce the artist from their art is a convenient lie that we tend to use to cling on to works we’ve enjoyed, even after discovering the creator had very whiffy feet of clay. . . . The book and the writer are one, like the land and the king in Excalibur. And when a writer goes so spectacularly (and indeed entertainingly) off course, that has a very real effect on how their work is perceived. It’s absolutely ethical to take those incredible outbursts into account when reviewing the work, because Dylan made the comments in the public domain. . . .
(read the whole answer here)
While I agree with Andrew from a reader’s perspective (this is what’s called Genetic Criticism in the Literary Criticism sphere—not separating the author from the work when considering it critically, which is one of the reasons that I choose not to learn too much about the authors whose work I read and enjoy), there’s a built-in contradiction here that’s something all authors must learn to deal with.
The reader, consciously or unconsciously, combines what is known about the author into the reader’s view and critical analysis of the story. For readers who know me well, they’ve been able to pick up on somewhat autobiographical traits in several of my characters (Zarah and Caylor, especially), and and how they feel about me colored how they viewed those and other characters as well as the novels in whole, even if they didn’t know they were reading/filtering it that way. (Taking this out into the broader world of entertainment, this is why I can no longer watch movies with Tom Cruise in them. All I can think about is how off-the-rails he is in real life and I cannot suspend disbelief.) This is why reviewers who take a genetic approach can come across as critical of the author in addition to the work—because they cannot separate the two in their mind*.
However, the author must work at separating herself from her work once it’s completed and submitted for publication. While we like to talk about our books as our “babies,” we cannot actually treat them that way once they’re out in the world. We can (and should) do all we can to promote them, to get them into readers’ hands. But then once the readers have them, that’s when we have to separate ourselves. We have to walk away, turn off the subjectivity and learn to filter all feedback through an objective filter with two settings: (1) Will it make me a better writer? (2) Will it just make me mad? If (1), glean from it what we can and incorporate that into our future writing. If (2), walk away; it isn’t helpful and could, if responded to, become extremely harmful.
*I, personally, am more of a reader-response critic—which is the approach Cait took in her review that started the brouhaha. When she posted the review, she knew nothing about the author—the review was a statement of her personal response to reading a story. When I read something, what is my response? Not the author’s intention, the cultural context of when/by whom it was written, or the theme or “take-away”—but my emotional, visceral/gut reaction. This is one of the reasons why it’s easier for me to DNF books and give them a one-star review. Because I’ve separated the book from the person who wrote it—just like I’ve tried to separate myself from the books I’ve written and allowed them to go out in the world to evoke responses, hopefully positive, from readers. It’s much easier for me to write genetic-criticism reviews of classic/older books, knowing the authors aren’t around any longer to take offense.
Would love to hear your thoughts on this—and on the author-reviewer relationship in general!
Bradstreet, Anne. “The Author to Her Book.” The Tenth Muse (1650). Gainesville, Florida: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1965. Retried from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/bradstreet/bradstreet.html 9 June 2015.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2000. Print.
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