Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Congratulations: You Get To Be The Bigger Person Now

If you’re working your author platform effectively, you’re very active online. You’re doing any or all of the following: posting to your blog, possibly posting to others’ blogs, tweeting, posting updates on Facebook or MySpace or LinkedIn, participating in online discussion groups and comment threads, posting or commenting on YouTube book trailers, and maybe even podcasting. Your goal is to open a dialogue with readers and your peers, and the better your author platform, the more feedback and discussion you will generate. Much of the feedback and discussion will be enjoyable and thought-provoking, a kind of online ‘salon’. The rest of it, not so much.

An awful lot of people will have strongly held opinions with which you disagree, or which are ill-informed, or which are obviously being shared only for the sake of getting a rise out of you or casting aspersions on you or your work. But however much you may want to angrily tear into this latter group anytime they darken your virtual doorstep, however tempting it may be to respond with a biting and clever remark, you must never do it. Answering the uncouth and trollish in kind requires you to become uncouth and trollish, which can quickly escalate beyond your control, undermine all the goodwill you’ve built up to date with your community of readers and peers, and quickly turn off any newcomers to your tribe. As an author, you’ll find there are two primary arenas in which you may feel tempted to rain invective upon a perceived adversary: following a bad review, or following an ill-informed or insulting post to, or about, you. First, let’s look at what happens when authors respond to negative reviews…negatively.

Consider this case of commercially- and critically-successful novelist Alice Hoffman, who was so outraged by a negative review (some have called it merely lukewarm) from author Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe that Hoffman ended up flaming Silman all over Twitter. Hoffman eventually went so far as to provide Silman’s phone number to her fans and request that they call Silman to defend Hoffman. It wasn’t long before the mainstream press was all over this, and not much longer before an embarrassed Hoffman began making public apologies.

Then there’s author Alain de Botton, who responded to a negative review on Caleb Crain’s blog with a number of posts that eventually escalated to the point where Botton was saying things like, “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.” There’s a terrific post about the incident on Ed Rants in which de Botton responds to questions about the incident and provides an essay as part of his response as well.

Next, take a gander at the controversy more recently sparked by author Candace Sams on Amazon. When reader-reviewer LB Taylor posted a one-star review of Sam’s novel Electra Galaxy's Mr Interstellar Feller, Sams responded with a series of angry responses, initially under an alias but eventually under her own name as well. When the dust had settled and the press and blogs were finished with her Sams went back and deleted all of her posts in the Amazon thread, but it was too late by then because plenty of sites and blogs (such as Babbling About Books) had already copied and re-published the worst of them online.

Prior to the Sams debacle, perhaps the best-known author outburst came from Anne Rice in 2004, also on Amazon, in response to multiple negative reviews of her novel, Blood Canticle. In a 1200-word diatribe, among other things, Rice responded to reader-critics by saying, “Your stupid, arrogant assumptions about me and what I am doing are slander…You have used the site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehood and lies." Her entire response is reprinted on the encyclopedia dramatica site, where the term “rice out” is defined as, “To make a spectacle of oneself in response to literary criticism by insisting that one's creative work is superior in all aspects.”

Now, compare these authorial meltdowns to the actions of Carla Cassidy, who posted a wry and clever rebuttal to a negative review on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site. SBTB’s review featured a sarcastic, snarky list of 26 reasons why Cassidy’s novel Pregnesia is the best book in the history of pregnant amnesiac romance books. Cassidy responded with her own list of 10 reasons why she loves the SBTB review, as detailed on the Saturday Writers site. According to Saturday Writers, “Carla responded with grace and humor that exactly matched the tone of the review. I don’t think I could respond so well to a negative review. I’m in awe of her.”

If you can’t craft a humorous and/or graceful response to a negative review—and the many examples of non-humorous, non-graceful responses from seasoned authors given in this post are proof enough that you can’t trust your own judgment on this—, then it’s best just to keep your mouth (and keyboard) shut entirely on such matters. As Neil Gaiman has said on his blog, “some things are better written in anger and deleted in the morning.”

As for coping with stuff and nonsense from respondents to articles or blog posts you’ve written, or from people who are more or less just out to make you look bad, you should simply ignore such commentary when it’s clearly labeled as opinion but it may sometimes be necessary to correct inaccurate factual information posted about you or your work. If you choose to do so you must tread with the utmost care, lest a new idiom for author freak-outs turns up in common usage with your name attached to it. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a more shining example of calm, professional, classy damage control than that of Harlequin Digital Director Malle Valik in response to the firestorm of controversy that followed Harlequin’s announcement of its partnership with Author Solutions, Inc.

First, Malle responded personally to the many charges leveled against the partnership on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (scroll down through the comments thread to Malle’s first comment, posted on 11/18/09 at 6:48am). Next, she graciously answered some specific questions about the deal on Dear Author, then came back to respond to some very pointed and angry remarks in the comments thread following that interview. In the face of a plethora of insults and accusations, Malle kept her cool, kept a positive attitude, and remained professional. She kept the discussion on-point, and never allowed herself to stoop to the mud-slinging tone employed by many of the attackers.

Malle Valik is to be commended for her exemplary performance in this matter, and to be emulated by every one of us anytime we find ourselves in the unenviable shoes she was wearing last November. To do so, you must first acknowledge that as a writer, you are in the free speech business. It is your duty (and should be your honor) to defend the right of anyone to voice any opinion on any subject, however much you may disagree with that opinion or even find it offensive. While I freely acknowledge that very often, the people who put you in a mind to take the low road are not honestly attempting to engage you in a fair debate, it will do you no good to respond to them in kind. Correct factual errors if you must, but only if you’re certain you’re capable of Valikian conduct in the matter. Take action on libelous statements about you or your work if you feel they have the potential to do significant damage to your earnings or reputation, but do so in private, offline. Otherwise, your safest bet is to ignore the noise; it’s not truly worthy of your attention, anyway.


Joleene Naylor said...

very good advice! I used to have a very slow internet connection, so that by the time I could actually POST a reply to something that made me angry, I'd had time to calm down. So now, when I dash off some snappy comeback i try to sit and stare at it and pretend my internet is still slow. It usually works.

April L. Hamilton said...

Good tip, Joleene.

I used to keep a sign I printed out for myself posted over my computer that read, "What are you hoping to accomplish, and will this help?" Anytime I wanted to respond to something online, even if it wasn't anything angry, I'd read that sign and think about my motivations before posting. The sign steered me away from trouble many, many times!

Maha said...

April, I just discovered your site after learning of your book Snowball, for which I've downloaded a sample but haven't read yet (but will later this morning). Anyway, here I am.

This post is really timely. I recently posted a review for a Kindle book and gave it only three stars. As a former aspiring author (and getting back to it now) and having judged and critiqued books, I felt my review was honest in that I tried to point out why the book didn't work for me. The author, although clearly trying to remain professional, was somewhat offended and took it more personally than I would have expected. He made some corrections to my facts, which was fine, and I edited my review accordingly (more to appease him, because his facts were not conveyed very well in the story, which is why I thought I didn't see them). But I think in the end, the author failed to see that I wasn't saying anything different than what others were saying, I was providing the reasons for why I felt that way. He'd missed an opportunity to understand why so many people were saying the same things about his book, and perhaps it would have been things he could have improved on for his next book. I felt his writing was good enough that I would read subsequent books of his, which I'd said in my review. Unfortunately, he was so focused on the negative aspects of and trying to correct my opinion, that I simply deleted my review altogether. Now I'm debating whether I want to post any of my opinions on Amazon or any where else, good or bad. I've had my fair share of hurtful reviews of my own work, but I've also worked hard to separate myself, the person, from my work. When people critique my work, they aren't commenting on me, the person. I'm thinking I'm not likely to post public reviews any more, because I really don't want to get into the business of defending my opinion if I don't like a book. And that's really too bad, because even negative reviews can be learning opportunities, as hard as they might be to digest.

April L. Hamilton said...

Maha -
Thanks for sharing your perspective as both an author and a reader. I've said before that authors need to remember they will not be sitting right next to every reader, ready to explain confusing passages or justify their writerly choices. Therefore, if a significant number of readers have found some aspect of a work confusing, or have come to incorrect conclusions about it, or missed pertinent facts and details, it's pretty likely the author didn't write the passages in question clearly or compellingly enough in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I've written a number of things for and left a number if reviews as well. Giving a sour review isn't any more enjoyable than getting one. I always try to use the sandwich method. Unfortunately, most people have no idea how to give a helpful review. On top of that we authors have a terrible time separating ourselves from our product (and in the end that is what it is). It's no wonder flame wars get started.

Thanks for another insightful post.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks, Virginia. The world could do with more sandwich reviewers...and anyone reading this who wants to know what the heck a sandwich review is, see this post from Virginia: