Books and Publishing in the Digital Age
The limitless reach of book reviews that are posted online has created a wave of public criticisms that range from scathing to overly flattering. As Crain asserts in his Paris Review Daily post, the “recent excesses of kindness and cruelty in reviewing” are the product of publishing for an audience that likely includes the author whose work has been reviewed.
While the knowledge of publishing for a global audience might influence some critics to write remarkably cutting reviews, expressing an honest opinion of the work is a freedom that critics and readers are permitted. There’s even a new contest that honors critics who provide the wittiest, most acerbic critiques of the year.
Reviews appear in a multitude of formats: articles on news sites, journals, magazines, blog posts, book review sites, and customer reviews. When an author receives a negative review, whether published by a professional critic or posted as a comment by an ardent reader, the impulse to respond in defense of the work is one that should be thought through carefully before hitting that fateful “Send” or “Post Comment” button.
Authors have many options for dealing with a bad review. While social media platforms tend to be many authors’ preference for responding directly to a reviewer, a feud that is played out in public will usually make the author appear petty and graceless especially when they entreat their readers to complain to the reviewer. A rant on Twitter (while only slightly therapeutic) will leave an author with no choice but to delete the account and issue an apology after tempers have cooled in the morning. Attacking a one-star Amazon review can escalate into a public dispute between an author’s fans and, surprisingly, her husband who replied to the bad review. Adding a comment to the review that insults the writer’s character is yet another example of how not to respond to a less than positive review.
Reading a negative review and not taking it personal is a very hard thing for a writer to do. A reader’s negative comment on Amazon can either wound the writer or it can inspire an amusing contest prompting more negative reviews to be unleashed on the book. It is unlikely that an author will not come face-to-face with a negative review at some point in his or her career. The way an author responds, or does not respond, to those reviews will be scrutinized by a public that eagerly awaits the next installment of authors behaving badly. Maybe it would be best to take Philip Roth’s advice and not mail that letter you wrote in a fury. Better to sleep on it. (Although Roth did not send the letter, he did include it in a collection of non-fiction published 40 years later.)
1. Writing (or imagining writing) the letter is sufficiently cathartic: by 4 or 5 A.M. the dispute has usually been settled to the novelist’s satisfaction and he can turn over and get a few hours’ sleep.
2. It is unlikely that the critic is about to have his reading corrected by the novelist anyway.
3. One does not wish to appear piqued in the least–let alone to be seething–neither to the critic nor to the public that follows these duels when they are conducted out in the open for all to see.
4. Where is it engraved in stone that a novelist shall feel himself to be “understood” any better than anyone else does?
5. The advice of friends and loved ones: “For God’s sake, forget it.”
– Philip Roth