Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

The Right to Respond

The world is changing. The Internet allows anyone to comment on anything, anytime, anywhere.  Last month, a blogger wrote a negative review of The Greek Seaman by Jacqueline Howett.
The short side of this story is that the blogger was extremely critical, Ms. Howett took offense and there followed an extended argument over the Internet and blogosphere that has captivated the writing world and many others.

As a disclaimer, I wish to say that I do not know the blogger, Big Al, or the author, and have never read her novels. I have no desire to join the debate of whether he is right, she is right, or they are both wrong.
I also have to admit, that I am uncomfortable with the reaction of the writing community (or much of it, I should say). It feels like one of those afternoon TV shows where they bring together people who have hurt each other to ‘discuss it’ and the audience gets off on their pain, anger and tears.

The question I want to dwell on is: should an author have the right to respond or defend themselves when a critic takes them to task?  In the past, polished reviewers gave polished reviews, giving little digs and comments, perhaps, but all within the boundaries of good taste. Today, anyone can write anything … and they do.

Having received one harsh review, I have to say that it hurts. You put so much into writing a book. You are ready for some people to put it down after a few pages because it is not their scene. But to see cutting criticism in black and white (or whatever color those pixels are) is tough. Been there, done that, and I feel for you Ms. Howett.

But I question whether we, as authors, have the right to argue with someone who hates our work? I think we do, but we need to keep it professional and short. We need to stay dignified and always seem magnanimous in the eyes of those who are reading it.

Thousands of people have read Ms. Howett’s responses. It might have given her book sales a boost, but I have my doubts. If this was a ruse, and the possibility did cross my mind, it is a hard road to travel. I think I will settle for fewer people reading The Accidental Activist, but reading it for the right reasons.
Have you ever had a bad review? How did you react?
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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One thought on “The Right to Respond

  1. Bad reviews are guaranteed for all published authors. Just go to Amazon.com and check out the reviews of your favorite author. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one example.

    http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Mockingbird-slipcased-Harper-Lee/dp/0061205699/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302565968&sr=1-1

    To Kill a Mocking Bird has 2,005 customer reviews (as I write this) at Amazon.com. Sixty-nine were one-star reviews compared to almost 1,500 five-star reviews. Just goes to prove that we can’t please everyone.

    After I received my first personal attack and one-star review on Amazon by an anonymous reviewers (I find that most of the mean spirited reviews are from anonymous readers—it’s easy to act as if you are a lion when no one knows you are the mouse that roared but stayed out of sight so no one knew you were a mouse)

    Some authors don’t read their reviews so never know. Others read them and shrug.

    I’m not the shrugging sort. When someone doesn’t like my work, I respond. My wife says it is because I served in the US Marines and no one should want a former or current US Marine parked on your tail.

    If the negative review was well written and did not roll in the gutter with slime, then I often thank the reviewer for their opinion, but if the negative review is a personal attack on the author (as has happened to me two or three times) and not the story, then it is time to respond but respond in a controlled, well written rebuttal—not a personal attack although that may be done tastefully too. Sometimes the author may use the reviewer’s words and turn them back on the reviewer.

    If a reviewer says the novel had missing commas and misspelled words, it would be nice if the reviewer identified what and where they were and gave page numbers if possible. After spending hours editing and using several grammar and spell check programs then turning the manuscript over to “several” (before publication) others to read, edit and comment on, errors should be slim and it would be nice to find and fix any that got away. The first one-star review (anonymous of course) mentioned that I didn’t know how to spell “Tang Dynasty” since the “g” was left off. However, this same anonymous person didn’t mention that “Tang Dynasty” was used five times in the novel and was correct the other four times. The word “Tan” is spelled correct. It’s just the wrong word. However, thanks to one mean spirited anonymous reviewer that errant missing “g” was returned to where it should have been in the first place.

    Now that we live in a virtual world with virtual books being downloaded into e-readers and authors—instead of flying around the country from city to city holding author events in bookstores—are Blogging and leaving tracks across a global virtual world, it makes sense that authors may respond to mean spirited reviews if he or she wants to.

    After all, in the social-networking world of Facebook, Blogging, Forums, etc., readers and fans want their favorite or infamous authors to take part in that social network and responding to mean spirited reviews should be considered part of social networking.

    My advice to reviewers. Don’t leave anonymous reviews on Amazon.com. Stick to reviewing the story and pointing out what you liked or did not like in the story even if what you didn’t like is a missing “g” that should have been at the end of “Tang” but do not make the review personal by insinuating something mean spirited about the author through personal insults

    If handled properly, a response to a mean-spirited review from anonymous readers on Amazon.com may become part of book promotion to draw attention to an author’s work.

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