It’s not an edifying spectacle when a writer or their fans lay into a reviewer for having the nerve to say they didn’t like a book, so I’m not going to link to any of the recent occurrences of this I’ve seen around. And I’m sad that I can say “recent occurrences”, meaning that these aren’t just isolated incidents, they keep on happening. Are writers more thin-skinned now? Is the idea of being nice and saying nothing if you don’t have anything good to say contributing to that? Are people less able to cope with being told something they wrote is less than perfect?
I don’t think so, personally. I think it’s the Internet to blame. I’m sure writers got just as worked up about negative reviews back in the old days, but if they wanted to complain about one that appeared in a newspaper or magazine they’d have to write a letter (with this thing called a pen, on paper. You can see those in museums, kids) or actually go round to the office (possibly armed with a horsewhip, the traditional weapon for chastising journalists who have offended you.) This gives plenty of time for a cooler head to prevail and the writer time to tear up the letter or to divert into the pub and drown their sorrows instead.
But now the right of reply is a mere click away and many writers use it. It’s not hard to reply to a review on Goodreads or Amazon, or a review site, or even in an online newspaper. A quick rant about how the review is a hatchet job and the reviewer a fool, a click and your spleen is vented.
“Why not?” you might say. Doesn’t an author have the right to defend their work? Sure they do, just as the reviewer has the right to shred it. But there are times it’s best to bite your tongue and move on. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. If an author starts an argument with a reviewer I don’t ever see a win coming out of it for them, for several reasons.
1 – They look like a bully, even more so if their fans pile in to have a go too. Especially if they start berating people on Goodreads and other amateur review sites for not being “professional” in their reviews. They aren’t professionals, they’re readers! If a writer wants a serious skinning alive, professional reviews are the place to find one. The cruellest reviews I’ve seen have all been professional ones. They certainly don’t have any rule that says a reviewer must find something good to say about a book.
2 – The author goes from being a writer with a bad review read by X number of people to being a writer whose defensive reaction to said review is soon linked to and read by XXXXX number of people, many of whom would never have even seen the bad review. Drawing attention to someone explaining at length how much their book sucks doesn’t seem like a good move for an author.
3 – The reviewer on the other hand might well be delighted – the author is driving traffic to their site! Referrals skyrocket! The saying about the foolishness of wrestling a pig comes to mind. You get dirty and the pig enjoys it. (Not that I’m referring to any reviewers as pigs, she added hastily. I’ve been one myself for one thing.)
4 – The writer already had the chance to make the case for why their book doesn’t suck – in the book! If they didn’t make that case well enough for this reviewer at least, then arguing about it later isn’t going to strengthen that case. People will only ask why the arguments they’re putting forth now didn’t come across better in the book.
5 – No argument can change the reviewer’s mind. I think this is the most important point. In fact, it’s so important, I’m going to say it again in italics. No argument can change the reviewer’s mind. The reviewer didn’t enjoy the book. Maybe they are wrong about some factual aspects of the book, maybe there was something they didn’t understand. But they can’t be wrong in how they felt about the book. If they were bored, then they were bored. No argument can make that change. It’s their personal emotional reaction and they have a right to it.
Reviews might well be useful to the writer, but they shouldn’t run away with the idea that therefore the review is for them. In the end reviews are for readers, and readers want to know the truth.