Friday, April 25, 2008

Opinions Are Like...

Maven Jackie BarbosaGotcha, didn't I?

I'm not going to complete that thought quite the way you probably expected. You see, I've been following the kerfuffles in the blogosphere over some authors' bad behavior vis-a-vis negative Amazon reviews. While I have no intention of bringing the heated debate here, it's made me realize one of the most important mantras an author can learn after being published is:

Opinions are like backsides: it's best to keep yours to yourself.
Now, I don't mean published authors are enjoined never to express opinions about anything. I think, for example, it's perfectly okay to state their opinions about thong underwear (I hate them), brussel sprouts (am slowly coming around to them), and sushi (yum!).

But when it comes to other people's opinions about your work (aka reviews, particularly the negative ones), it is never a good idea to argue, explain, or otherwise defend yourself, even when the reviewer is clearly wrong. Because just like it's the kid who throws the retaliatory punch on the playground that gets sent the principal's office, when an author responds to a negative review, it never ends well for the author.

Before my first story was published, I worried a lot about how I'd feel about negative reviews. I'm an inveterate fixer, and if someone doesn't like something I've written, my natural impulse is to want to make it better. But a work of fiction, once finished and published, isn't fixable. It is what it is. And I didn't know quite how I'd handle that impotence.

As it turned out, I've only seen one review of the story that could be considered negative. And I'll admit, reading it didn't make me feel great. But it was also a very honest and well-reasoned opinion, and I appreciated that the writer took the time to think about my story and express her feelings about it so clearly. At the same time, however, my impulse was to explain away her criticisms, but I managed to refrain. It wasn't easy, but in the end, the story has to speak for itself, and it didn't speak to her. And that's okay.

To further illustrate my point, I entered Wickedly Ever After in a contest for unpubbeds a while back. It didn't final, and when the scoresheets/comments came back in the mail, I deliberately didn't open them because I didn't want to be discouraged from completing the story by what I found there. Good thing I didn't. I finally got around to opening them yesterday, and the scores and comments were not encouraging. Oh, they weren't horrible, but I'd certainly never have had the audacity to submit the story to Kensington if I'd read that feedback first.

Which just goes to prove--one reader's "meh" is another reader's "fabulous." And you just never know.

It's certainly difficult to separate our personal feelings from our work. We pour so much of ourselves into every page, it's hard not to want everyone to love our every word. Realistically, though, that's not going to happen. Not even the world's greatest writers are universally loved, after all. There is, as they say, no accounting for taste!

YOUR TURN: How do you handle "constructive criticism?" Do you think an author can ever respond to a negative review without coming off badly?

11 comments:

Kelly Krysten said...

I don't think so. It usually comes off as superiority when an author responds. It's like they're saying, "You're too foolish to have grasped this."

Gillian Layne said...

It's pretty impossible to defend or explain your work. Obviously you liked-loved!-it, because it's out there.

I think a simply "Thank you for your opinion" or "Thanks for reading my book" is the best. It's most effective to not engage an argumentative person in any conversation.

Jackie, I love it that you didn't even open your scores. Good for you! Shows a very healthy self-confidence.

Jennifer Linforth said...

Once you bring a book to a reader it belongs to the reader. Their opinions are their opinions and they should not be faulted for them.

You did your job to write it--allow them their job to read it and step away.

We all get attached to our work. We all want our work to be loved, but the truth is not everyone is going to love it.And that is 100% fine.

Readers matter.

Jennifer

CM said...

I've seen an author respond positively to criticism. One author (I forget where I saw this) on Amazon posted short replies to every review. The responses to the negative ones said something like, "Thanks for reading my book. I'm sorry you didn't like it. Hopefully you'll try my next one anyway." Which I thought was classy, and I did go out and buy that book--and I'll buy her next one, too.

I think J.R. Ward's comments at RT this last weekend--something to the effect of, "People really hated what happened at the end of my last book, and obviously, that means I failed as an author in getting across what I intended, and I'm going to have to do better"--also impressed me. I had vowed never to buy another book from her again, but the fact that she didn't flip out and tell us all how dumb we were as readers really impressed me, and I've ungiven up on her.

I think authors can't argue with their readers about their opinions. That doesn't mean they can't talk about the fact that opinions exist and respect that people have them.

lacey kaye said...

Don't know if it's possible to respond to a negative review in an adult manner, but maybe it's not worth trying. I like Gillian's idea. Just thank them for reading and move on.

lacey kaye said...

Oh, CM, good story!

B.E. Sanderson said...

I can understand the need to tell some person with an obvious axe to grind where they can stick their opinions, but it's never a wise idea. It's like trying to teach a pig to dance; it just frustrates you and irritates the pig.

I can also see how some people might think writing a negative review could help other readers make an informed decision on their purchases, but in the end, it's just subjective. What one person dislikes, another may love. *shrug*

What I don't get are people who post negative reviews just to be negative. "This book sucks" is neither helpful nor informative, so what's the point?

Regardless, any review is only worth as much as you let it be, and should only carry as much weight as your trust in its source. (Easier said than done sometimes, I know.)

Just the two cents of an unpub this morning. We'll see how I take my first negative review when it comes.

MM said...

I put a book review on my blog. I made a small negative comment about the book and then spent the next two paragraphs singing its praise, and I mean singing.

Well the author read my review and was very upset. She went on to insult me and my profession (elementary teacher). So I removed the review.

I LOVED the book. I planned on buying the next two in the series.I said so right in the review, but her comments were so out of line that I've refused to purchase or read anymore of her work

Bill Clark said...

it is never a good idea to argue, explain, or otherwise defend yourself

Not sure this is itself a good idea. A misstatement or misconception unanswered takes on a life of its own. People are more apt to accept the "mis-"es as factual if there's no rebuttal.

Moreover, the manner of rebuttal can be extremely important. If the criticism is an honest mistake, frank forthrightness is an appropriate tone to take: "I think Mr. X overlooked the disclaimer about pregnant vampires in the introduction" or "Perhaps Mr. Y's eye skimmed over the pivotal recognition scene at the top of page 99."

If someone is being snarky, snark them right back. Out-snark them, in fact - make your snarkiness funnier than theirs. Your readers will love it!

Finally, there is the case of downright malice, which I have had to deal with on more than one occasion. In such instances I remind myself of the adage, "Don't try to mud-wrestle with a pig: both of you get dirty, and the pig loves it." A simple statement such as "I will not bother to dignify this gross falsehood/attack/deliberate misreading with a response" goes a long way towards reassuring your readers that the kook who perpetrated the attack is in fact a kook.

So yes, I think we as authors can - and should - respond to negative attacks. How we "come off" rests entirely in how we choose our words - but hey, that's our area of expertise, right? ;-)

And of course there's always the occasional criticism that really is constructive. If you goofed, own up and admit it, and promise to credit the reviewer in the next edition. Suddenly your critic will become one of your biggest fans!

beverley said...

A published author. Pretty much silence is the best thing. How do you defend art? I personally just let a critique or judge score marinate. I read it once when it first comes and then check back on it in a week. I might feel differently. If it's a real harsh one, two weeks and see if I agree with anything they say. If they are really snotty and it's not constructive, I just ignore it.

Elyssa Papa said...

I think it must be really hard to keep silent as a published author when you get a bad review, but at the same time, not everyone's going to love you. The criticism always hurts us more, and I can imagine the flurry of e-mails authors send to their CPs complaining about a review, etc. Or maybe I'm thinking too much and the negative reviews don't bother them anymore?

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