Over the recent winter break between semesters, I decided that one of my goals would be to read more book blogs and literary websites. I’ve found some lovely ones, too, like A Field of Wild Flowers,The Steadfast Reader, An Anthology of Clouds, and Raging Biblio-holism. However, it is on the blog Truth About Books where I had a particularly unsettling run-in with a defensive author.
At Truth About Books, a guest reviewer evaluated a new dystopian horror novel. He wrote, “Be warned that It’s A Nightmare is bordering on feminist. Although this likely isn’t the purpose of the book, as a male reader, I felt ridiculed and somewhat belittled, in a world where men are reduced to misogynistic savages…” Until I got to this part, I thought the review fairly solid. He gives a brief plot summary, describes what made him want to keep reading, argues the good development of characters, and expresses how the book can be hard to follow at times. Then the reviewer drops the bomb: “bordering on feminist.” I had to reply.
I wrote in the comments section of the blog that the reviewer made the book seem like a world where women hate men, not feminism, assuming we are working with the definition that feminism means equality between men and women (and not women overthrowing men). I also commented that I felt the names of the characters in this dystopian horror novel would drive me nutty (DeeDee and Bubba and Bob). Thinking of my resolve to read and engage with more book blogs, I eagerly awaited for someone to reply to my comment.
To my surprise, the person to respond was the book’s author. She wrote to the reviewer, “if you felt belittled and ridiculed, shall we say ‘trivialized’, welcome to a woman’s world most every day.” Okay, so maybe she made a good point and the reviewer was asking for it. Or was he? The questions is, did the author school the reviewer on an important issue, or did the author tread on sacred reviewer/reader ground?
Authors can get so upset with reviews (and I understand that if feels like negative reviews are personal judgments) that Goodreads has a policy that prohibits authors from responding to negative reviews:
“It is Goodreads’ belief that honest reviews (positive or negative) are crucial for the site. Low star ratings or reviews such as ‘I didn’t like the stories/characters/ etc.’ are fine; but reviews that say “Don’t read this book because he/she is a jerk” or something similar may receive a lower priority in our internal ranking system—and may not appear on the community-wide book page….
Please flag reviews rather than responding directly to them. Should you respond to a negative review in a manner that is harassing, intimidating, or otherwise insulting to the reviewer, your account may come under review for deletion.”
I’ve encountered writers on Goodreads who just couldn’t help themselves, and in all honesty, the issues I’ve seen authors take with negative reviews appear legitimate: reviewers gets basic plot points wrong, reviewers gets the names of the characters wrong, reviewers “misinterpret” the meaning of the story. Authors jump on and correct these reviews, because they’re not criticizing, they’re only correcting, right? I mean, if you’re going to write a review, get it right–right? Well, think of it this way:
Reviews are not written for authors.
Authors don’t need to defend their work. In fact, other readers and reviewers are quite good at doing it for them! If you read this review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X on Goodreads in which the reviewer called Malcolm X a “a piece of subhuman trash,” you’ll see that several other members get on to tell the reviewer that his thoughts seem unrelated to the book, poorly researched, and unfair. The thread is quite long–and intelligent. Here is a review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild that appears on Goodreads. The review itself is short, somewhat dishonest, and has a dismissive tone. However, the reviewer had 734 “likes” for her review and 212 comments–a huge mix of people writing things like “Thanks for reading this for me so I don’t have to… I’m glad to be spared the vacuous navel gazing!” to “Gosh, I wish there was a ‘dislike’ button on Goodreads. I’d use it for this shallow, mean-spirited review.” One comment even tells readers of another book about hiking that they might like if they didn’t like Wild. Readers and reviewers will argue, interpret, bring in other sources, and, sometimes, readers/reviewers will tell each other how dumb they are and start screaming. It can get nasty. Or, they can find new books, new authors, and have really meaningful conversations.
Really, dear author, you don’t need to defend yourself. We’ll engage in fisticuffs for you.
And so, when the author of It’s A Nightmare was the person to write back to my comment at Truth About Books, not the reviewer, I couldn’t believe it. She felt the need to tell me that the book is not “man-hating” as the reviewer implied (perhaps hoping this would convince me to buy the book?), and that I would get over her name choices “when Melissa Leo plays her in the series” (because this would convince me I’m an idiot with a bad opinion of names?). So, now we have an author invading reader/reviewer territory to correct people and to suggest that her book is great because it’s (supposedly) going to be made into a TV series. I felt pity for the poor (and definitely defensive) writer. She continued to try to find ways to make me feel ashamed of my original comment.
Though I once thought I would check out It’s A Nightmare based on the review and the reviewer’s misunderstanding of feminism (and get my own opinion), after my interactions with the author I knew it would never happen. You could say that I refuse to support an author who finds herself so important (and defensive) that she resorts to put downs, corrections, and passive-aggression. You could say that this lady made me feel like it’s a risk to comment on book reviews because someone might bully me. Or, you could say that in the end writers want people to read and review (and like–definitely like) their books and that there is no better way to tell her what I think than to ignore her novel altogether. And other people will see her defensive insults. And that, dear author, is the important thing to keep in mind. Though readers and reviewers will go to bat for a book, they won’t defend a defensive author.