When Authors Respond!

Blogger Susan Flemming, partially in response to my recent chatting up of Nick Whyte on Old Man’s War, had this to say:

I had always thought that there was an unspoken but universally understood principle of author etiquette that went something like this: An author should never respond to a negative review of their book.

The immediate response to this is that if authors didn’t, how would we ever have any entertaining feuds? Also, that no one ever told Anne Rice this little bit of information, as anyone who read her slagging of Amazon reviewers knows. This principle may or may not be universally understood among writers, but it’s definitely not universally followed.

Having said that, I think Ms. Flemming misunderstands my response to Nick Whyte. I wasn’t responding to his negative review; he has a perfect right to his opinion and a perfect right to share it with whomever he chooses. I neither tried to convince him to change his opinion or beat on him for having it because, really, what’s the point. He didn’t like the book. Fine. It’s not the end of the world.

What I responded to — and what I saw as perfectly fair game for a response — was his erronenous set of assumptions about my personal politics, based on what he read in the book. Which is to say that I don’t really mind if he doesn’t like my book, I just want to make sure he doesn’t dislike my book on bad premises. And as it happens, he still doesn’t like the book much, it’s just now he doesn’t like the book for a better set of reasons. Naturally, I see this as a positive advance in the state of things.

Responding to negative reviews because they’re negative is a waste of mental energy because it basically means you haven’t internalized the simple unavoidable fact that no matter who you are, someone somewhere isn’t going to like your book. Responding on that basis makes you look like an idiot, and it makes you look like an idiot in public (cf. Anne Rice). I have no problem with the fact not everyone is going to like what I write, because, hell, even I don’t like everything I write (you folks don’t get to see that writing; if it’s been published you may assume I like it just fine). I’ve seen a fair number of negative reviews of my writing online, and while I note they exist, I don’t generally respond. I’ve seen a number of positive reviews as well, and generally I don’t respond to those either.

However, it doesn’t mean authors are bound to a vow of silence when there’s something of interest in the review, apart from the “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” aspect of it. In the case of Nick Whyte, his assumption of my politics was worth commenting on, in my opinion. Last year a reviewer for Fantasy & Science Fiction dinged Old Man’s War as part of a larger point he wanted to make about American SF versus British SF; I thought that larger point was crap and wasn’t shy in saying so. It’s not just negative reviews I comment on in this way; I’ll often use positive reviews as a springboard to talk about other issues as well. But I’m not going to avoid talking about stuff that interests me simply because the review is negative. That’s just silly.

Now, if I’m responding to review or criticism of a book anywhere other than here, I do consider whether responding is appropriate, based on what I know about the person with the criticism. In the particular case of Nick Whyte, I figured I was on safe ground — I’ve been reading his LiveJournal for a while via Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s LJ friends list and I believed that he was a well-read and thoughtful person who would respond well to a polite discussion of the topics he brought up. And indeed that’s exactly what happened. I’m likewise pleased (but not surprised) that the people who joined in on the chat both here and on Nick Whyte’s site largely comported themselves as we did. See, this is what happens when grown-ups talk: You can get something useful out of it.

As noted before, I neither want nor see a need to talk people out of their opinions of my books. That’s not my job, and if it were I’d quit, because that’s a friggin’ miserable gig. But if there’s something else that’s interesting in what someone’s saying about my book, I may add my own thoughts on the matter. That’s reasonable, and more than that, sometimes it’s fun. And that’s a good enough excuse in itself.

15 Comments on “When Authors Respond!”

  1. I think what helped keep your conversation with Mr. Whyte from devolving was the fact that you started by discussing ideas, and didn’t make it personal. Mr. Whyte was enough of a diplomat to understand that you were discussing ideas and not him personally, and he responded appropriately.

    In all, very uncharacteristic for the internet, and I expect you to get into a knock-down, drag-out flame war before the end of the month, or I plan on cancelling my subscription to the Whatever.


  2. See, this is what happens when grown-ups talk: You can get something useful out of it.

    Can we explain that idea to Mr. Bush & some others? ‘Cause… yah…

  3. So, now you’ve responded to a negative review of your response to a negtive review.

    I’m looking forward to another level of recursiveness.

  4. I’m glad you engaged Nick Whyte on the politics thing. I have occasionally misjudged the angle of view in a book and thought the author had a different point of view than they had, and I think that’s interesting. Sometimes that’s a reading skill thing, sometimes it’s a writing skill thing, and sometimes it’s the luck of the draw, but however it happens, it’s interesting. And the conversation that developed this time was just really interesting and pleasant.

    I think one of the greatest pleasures one can have from writing — after the sheer joy of publication and the relief of getting money for it — is that sense of engagement in the great human conversation that persists over generations and across the world. And it’s really fun when you can see a new thread of that conversation being spun right in front of you like this.

  5. I have always (almost always) adhered to the rule that says that authors are supposed to pretend that the bad reviews are simply beneath our notice. Not because I think it’s a rule of etiquette so much as that I find it a good rule of thumb. Because 99% of the time, when an author complains about bad reviews, they wind up looking like a complete ass. John seems to be able to pull it off; I don’t trust my own ability to project clever detachment, so I just breathe deeply and move on.

  6. View from the other side: there are many different ways of writing reviews, just as there are many different ways of reating to them.

    I’m still getting into it. It worries me a bit that I find it much easier to write long reviews of fiction that I didn’t like, than of fiction that I did like. (For non-fiction it is the other way round.) But I know some people who won’t write negative reviews at all; for them being a “fan” means automatically being positive.

    As a non-fiction author myself, I am used to my work being criticised. Sometimes it’s a case of a fair point being made; sometimes it’s sheer vindictiveness based on political prejudice, in which case I just mutter to myself, “Well, I’ll take him/her off my Christmas card list” and move on.

    I have never had a complaint from an author about a bad review. I certainly don’t count our recent exchange in that category. My most remarkable previous experience was when someone who I think was genuinely taken aback by my disparaging remarks on my website about her writing, sent me three autographed hardback novels to see if that would change my mind. I appreciated the gesture, but I’m afraid I still didn’t like the books!

    I have sometimes had grumpy responses by fans to negative reviews of books they liked (and again, some of the recent responses here come into that category). A review of Dune which I posted ito Usenet in December 2001 spawned a 490-entry-long thread, much of it (quelle surprise) to do with the international politics of the time. I see this as more to do with the fractious and combative tendencies of many parts of the on-line environment than anything special about the process of book reviewing.

    Here’s to keeping it civilised.

  7. I don’t see a response to an interview as a no go area.

    I don’t understand bringing up an author’s politics though in a review. Who the author is and what you think he believes shouldn’t be relevant in a review. Any review that goes into that territory goes down a notch or two credibility wise with me.

    If I limited my enjoyment of science fiction to authors who agree with me politicaly I’d probably half to discard the majority of SF masterworks that I love so much.

  8. And also one must interject – “It’s FICTION guys” – whilst I am only a wannabee author and still a long way from being published… I create scenarios in my stories to illustrate a point of view. If I limited myself to my own political ideas/point-of-view/favourite colour/you-name-it then I would be crippling my ability to write. Whatever else I may be into intellectual self-denial is not one of them…

  9. It worries me a bit that I find it much easier to write long reviews of fiction that I didn’t like, than of fiction that I did like.

    I have the same response to fiction, and the same feelings about it. I sometimes think I focus too much on the negative, to the point of being unable to even articulate the positive except in the most general, boring way.

  10. I wonder if people being more adept at writing negative reviews and opinions are on the same wavelength as songwriters who write great sad songs but say they can’t write great happy songs because when they’re happy they’re content to just be happy and not analyze it quite so much.

  11. Negative criticism is often a good sign. It indicates that the critic was invested in the writing, even if it left them unsatisfied. If you can raise somebody’s expectations high enough to disappoint them, you’ve done SOMETHING, right?

    By the way, sometimes i say things that sound strangely familiar to me. I hope i’m not ripping anybody off with the above.

  12. As noted before, I neither want nor see a need to talk people out of their opinions of my books. That’s not my job, and if it were I’d quit, because that’s a friggin’ miserable gig.

    And this is why, as much as I would like to see a paycheck with my name on it from Blizzard Entertainment, I steadfastly refuse to apply for jobs as a “GM” (in-game csr) or “Community Manager” (forum csr). The job of talking people out of their opinions is bad enough… but trying to talk internet gamers out of their opinions? *cry*
    Eyonix is the true Dalai Lama, I don’t care what the Tibetans say.

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