When Authors Respond!
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.