Sep 212013
 
A few thoughts intended to promote discussion on the topic of authors responding to reviews (authors are welcome to join this discussion) by Nalini Haynes

Recently a flash-fire broke out on the interwebs, with the focus of discussion including authors entering fan (unpaid reviewer) spaces to engage in discussion.

The key triggers for this flash-fire appear to be:

Some say authors should never, ever respond to reviews. Others argue that if someone critiques the author’s novel then the author has right of reply.

This is a really complex issue with too many variables for a ‘right vs wrong’ answer so I’m only offering a few thoughts about where I stand on this issue. (I may change my mind later; I’m evolving as a reviewer.)

Relationship can be the key

Context is really important: is the reviewer a professional (that is, was the reviewer paid to write that review)? Being a paid professional might change the landscape although some of the author-issues remain the same.

Assuming the reviewer is not a paid professional, how comfortable does the reviewer feel? When I first started writing reviews I was horrified to learn publishers collect the reviews, use them as feedback and give them to authors. I. Did. Not. want my reviews read by the authors; I felt extraordinarily uncomfortable and even less qualified to offer critique.

My level of discomfort about publishing reviews has decreased somewhat over the years but sometimes I want to [headdesk] because I’ve omitted a key issue from my review or made an outright error; this increases my discomfort.

If I’ve made an outright error – such as mistaking the age of the protagonist – then a gentle, preferably fairly discreet query/correction from the author or the publicist is appreciated. In the example mentioned above, I had an established friendly acquaintance with the author on twitter so, although embarrassed about the error, I felt ok about the interaction. I corrected the review.

Which leads me to my next point: does the author personally know the reviewer? If they’re total strangers and the author enters the reviewer’s webspace (that usually only has a small following) then, no matter what the author’s intentions, the author can be interpreted as ‘punching down’ (using their superior power to intimidate the reviewer or even inciting their fans to bully the reviewer).

I’ve been told repeatedly that, as a reviewer, authors and publishers will never be my friends. Sadly this is probably true because MONEY AND FRIENDSHIP NEVER MIX WELL. Unless your aim is to create nitro-glycerine. Let’s face it, selling books is about making money. Writing reviews can never be about friendship or the reviews are hamstrung.

However, over here in the Land of Oz, I feel somewhat like Dorothy swept up into an alien world. I personally know a lot of Australian science fiction and fantasy authors and have social media relationships with more I haven’t personally met. This is because our genre is a small but vibrant culture.

This makes it all the more complicated.

Relationships can be the barrier

A lot of people (authors and publishers) have told me they only write reviews of things they like. The implication seems clear: only write positive reviews.

I’ve been accused (by certain members of the fanzine community in particular) of only writing ‘happy clappy’ reviews as if usually only reading and reviewing what I like detracts from my credibility. (I also ask myself ‘Am I the target market? No? Then will the target market like this even though I don’t?’)

Bruce Mutard encouraged me early on to include negatives in my reviews because doing so may help raise the bar; Bruce is almost (?) obsessive about striving to ever greater heights.

I think all three are valid points. In a small community where everyone knows everyone else, managing the fall-out from a negative review is difficult. If I only write positive reviews, that limits my contribution to the conversation and calls into question my credibility – is my content just advertising in disguise? Bruce’s comment about helping others to raise the bar seems more pertinent this year than ever before after I’ve reviewed some self-published work and some work that needed editing.

What, if any, response is appropriate from the author?

I’ve written a negative review. WTF happens now?

If an author needs to correct an outright error then a private conversation needs to take place. Difficult conversations should be over coffee or, at the very least, over video chat. Difficult conversations should never be in text because tone and intent is assumed by the reader: when an author tweets me about a criticism I’ve made of her novel, I automatically assume a defensive tone from her, therefore I get stressed and probably feel defensive.

If an author doesn’t have that kind of relationship with the reviewer then the author shouldn’t engage in the conversation with the reviewer. Friends, wine and chocolate are tried-and-true methods of dealing with negative reviews. Also authors can admire their pay check. (We’re talking about internet reviewers who don’t get paid, remember.)

Authors spend hundreds of hours writing their novel; many also hold down day jobs. This novel is their precious; protective of their creation, authors may instinctively leap to defend their baby from criticism. When criticism is not cut-and-dried FACT (like when the character was 22 not 17) authors should NEVER leap into the fray.

It never ends well.

For an example, read the beginnings of the flame war; not only were people alienated from one another, some readers will avoid Ben’s work forevermore because of those interactions. Others may start reading the series but will they outnumber the desertions?

In contrast, some authors manage criticism brilliantly. Not so long ago I wrote a review of a book I thought I’d love. At the end I thought it had promise but needed editing; I gave it 3 stars. Then the author and I attended the same dinner. I was so embarrassed over what I’d said in the review that I wanted to hide under a rock. That author was the consummate professional: he said, while looking straight at me, that any review is good publicity. I could have hugged him and only hope he really meant it. (Sidetrack: if he gets a good editor, I’ll read his work again and probably write him such a glowy review you won’t be able to look directly into the light.)

So. Conclusions.

I’ve reached the end of this topic probably more undecided about appropriate interactions than when I began writing.

I’ve been told repeatedly that, as a reviewer, authors and publishers will never be my friends. Sadly this is probably true because MONEY AND FRIENDSHIP NEVER MIX WELL. Unless your aim is to create nitro-glycerine. Let’s face it, selling books is about making money. Writing reviews can never be about friendship or the reviews are hamstrung.

However, here in Australia, the science fiction and fantasy community is a comparatively small, tight-knit community where everyone seems to know everyone, even in a large city like Melbourne. (All those in Los Angeles, New York and London are now rolling on the floor laughing at the idea of Melbourne being a big city; OI! It’s big for Australia and the largest city in which I’ve lived.)

Context and relationship are extremely important when authors want to comment publicly on their own work. An author commenting on his or her own work on unpaid reviewers’ websites is not advisable except with prior relationship or private conversation establishing the boundaries. Generally, responding to a specific review is not advisable as responses could be interpreted as defensive or even punching down.

Authors are welcome to respond to fans and critics in appropriate forums; these can include Q&A times, interviews, facilitated discussion and the wine bar at conventions.

Dark Matter welcomes guest blogs and interviews from authors; I’m also interested in hosting Q&A discussions if authors are willing to participate.

Links to others engaged in this conversation

Venn Diagrams by 

Authors and Bloggers and Fans, Oh My by 

Fans: You got your fannish preconceptions all over my critic’s space by Larry Nolen

However Much Vodka It Takes to Soothe Your Wounds by renay

An Open Plea by BookwormBlues (this post shouldn’t have been necessary but some people think abuse is acceptable, sigh)

Smugglers’ Stash and News by 

Communities: You Got Your Industry in my Fanwork by Renay

You Knew This Industry Blogger Wasn’t Going to Keep His Mouth Shut by 

I’m planning to respond to Renay and Justin’s discussion of ‘industry’ vs ‘fan’ bloggers later – this is a separate debate.

 Posted by at 1:08 pm

  One Response to “Authors responding to reviews”

  1. [...] but having a writer drop into a discussion isn’t always a good thing. As we’ve seen in recent months, an author responding to a review, or joining in with a conversation, can cause all kind of [...]

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