The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.
– Elbert Hubbard
Criticism is not the easiest thing to handle in life. For authors, it can be one of the hardest things of all. It’s understandable. Writers spend months, sometimes even years, perfecting their work. There are first drafts, there are second drafts, there are twentieth drafts and, even then, there are probably a thousand-odd hours still left to work through before one’s novel is ready for publication.
Much like a parent and their child, an author becomes emotionally invested in the characters they create. Every parent wants their child to be loved, and will defend them if they are insulted. Likewise, authors are bound to be a bit miffed if their creations are disliked. So, what’s so terrible about reacting emotionally to a bad review?
The difference is: an author’s novel is not their child. It is a novel. It seems an obvious distinction to make but, in recent times, book world news has been littered with hot-headed authors behaving completely unprofessionally; reacting emotionally to bad reviews as though they were a personal slight.
Writing, much like drawing, painting, music, and theatre, is a form of art. The beautiful thing about art is that it’s subjective. Some people will love it, some people will hate it, because it is all a matter of opinion and people have different tastes. A bad review is just a negative personal opinion. We all have them and, when it’s your work in the crosshairs, criticism can be a hard pill to swallow.
Yet, for one to succeed as an author, one must take it, and keep quiet about it afterwards. Those who do not face a far worse fate than a one-star review. The most recent case, as social media consumers may recall, was Kathleen Hale (author of No One Else Can Have You).
A reviewer on Goodreads didn’t enjoy reading her book, and stated so on status updates. After a series of similar, unfortunate reviews, Hale focused on this one reviewer and stalked – here meaning: to harass or persecute (someone) with unwanted and obsessive attention – to her home, ostensibly to change her mind about the review.
The full story is available online here but, needless to say, this kind of obsessive and completely inappropriate behaviour is not to be emulated by any author, ever again, no matter the provocation. Not only did Hale stalk the reviewer, but she also wrote an article (published by the Guardian: here) that somehow seemed to claim the reviewer was at fault.
HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE AN AUTHOR CRITICISED
Fortunately, few irate authors hound their reviewers in physical reality, much to the relief of anyone with an idea of what personal boundaries should be; most stick to snippy Internet arguments. Whilst distinctly preferable, these arguments are still not deemed professional and can encourage negative backlash on the author and the book.
In Hale’s case, many people declared their intent to boycott all of her work from now on; in the case of others, potential readers have suggested they changed their minds after reading an author’s response to a bad review. I’d recommend visiting ‘Authors Behaving Badly‘ for a more comprehensive list, but my personal favourites include The Greek Seaman – my first introduction to this kind of review response – and The Teddy Detective.
The Greek Seaman
Jacqueline Howlett was the first author to come to my attention as acting badly. Following a negative review by Big Al from Books and Pals, Jacqueline responded on the review page with over fifty comments, including copying and pasting questionable 5 star reviews from Amazon. With every comment, public opinion of Howlett dived to the murky depths, as an increasingly irate author refused to recognise when to quit (and that she shouldn’t have started in the first place). As of this year, Howlett has removed the majority of her comments, perhaps indicating that she has grown wiser with her public responses.
The Teddy Detective
This delightful story is more recent. Curiously highlighted in a Guardian article (yes, of Kathleen Hale fame), Stephan J. Harper came under fire when he responded to a negative review of his interactive ebook Venice Under Glass. Unhappy with the reviewers comment that the prose was workman-like and juvenile, Harper posted sections of his manuscript in a misguided attempt to persuade the reviewer he was wrong. The comments were over fifty in number, posted in a single, fury-blinded night, including somewhat prideful comparisons to Fitzgerald and Keats.
So what is so unprofessional about their responses? Surely, after having spent so much time perfecting one’s work, a little irritation is understandable? Absolutely, but reacting in this way leaves one open to ridicule. As it should: these authors are being and look ridiculous.
I don’t believe I have ever come across a novel that everyone I know loves. It just doesn’t happen, because people are too different, as are their tastes. Furthermore, a bad review doesn’t have to be taken as a personal slight; it should be taken as an indication of what one can improve when they write their next manuscript.
I spent 2014 in a literary-induced haze, working solidly and tirelessly to finish my new manuscript. It has just been sent to Beta readers and I’m exhausted. I have to admit, I’m nervous; hoping for good feedback, but hoping for neon signs directing me to improvements, too. Why?
Every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration.
Constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought.
– Margaret Chase Smith
Nothing is perfect. Not even a published book, reshaped millions of times by author and editor alike, can claim to be perfect. I still find flaws in the work penned by my literary heroes; it doesn’t make me think any less of them. I expect people to find flaws in my work too, as much as it may personally (however slightly) upset me. The feelings an author might experience when faced with a bad review are understandable because of the amount of effort, heart and soul they’ve put in to producing their book, but that is where my sympathy ends. When feelings evolve into actions, it becomes a problem.
For instance: imagine you have written a piece of work for your boss. They come to you, after you think it’s perfect, and claim it needs to be rewritten or needs a few changes to make it better. It would be unacceptable for you to argue vehemently and at length, and stalk them to their home in order to change their minds. You are a professional and you must conduct yourself in a professional fashion. So, why was Hale – a professional author – allowed to act in such an unprofessional manner without chastisement?
The answer is: she shouldn’t have been. No one should be able to react that way without some kind of backlash; indeed, Hale eventually received it in droves from potential readers. The truth is, reacting at all to reviews, online or in person, is a phenomenally bad idea. Criticism is one of those awkward things in life that you either have to take graciously or risk seeming like a stubborn, self-important mule. Before you click the ‘reply’ button, stop, turn off your computer, make yourself a hot chocolate and ponder how you can improve your next book instead.
HOW TO VIEW YOUR BOOK
As I’ve said before, writing is art. Therefore, your novel is open to interpretation and, sometimes, a reader’s interpretation will differ from the author’s original intent. As Urban Dictionary jokes: An English teacher is a person who puts more thoughts into a text than the actual author did. For instance:
“The curtains were blue.”
What your English teacher thinks:
“The curtains represent his immense depression and lack of will to carry on.”
What the author meant:
“The curtains were f**king blue.”
Anyone who has read the same book as a friend will know how differing opinions work. In my friendship group, Neil Gaiman and John Green split opinions nearly 50:50, lending credence to K. M. Weiland’s statement: If one person adores your writing, then you can expect someone else will hate it with equal fervency.
Your book, once published, is no longer just yours. It belongs to everyone who wants to read it. As such, other people are allowed to comment upon it, for it was published for public consumption. Remember this, and keeping calm becomes much easier.
DEALING WITH EDITORS
ON A PROFESSIONAL LEVEL
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard about dealing with professional editors is “to listen”. Publishing through traditional methods means there are several hoops to jump through, and building a good rapport with your editor is one of them. Editors aren’t out to ruin your book, they’re there to make it marketable and as popular as possible. This is their profession, as writing is yours, and striking a balance between maintaining your book’s integrity and making your manuscript the best it can be means compromise. Here are some Do’s and Dont’s I’ve learned from asking authors of my acquaintance:
- Listen to what your editor is saying. You may not like it, but among the things you disagree with, there may be something useful.
- Take notes. This will give you a chance to look over the comments and thinking about them thoroughly before responding.
- Be pleasant. Your editor is a colleague and trying to help you. Treat them with respect and they will do the same for you.
- React immediately. Chances are that some of what your editor says will be negative and disagreeable. Reacting in anger will look bad on you, will annoy your editor, and will blind you to what they are trying to improve.
- Get upset and refuse to change anything and everything. Your manuscript is in progress until publication and, even then, will probably not be perfect. Ironing out plot holes and prose errors is a good thing.
- Think you have to change everything. Most of an editor’s advice probably should be taken, but if there is something you, as an author, feel strongly about, take your time to explain why it is important to keep it as it is.
The sad fact is that negative reviews don’t necessarily harm sales. A good contemporary example of this is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which initially received floods of bad (and lengthy) reviews, then recovered admirably, climbing up the sales ladder with aplomb. The great thing about review sites like Goodreads is that, if your book is worth the paper it’s written on, people will eventually notice. I know two readers who were personally fascinated by a particularly loquacious criticism of Outlander and bought the book in order to see what all the fuss was about. They both ended up loving it; perhaps the same thing could have happened for The Teddy Bear Detective and The Greek Seaman, before public opinion was spoiled by the authors themselves.
They say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity and, in the case of the Internet especially, reviews are quickly lost in the annals of browser history. The only permanent form of crippling publicity an author can expect to suffer is any wrought by their own hand. Responding in anger is always a bad thing and, for an author, it can be the death of your career.
So, when your book is under fire, remember to keep your cool. Nothing is perfect; everything can be improved.