Tuesday 30 June 2009

The Author's Big Mistake

I thought that this novice writer's reaction to a poor review was bad. But last week Alice Hoffman claimed the prize for The Worst Ever Reaction To An Unfavourable Book Review by posting the reviewer's email address and phone number onto Twitter and encouraging her fans to harass the reviewer concerned.

In Hoffman's favour she has now apologised, and her Twitter account has been deleted: but I'm amazed that she saw fit to put someone else's personal information up on the internet in order to get others to make contact. It's an appalling thing to have done.

I loved Hoffman's book Blackbird House, and I've enjoyed a good few of her other titles, too. But as a direct result of this, I will not be buying any more of Alice Hoffman's books.

You can read a good account of this at the wonderful Galleycat; Gawker mopped into all the corners with screenshots of all of her terrible Tweets; The Book Maven told the story and added some more background about a previous Hoffman overreaction. You can read what Lynn Price (of Behler Publications) has to say about it here; Editorial Ass has picked up the story, too; AuthorScoop mentioned it; and (inevitably) it's now being discussed at Absolute Write.

In an attempt to be fair, I have to point out that Alice Hoffman isn't the only writer to spew her objections to a bad review onto the internet. Anne Rice introduced her new and exciting paragraph-free style when she objected to an Amazon review of one of her books, while Laurell K Hamilton took us Christmas shopping for her characters and along the way revealed how much work her editors have to do.

This kind of reaction to a review has been called The Author's Big Mistake for a very good reason: it can't change the review, and the results are going to hang around for an awfully long time (as is shown by the links I've given above). If an author is determined to respond to a bad review but would like to keep some dignity intact, then the only possible course of action is to thank the reviewer for his or her time, and hope that they like the next book better. It's possible to do this with grace and style, as was ably demonstrated when I reviewed a book called We'll Always Be Pals on my other blog, The Self-Publishing Review. I wasn't terribly keen on the book but its author, Tom McManus, left a few very gracious comments, including this:

It's all good Jane, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and you have yours. I am not hurt by it. As you know, when you put something out there like a book, you take the good and the not so good in stride.

I just wish that Alice Hoffman had spoken with Mr McManus before she visted Twitter. She could have learned a lot.

But the last word here must go to John Scalzi, who has written an excellent analysis of The Author's Big Mistake. Some people are indeed crazy screechy monkeys, and some writers are asstards.

Edited to add some more linky heaven:

Thanks to Daniel Blythe, here's another writer reacting to a poor review. She's switched off the comments to her blog so there are no reactions there: we'll just have to make up for that here.

Pub Rants has now blogged about it too.

These ones come courtesy of AuthorScoop:

When Richard Ford shot Alice Hoffman's book: "it's not like I shot her." That's OK then.

There are some scary stories about more writers who have overreacted to bad reviews at The Salon.

And here Alain de Botton reacts to a very negative review. I've not read the book, but I am backing slowly away: here it's the reviewer who scares me the most.


Loren Eaton said...

Holy mackerel, are you serious? I thought massive success was supposed to make one less brittle. If the adoration of fans and scores of greenbacks can't help you take criticism, what can?

Emily Cross said...

well you know what they say, you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrell.

Apart from that Alice Hoffman stepped over the line and her apology wasn't great either - she never directly apologised to the critic, just to anyone who may have been offended.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

It is an object lesson really, and one I wished I'd learned before I started working online, using this wonderful thing called the internet.

When things get heated, (as they will when you care madly about something) it is so easy to blast back as though you are talking only to the object of your wrath.

Easy in the heat of the moment to forget that you are on a brightly lit stage, with an audience who can suddenly become awfully interested in your dirty washing.

That aside... tis daft to get cross with a bad review. You can't control how anyone is going to take your work.

I had one big possible break with my first book, a real chance to be reviewed in a broadsheet. Unfortunately, the reviewer chosen for the job hated the book so much that the literary editor declined to publish the review.

eeek! I went for a long walk, had a quiet howl, and carried on.

Daniel Blythe said...

One here


as well.

Jane Smith said...

Dan, that's an excellent example: thank you.

I've just had a look at it and have found this delightful nugget of information at the bottom of that particular blog post:

"Template by suckmylolly.com - header image by Everydaypants"

Why do those names seem so very appropriate to me?

Anonymous said...

'Why do those names seem so very appropriate to me?'

PLEASE don't explain the reason to us, Jane! Some of us have weak stomachs.

I love the film of Practical Magic but couldn't be doing with Hoffman's original book.

Geraldine Fosdyke

Word verification: emingthw (Ernest Hemingway's very shor brother from Yorkshire)

none said...

I shudder when I think how close I may have come to such gaffes in my youf. And how indeed I'm not immune now to Making Mistakes in Public. Very Public. Eh.

Shakespeare's Housekeeper said...

Lovely to have you back Jane!
Love this post.
'The Writer' has always said to me that you should never retaliate negatively to a bad review or crit publically. He maintains that your name will be mud in the publishing/scriptwriting world and nobody will want to work with you.
Weirdly, he has written a post about rejection on his blog today.
Keep up the good work!

Jane Smith said...

Buffy, one could argue that this whole blog is one great big public mistake of mine. If it is, I'm glad that you're beside me, committing yourself.

SH, thank you for that: I'm very glad to be here too. It seems that I can't get previously-scheduled posts to appear, but new ones seem to work OK-ish. Subsequent postings will be rather erratic as a result, but at least they should appear.

And just to let you all know: I've added a few new links to this piece now, which provide hours more fun. Even I am astonished, and I'm all old and cynical.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
catdownunder said...

I keep telling myself I would behave nicely, keep my claws sheathed, and not let my fur rise along the ridge of my back. I say I would not spit or snarl at a bad review - that I would simply be grateful that someone actually bothered to write one....after all, they would have reacted to something I wrote. The reality? I'd probably sneak away and curl up in a little battered and bruised ball because I'd feel so embarrassed. I'd try and learn from it - or would I just quit trying to write? I hope not.
Nobody is going to be universally loved. The injuries in this case are unlikely to be fatal - and sound largely self-inflicted. I'll take it as an awful warning of how not to behave. Thanks Jane.

Philip Sington said...

Thanks, Jane. A great post, and a salutary one. It's bad enough making a prancing fool of yourself in a one-to-one e-mail; but to go public with your chagrin is just plain stupid. My rule about this (whether occasioned by an annoying review or anything else) is to do nothing and say nothing until I've slept on it. Thereafter, I invariably do nothing. Which saves a lot of time, quite apart from anything else.

none said...

Beside you, Jane, or between you and the rotten eggs? :D

Wow, that de Botton comment is...wow.

Lisabee said...

Just a quibble, but from Gawker's screenshots, it doesn't appear that Hoffman published the reviewer's HOME address, but her EMAIL address, which is kind of a different thing.

On the other hand, this post is schadenfreudilarious!

Jenny Woolf said...

Wow, cautionary tales. My achilles heel is getting cross about things other people write in children's books, there's a stern Victorian moralist lurking inside me and I sometimes have to suppress it when I am reviewing. I end up usually just not mentioning the books - there are plenty of really good books out there which are dying for a little bit of attention, and it is a better use of space,

Anyway as Donna says, most people probably pay little attention to reviews when it comes to buying. I guess I am an exception there, because I DO go out and buy books I've seen reviewed. It may be different with children's books.

none said...

I will sometimes buy non-fiction books on the basis of reviews in places like New Scientist, where they ask an expert in the field to check the book out. But fiction is a whole different animal.

Jane Smith said...

Belinda Webb, whose blog I've now linked to in my article, has emailed me and asked me to place the following comment on her behalf:

Hopefully you will publish this response on your blog, as I cannot find a way to leave my comment on there.

I am really flattered that you chose my blog post, featuring my response to a reviewer, to link to, but I must say I feel it is important to clear up a few things - firstly I am not a 'novice' writer - publication and making money makes it so. I am a debut novelist, yes, but have also been writing and ghost-writing for a wide range of magazines, newspapers and trade journals for nearly ten years. I also teach creative writing at university level. Secondly, I also have to say that it would perhaps have been more helpful to present a more objective piece on the issue - begin by explaining why you think it's 'a big mistake' for writers to respond to reviewers that seem to have offered no constructive criticism and have also, like you, made incorrect assumptions, which could easily have been avoided if a little bit of checking was done.

The widely circulated notion that writers should not respond to such reviews is one which keeps too many writers from rightfully defending their work - many of us spend too much time writing, often in hours that are grabbed only at weekends and the odd evening after a hard day at work, for it to be then unnecessarily man-handled by seemingly novice reviewers who show no evidence of the basics of literary criticism, and yet who have the power of the mainstream press. I felt that my reaction to the review in question was a well-expressed one - it did not rant, or simply say 'boo hoo, it's not fair'! And, over a year later, I am still satisfied that it was the right and most self-respecting way for this writer to react. It's important for writers to have a healthy self-esteem too, after all, most other occupations would have some right to reply!

B Webb
A Clockwork Apple

Jane Smith said...

Belinda, thanks for taking the time to contact me. If you'd like to comment here in future, right at the bottom of each post there's a link labelled "Post a Comment"; if you click that, then you'll be taken to the comments form; or if you're looking at the blog's main page, then just scroll down to the bottom of the piece you want to comment on and click on the "17 comments" link (obviously that number changes depending on how many comments have already been made, but you get the idea). If you still have trouble, though, by all means email me again: it's no trouble to post the occasional comment on your behalf, especially if you're under our scrutiny.

I don't think anyone's referred to you as a novice writer here, but thanks for clarifying your CV for us. And thank you for suggesting that I clarify just why I (and so many others) consider it inappropriate for writers to respond to reviews in this way: it's an important issue and as such probably deserves its own space here. I'll write a new piece about that, and will post it as soon as I can. It's a very good idea, and I'm grateful.

I'm interested in reading the review which you responded to: do you have a link? It would be very useful to read it alongside your response, and might well change a few opinions.

Philip Sington said...

Here's the review in question:


I should be able to make that a proper link, but don't know how. But it can be copied into people's browsers as it stands.

Dan Holloway said...

Jane, that's beyond despicable behaviour. On a serious note, I'm reminded of the story about Jonathan Ross' e-mail address on twitter - he accidentally posted it, deleted the post, but it was still findable through searching. I hope the reviewer has checked that this isn't tha cse here as well.

As a struggling wannabe author, I'd welcome all reviews, however bad. The worst comment I've ever had on my writing (my novel is about a teenage girl growing up gay in post-communist Hungary) was the worst kind of homophobic bile imaginable. But if a review is bad AND bilious, I figure it's the reviewer who looks bad; if it's bad and fair, then I can learn something from it. I know it's not that simple, but the principle remains, writing is something you're in for the long haul. Acting like a plonker can never be the right thing to do.

Vanessa - my policy with getting into online fights is simple: if you're fuming, it doesn't do any good to keep it all in, so open a word document, and type out your spleen. Then have some camomile tea, look at how daft what you've written was, and delete it. DON'T do this in a comment box just in case you hit send instead of delete :-)

none said...

Hmm, well, at the risk of running the ragged edge of not opining on books I haven't read, I wonder if by saying Webb was "looking for a voice", the reviewer intended to express his opinion that she'd borrowed Burgess's. I stress, *his opinion* :).

It is a somewhat puerile review; the reviewer obviously hated the book. If I dislike a book that much I don't review it outside my personal capacity.

Daniel Blythe said...

I had a really nasty Amazon review of one of my books (Losing Faith). Go and look - you'll see which one I mean. I ground my teeth about it to a couple of friends, but I am very glad I didn't do so in public!

By the way, Jane, I can't get the Laurel Hamilton link to work. Is it just me?

Jane Smith said...

Dan, it was there when I posted the link but seems to have been taken down now. A shame, as it was very entertaining (in a rather horrible way).

Never mind. Google is our friend. Here's a link to the cached version, which should be around for a while: and it's been quoted on all sorts of sites, so is still out there (which is a useful lesson to everyone who might be considering a nice little online rant).

Jane Smith said...

PS: do read John Scalzi's comment about the LKH blog post, please, which I linked to in my original post: it's my favourite bit of this whole affair.

Nicola Morgan said...

Coming late to this - sorry. I'm with Jane, re the inadvisability of hitting back at reviews we don't like, however stupid/wrong we think the review. No problem with explaining in measured terms why the author thinks the reviewer has missed the point. But there are so many reasons, pragmatic and psychological, why staying calm and quiet at least in public is the better option.

But jane, blimey, all that linking - weren't you exhausted??! Thanks for all your research and for giving us so many references. Kept me away from my real work for ages ...