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In Defense of the Writer

So I'm very, very curious to hear what others have to say about today's blog post (and dilemma). Please feel free to unleash below. Because I'm truly torn about what I'm about to post.

First, a bit of backstory. Like most writers, I have a google alert set up for my name, not because I'm a total narcissist but because I do think it's important to know what's being said and what buzz is happening out there about you. In fact, some would argue that google alerts aren't narcissistic, rather masochistic, because you never know what's going to come down the pipeline. To that end, plenty of bad reviews and snarky comments come my way about my work. Fine. As I've urged writers in the past, I think it's important to take these things with a grain of salt and package them in a little box and set it aside and move on.

That said.

Yesterday, my google alert went off and brought up a particularly eviscerating review. Again: fine. In nearly every case, I look the other way and simply don't care. Some people will love the book, some people won't: that's life as a writer and you have to accept this if you're putting yourself in the public domain. However, this review said some unfair and inaccurate things about me personally, and the hairs on my neck stood up. All I could think about was that I should be able to defend myself in a rational, calm way. And yet, every other instinct and example - just look at when Alice Hoffman unleashed on Twitter - told me to move on. But I couldn't. I felt almost personally disparaged by the name-calling, and in the end, I wrote a quick, calm, kind note on the blog explaining my stance on what had been said.

But this got me thinking: in the day and age in which anyone can post anything about you or your books, at what point are writers allowed to speak up? In general, the rule has always been - under no circumstance. Keep your mouth shut. You'll end up on Gawker, looking like a fool. But I'm starting to rethink that. Not that the correct tactic is hysterically calling out a New York Times (or whatever media outlet) reporter because he or she didn't like your book, but yes, aren't we entitled to a little bit of defense of ourselves? When something crosses the line? Or is the price we pay for being published authors (and I'm asking this seriously) that we have to sit back and accept whatever comes our way?

I don't know. In many ways, I'm starting to think that bloggers/reviewers/ranters should be responsible for what they post. Sure, they can say whatever they want about something and someone, but at the same time, they need to be okay with anyone - the author included - reading it, and in some cases, being argued back at. Sometimes, I think people forget that if they put something up on the internet, it is OUT THERE, and if it is OUT THERE, then it's fair game for anyone else to chime in on.

Hmmm. It's interesting how much this is bothering me, this concept that there's a wall between writers and readers, and yet it's a one-sided wall at that. Again, it's not the lousy review that I have a problem with, it's public disparagement. At what point is the writer allowed to speak up? Always? Never? Sometimes but with the risk that you'll look petty and/or foolish? Is it really petty to be able to want to defend yourself in the public arena? As I said, I'm starting to think that the answer can be no.

Will you share your thoughts? I'd love to hear them.

Reader Comments (44)

I've never written a book, but have had my articles debated on in public forums (with a few personal attacks thrown in for fun), so I can empathize. My personal rule is that if they're attacking my work, I don't chime in because I don't want to seem defensive. On the other hand, when attacked in a way that has nothing to do with my work, I do wonder if responding is the correct choice. I've never yet responded to anything on a blog, but I've seen some writers do it and when done in a calm, coherent, and factual manner, it's actually seemed quite classy.

So totally with you on this one-- can see the pros and cons of each side, and think it's totally okay to comment on something that's out of line. As a reader, I'd appreciate that.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMridu Khullar

I think everyone has the right to defend themselves if they think they are unfairly attacked (or even fairly attacked, really) it's just a question of how they do it, and what the consequences are. As you pointed out, some people do it rashly and rudely, and they get public backlash for it. Others do it civilly and/or intelligently, and I think that usually turns out okay. *Sometimes* people just want to pick a fight, in which case, it's not worth your time or energy to let them provoke you. But I'm sure that if you state your case in a calm and polite manner, you're going to come out looking like the class act, while your detractors will look unjust, or just plain silly.

Part of me is curious to Google and see if I can find what upset you so much, but you know what? I'm not going to. I don't want to give that site any more traffic than it may (or may not) already have!

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristan

I think authors should generally stay away from negative reviews of their books (the Alice Hoffman debacle a case in point), but if the person is saying negative things about you personally and not about the book, that's a different story. It's one thing to not like an author's book, and you're so right - not everyone's going to like every book. But I think it's horribly unprofessional and completely out of the scope of reviewing a book to disparage the author personally, especially when such things are untrue.

That being said, it's hard to decide what you should say. I think you took the best option, with the perfectly nice note. I imagine it's very difficult to deal with that sort of thing. You have every right to defend yourself, but then again, you don't want it turning into something out of control.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterS. Krishna

Thanks, guys. Kristan - I don't mind at all if you google it. In fact, I'd be curious to see if you thought I should be worked up over it.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Winn Scotch

Boy, this is such an issue for anyone who is a creater and puts work out in the public domain. Plus, creative people are much more sensitive than other folks, I think. It is true that what you do will be viewed by others in many ways, some of them negative. When criticized, I write the defense, read it a hundred times to make myself feel better, and then delete it! And I am just a blogger! Perhaps the best advice that I have ever been given came from my husband, who has always said "There is no such thing as BAD publicity."

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermolly campbell

I agree the line is crossed when the attack becomes personal. I would've handled it the same way you did, Allison. If someone doesn't like my work - fine. But it doesn't sound like that was the issue here.
I was attacked once on-line when I wrote a blog for a women's group about the chaos of trying to take my three young boys out to a restaurant to eat. It was a comical, Erma Bombeck-style piece, and most people got that, but one woman wrote that I was a "horrible mother." Now, I'm pretty confident with my mothering skills, but I did make a comment to the effect that I felt sorry for this woman's children (she went by the handle "Zero Tolerance" or something similar). A lot of other people piled on and went after this woman. I'm still not sure if I should've jumped in, but I felt like her comment was so off-the-wall that I didn't want to let it sit there.

Did anyone follow what happened with Tess Gerritsen, by the way? She actually stopped her wonderful blog for a while after getting tangled up in an on-line controversy relating to something she wrote about (ironically) bad reviews. I remember thinking at that time that people write things on-line that they would never say to your face. Maybe that's the good test? Only write on-line what you would tell someone in person. And remember - what you say in a moment of heat is out there forever.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersarah Pekkanen

I think if someone is personally disparaging you, you can defend yourself. If someone comments on your writing, it's better just to take it into your stride. Personal comments is rather crude and unclassy and bloggers and writers on the net should reign in their responses because there are human beings reacting to these comments or reviews etc. I think people have become rather too free with what they think and they need to approach it with decorum.

As a writer, there's other written work out there that has become commercially successful and yet it's absolute nonsense - I've not written about it in a personal attack against the writer as a person.

And there must be something in the fact that if readers can have free reign via the internet to respond to work, then surely writers should have relative freedom to reply or defend?

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKomal

Not having walked in your shoes (yet), I'd first look at who the reviewer is. If it's someone from a respected publication or online journal, I'd leave it alone. If it's a blogger, I'd question whether or not you want to give that individual more hits on their website by responding. Haters, whether on TV or the web, are primarily entertainers who want to draw ratings or hits for themselves.

The real issue you raise, about accountability is one I think we're going to be debating for a while. I feel like the focus has shifted away from quality content and toward sensational tidbits and controversy.

It doesn't sound like you made yourself look foolish. I'm sorry you're facing this during what should be an exciting time for the new book.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Maria

I worked in advertising before I became a writer and we always told clients that it was good when they got press--even if the press wasn't good. I love when I create controversy on blogs and get people debating, but when they start making personal attacks that have nothing to do with the content, I get upset too. It's only human. I think the danger for a writer is trying to reply too soon before they've had a chance to let things settle. And if the attacks are that unjustified, they're just not worth your time.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWriter Abroad

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful replies! Sarah - I'm sorry that happened to you. Eek.

Yes, I think what you're all saying is that it comes down to accountability - and at what point we, as the creators of a work, can expect someone to be accountable for their judgments for it. In this day and age, when everyone can be an online "critic," the lines - and the responses - are blurry.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Winn Scotch

I think when something becomes a personal attack, rather than comments--even vitriolic ones--directed at the work, then it needs an answer.

However, it may be worth having a third party, who is completely objective, read the comments that were given before your respond.

I'm sorry you had to experience this. No one deserves and ad hominum attack.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLJCohen

I'd leave the whole thing alone. Before I started blogging, I was a frequent contributor to various message boards and participated in more than a few flame wars. The battles I "won" didn't give me a feeling of you can imagine how lousy I felt after the ones I "lost". Putting yourself at risk for being drawn into a nasty back-and-forth just isn't worth it. Even if you're taking the high road, being tactful and polite, you don't know what the person on the other side of the screen has on their agenda. That's just my opinion of course.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClark Brooks

You raise a valid point, Allison. Whilst journalists, politicians and mindless celebrities set themselves up for brickbats without the right of reply, writers are setting out ideas, fantasies, stories for the entertainment and education of their readers. That some readers will inevitably disagree with your viewpoint, ideology, stance or philosophy is a given. That they have the right to criticise is also undeniable. But whether they have the same right to insult, spout untruths, denigrate and generally libel without fear of an equally strong response from the author is a at the very least questionable. It's one thing to make an ill-informed judgement in the privacy of your home but it is an entirely different matter when a thoughtless and slanderous diatribe is made public. Criticism surely places some responsibility on the critic to at least be truthful and, hopefully, we can expect comments that are subjective without being personally abusive or disrespectful of the effort and passion that has been spent in creating the work. I don't know, however, what the answer is. There will always be fools and ignorant, rude and destructive morons out there. I suppose that is how we have to view such attacks; as the words of idiots without the intelligence to understand or of envious peers lacking the talent to produce worthwhile work of their own. Me, I'd just sigh with despair and continue doing what I've always done, secure in the knowledge that such criticism is unworthy, unjustified and not worth the effort of a response.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStuart Aken

Darn those Google Alerts, they have no feelings! Just because you're an author doesn't mean you have thick skin. I think you should feel totally free to respond to an inaccurate or even rude post. Maybe even with a lawyer if it is that egregious, but consider this. Think of the Internets as high school. There are all different groups, and I'd put Alison in the Super Nice Prom Queen role. (if she were the Mean Prom Queen, she would'nt be here answering our questions week after week). She is pretty and fit, lives in NYC, is a successfully published author and exchanges tweets with Hugh Grant for gawds sake! That attracts jealously from those less successful or who are unhappy in their own lives.

Alison - My advice is to block that site and dont read that review again. That person was writing about their own misery and projecting it onto you, because that is what miserable ppl do. The more you think about it and respond to it, the more fuel you give it. I personally SO appreciate your advice and candor!

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

I’m so sorry you have to deal with this! It sounds really tough. I was watching The City the other night (proof I love quality tv... not really) and Kelly Cutrone said something insightful: “Average people love to be average because nobody bothers them." Isn’t there some truth to that? The fear of being scrutinized holds so many people back from going after their dreams. So here’s to you, Allison, for being such a brave (and inspiring) soul.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Nagel

As a book blogger, I try my best to write fair and balanced reviews. Unfortunately, when I first became a book blogger I don't think that writing a balanced review was a top priority. At that time, if I disliked the book, I pretty much just said why I didn't like it. Now, I've found myself looking for a bright spot in a novel, or at least trying to link to a book review that has a totally different view than mine.
I wrote a review of a book last November and even though I didn't like the novel, I was thrilled when the author dropped by and commented "I appreciate you taking the time to read my novel and want to thank you for your honest review. While I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book, I do appreciate you taking the time to explain why."
What I'm trying to say is that maybe this blog is fairly new to the book blogging world and hasn't worked out the kinks yet. I don't know if that is the case, but I think that it is ok for an author to comment on a negative review, as long as both the author and reviewer are respectful.
Having said that, if the review gets personal then you have every right to defend yourself. But if is really is full of negativity, do you really want to stoop to that same level.? Sometimes things are best left unsaid.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

I'm sorry to hear that happened to you. When comments are made about a body of work that is one thing, but when it gets personal that is another and makes me wonder if the person is just jealous of you. I agree with you that people should be held reponsible for what they say and write. And I would be bothered by this if I were in your shoes.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCopyStrands

Last night I was casually discussing writing with other unpublished writers. I had one rip into me and tell me that a YA Fantasy with no subgenre is not marketable. This was being said with her having no idea what the book is about and it's not even finished yet. At first I was upset but then, who the hell is she? However, when it's a personal attack, I feel like you have every right to say something. I used to be a nonprofit CEO and I was misquoted in People magazine. The community I was working with was in outrage. I tirelessly defended myself but it didn't matter, what was said was already said. The best thing I could do was to shut my ears and wait until it all blew over.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz H. Allen

I don't know that much good can come of defending one's self on a reviewer's blog. It is so hard to strike a tone that doesn't invite negative response, that it's probably better to walk away from the keyboard most of the time.

I review books and I have not liked all the books I've read. I always give concrete reasons and stress that I am just one opinion plus I try to point out who I think might actually enjoy the book more than I did.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterannie

I'm glad you wrote about this, Allison, and I'm sorry for what you are going through. I agree that there is a perceptible line between constructive criticism, a thoughtful critique, or giving a thumb's up or thumb's down and bullying, destructive, often ranting and hateful attacks on authors.

The first type of feedback needs to be welcomed in any democracy.

And the second kind needs to be stood up to and called out, like a bully should be confronted.

However, there is a nasty and an appropriate way to stand up to a bully. A nasty retort to a bully just brings us down to their level.

But stating the truth, calmly and clearly, as in, "This is supposed to be a literary review not an attack on me personally, and yet the critic has said, "quote," "quote," and "quote" needs to become a necessary exercise for authors.

I say call them out. Shine a light on the ugliness. Tell them it hurts. And sucks. And you hope they get to experience it some day in turn.

If we don't stand up to bullies, who will? No one will do it for us. And sometimes, I think the whole turn the other cheek strategy is appropriate and other times it's not nearly going to be enough.

That's my two cents.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristina Katz

One of my top-ten rules is Do Not Engage Crazy.

I think you handled it beautifully -- address the exaggerations and untruths in a respectful way. Then walk away. Do not let Crazy suck you in.

So sorry that happened to you. It is never fun to be attacked, but to be unfairly attacked by strangers...

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRichelle Morgan

Hey guys, I've been out all day and came home to so many thoughtful comments. Thank you all for weighing in! It's certainly an interesting debate. As a writer, I never, ever put up a negative review - not because there's not a place for them - but because I know how it feels to read something negative about your work, and I'm just not comfortable with it. Which is why, on Goodreads, for ex, you'll only see nice things from me. Again, not that bad reviews aren't justified, it's just not my thing. But yes, I'm glad to hear the consensus that when the line is crossed from personal to professional, speaking up is the best option.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Winn Scotch

I agree. As a writer I find most reviewers in the professional press are fine - they tend to be rational, fair and moderately balanced. There are some I disagree with, but I don't expect wonderful quotes every time, and so long as there are some good and one or two bad, I'm pretty content.

But, as a professional myself, and someone who depends entirely on the money I make from selling books for my livelihood, I find it difficult to control my anger when I read incompetent or incoherent comments on sites like Amazon.

The first I saw said that they hated my book because of the first person piece at the front. I have never written in the first person. To read someone's really offensive comments which are either based on another book entirely, and they clicked on mine by mistake, or which are written maliciously by someone who is jealous of a writer.

The trouble is, there is an opinion because of the web that everyone has a view, and all views and opinions are equally valid. Sorry - no they aren't. Some people are not able to write good reviews and it is silly to claim that they are. If people want to slate books, authors or others, they can set up private groups to write in. There is no need to libel people while hiding behind a website.

So far, I have to admit, I have treated such comments with a degree of disdain. They hurt, but I do think that getting involved in a slanging match probably only leads to embarrassment. Easier by far to ignore them and get on with the next book. After all, hopefully there are many more fans than knockers out there. And if they dislike that book, hopefully they won't read another, and therefore won't feel the urge to write again!

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike Jecks

I'm so sorry to hear that you had to go through that. You have every right to defend yourself, especially if you were attacked personally or the reviewer had no basis for his/her comments. I generally think it's best to ignore such people, but I'd have to see the review to be sure, and I certainly don't want to give that person any web traffic.

I am a book blogger with a very strict policy: I don't review books if I don't like them. People who read my site are looking for book recommendations. That's all I do. If I hate a book, it's not important for me to publicly humiliate the author. Also, as a writer, I know what a tremendous amount of work, heart, and soul go into even the worst books. I can't bring myself to tear other writers down, even if they've written absolute shit. If an author asks me to review a book I don't like, I simply send them an email telling them I can't review it, and my reasons.

Writer Robin Black had a recent blog post about rejection. In it, she said a teacher of hers once asked a class to raise their hands if they liked V. Woolf. (About half raised their hands.) William Faulkner. (About 1/4 raised their hands.) See, she said, don't take rejection personal.

Unless it is.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErika Robuck

Hi Allison, I looked at the review, and my take would be: go for a run, listen to the Indigo Girls song "Rock & Roll Heaven's Gate" (most satisfying use of the f-word in a lyric ever) and shake it off. This review is more about the reviewer than you or your book. True, they didn't like the book, but for some specific reasons that were pretty personal to them...and wouldn't matter to most readers. Also, I noticed that the blogger is in law school. As a former attorney, I must request a bit of amnesty for anyone in this 3 year circle of insanity. They're living in a world that is entirely, endlessly critical...I'm guessing some of that leaked out. You know that those things aren't true...and we know, too. Don't let it get to you! xo, T.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTrish Ryan

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