If criticism is bullying, then all writers choose to be victims.

About last night? Okay! So, Rhiannon Frater tells us about how authors continue to be assholes who react inappropriately to negative reviews on Goodreads. She focuses on this one indie author, who threw a ridiculous shit-fit over what was actually quite a mild, even-tempered DNF (Did Not Finish) note. Rhiannon says:

It went off when Indie Author Heather White responded nastily to reviewer Andrea Thompson’s review of the novel WHEN DESTINY KNOCKS.  You can read the initial review here and then dive into the comments to see where it all goes horribly wrong.  This is the perfect lesson of what not to do if you are an author.  Don’t call reviewers douches and morons. It’s just a really bad idea.

The author’s epic meltdown got a lot of attention. I watched it in real time, hoping to God she would see sense and stop the madness. It didn’t happen.  She started going off on another reviewer, Kara of Great Imaginations Book Reviews, for stating she would NOT be reading the book after seeing how the author was behaving. You can see how it gets really bad by reading here.

By the end of the night, the writer had deleted her Goodreads account, deleted her blog, and Twitter.  All of this could have been avoided if she had just realized that Andrea’s review was her own personal viewpoint and not said a word. In fact, I thought Andrea’s review was pretty fair.

But that explosion has been just one of many in recent history. Now a new blog has started up to attack reviewers on Goodreads for posting negative reviews. It’s pretty nasty. You can see it here.  I want to state openly that I do NOT support in any way shape or form authors going after reviewers for negative reviews.  It’s childish and bullying.

Let’s go see Heather White’s meltdown on Goodreads, shall we? This is the criticism from Andrea Thompson:

As bad as I hate to, I’m calling a DNF on When Destiny Knocks.

I have a couple different reasons. First, the premise. An almost-17yo girl moves to a new town(more about that in a minute), new school. She’s not happy about this move. She meets a new guy. They have an instant connection, there are sparks when they touch. She finds out that she has a secret destiny and the boy plays a part. They are on opposite sides. He is willing to sacrifice his family (offering, with a smile, to kill his dad). And here is where I stopped.

Second, about the town. The story is set in Jonesboro, Arkansas. I used to live there, so perhaps I’m a bit (okay, a lot)biased. Jonesboro is actually a great place. I know compared to Manhattan, that’s like one city block, but it does have over 65,000+ people, not exactly a hole in the wall.

Lastly,I had an issue with something mentioned about the high school. The main character enrolls at West Side, and made a snarky internal remark about the school having a metal detector. As if she couldn’t believe people in Arkansas needed it. And this did not sit well with me. For starters, a lot of guys in Arkansas carry pocket knives. All the guys I knew carried them to school. Not a big deal in 1996 (gasp!I’m old) but a huge deal now.

But here’s the big deal with that statement. A lot of people may not remember the March 1998 West Side Middle School Massacre. It got overshadowed by the Columbine shooting in 1999.(Here’s a great article about the story,http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net…, where I got all my facts because my brain was fuzzy on the subject.) Anyway, two students pulled a fire alarm and murdered one teacher and four students as they evacuated. One other teacher and nine more students were injured. It was devastating, to say the least. I guess what I’m saying is: Either have another student explain to the mc about the shooting or pick another school (there are a lot to choose from in Jonesboro) to set it at because honestly, I couldn’t concentrate on the story after that remark.

I will say,if the subject is further addressed and explained later in the story, then I apologize and would happily add that to my review.

No matter what I’ve said, my feelings are my own. There are a lot of people who’ve enjoyed the story. I encourage you to check out their reviews as well.

In the grand scheme of negative reactions to books posted on public forums, this one is very gentle. We can’t see Heather White’s comments directly because she has since deleted her Goodreads account, but we can gather what she said from other comments, and it seems this is what happened:

Heather wrote: “I don’t know if you realize, but I AM FROM ARKANSAS. I have family that goes to that school, and what you said was very unkind. I remember the school shooting! I will NEVER forget the day it happen…”

Wow. I stated my thoughts in a very kind,honest way. I actually did know you live in Arkansas, but I honestly didn’t care and dont know what that has to do w/anything.

I did not attack you. I stated my honest feelings. I think the only person coming out of this looking like a douche is you.

Similar to our old friend Julie Halpern, Heather White is making the mistake of confusing an assessment of storytelling ability with an assumption about the author’s life. The fact that she is from Arkansas does not change the fact that she presented the setting in a way that seemed ignorant about the reality of life in Jonesboro. If anything (I agree with Giselle in the Goodreads thread), it makes the criticism even more relevant. If you’re FROM ARKANSAS then you’d better damn well DO A GOOD JOB OF WRITING ABOUT ARKANSAS. If I wrote a book that presented Prince George’s County, Maryland as a stronghold of sheltered Republicans, I would richly deserve the thrashing that would inevitably ensue, doubly so because I live here and I should know better.

Now, aside from the fact that the author actually made it worse for herself by raising a stink over where she’s from, there’s the bigger issue of how she made it worse for herself by losing her temper at a reviewer when no one would have thought any less of her for acting like the review didn’t exist. If you read the comments on Andrea Thompson’s review, you see a lot of other people declaring that they have decided NEVER to read Heather White’s book, not because it obviously sucks, but because they are not interested in supporting an author who behaves like an asshole to anyone who dares offer a criticism.

The reasons why it is stupid and counter-productive for an author to pick a fight with a critical reviewer include, but are not limited to:

A negative reaction can still make a book seem interesting. For a personal example, I would like you to see the Audacious Reader’s review of my novel, Charlinder’s Walk, which is not entirely positive. Specifically, note this comment here:

Often, I prefer my pleasure reading to be “light and fluffy.” BUT, when I pick up a post-apocalyptic title, like The Stand, The Road, or World War Z, I don’t really expect lightweight reading!

If a criticism is specific, it can actually get some readers more interested in a book. I don’t know that anyone decided to buy Charlinder’s Walk after reading Evangeline’s review, but I also don’t know that anyone decided against it because of her reaction. Readers can usually tell when their taste is not quite the same as that of the reviewer, and what one person frames as a negative, someone else might view as a positive.

You will never please everyone. Honesty is the engine that keeps the book blogosphere running. Book bloggers help authors not by stroking their egos, but by telling their blog readers about books they’ve read. If those book bloggers gave every single book a purely positive write-up, their readers would not be able to trust them, and thus their book blogs would be useless at getting people to buy and read books. Notice, also, the disclosure at the bottom of Evangeline’s post:

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

You heard the lady. I sent her a copy of my book for free because I wanted her honesty, not her unqualified praise. If I wanted a guaranteed 100% positive review, I probably would’ve had to find someone who’d accept money. I’m sure it would be nice if you, the author, could line up a set of bloggers who were honest about everyone else’s books but nothing but had nothing but praise for yours, but you are not entitled to game the system like that, and I hope you don’t find a way.

If you are an indie, it isn’t just about you. When Julie Halpern shows her ass to the entire Internet, it doesn’t reflect on Feiwell & Friends, much less does it say anything about trad-pub authors in general. It reflects on no one but her. Unfortunately, when a Heather White or Jacqueline Howett craps the bed, it’s one more tick in the “self-pub authors suck” column. It really shouldn’t be the case that we still have to overcome the self-pub stigma, but the stigma is still a thing, and you’re making it worse. You’re crapping my bed as well as your own. Knock it the hell off.

No, author, this is not bullying. I find it rather insulting that people who post negative reviews on Goodreads are being characterized as “bullies.” Bullying is something you can’t just walk away from, and while cyber-bullying is a thing, and it can definitely hurt people, something tells me the people behind stopthegrbullies.com didn’t have to go through around 8 years of real-time, face-to-face bullying in the schoolyard and classroom. Some of the reviews posted on Goodreads are indeed scathing and may leave an author feeling hurt, but when they post those reviews, they do not demand a response from the author. No one reads a harsh review on Goodreads and thinks the author can only redeem herself by going in there and putting the reviewer down like a mad dog. If you get a review that leaves you feeling hurt, you can close the browser, turn off the computer, and take a nice walk until you cool off. You can write a friends-locked post on LiveJournal and tell all your friends that some asshole on Goodreads or Amazon has shitty reading comprehension; as long as it’s not accessible to the public, you can be just as emotional and undiplomatic as you please!

Reviewers need to feel safe. Did you notice how Andrea Thompson’s DNF note was actually not that bad? And still it got her called a douche. She seems to have a fairly thick skin about dealing with blowback from a maladjusted author, but a lot of other reviewers, who, let’s remember, are doing this for a hobby, might not be prepared to get name-called and capslocked for having the gall to say a book wasn’t to their taste. They might not hold up as well as she did, and if they’re new to the book-reviewing community, the experience might leave them a tad skittish. Once bit, forever shy. If we decide that it’s okay to pick fights with readers who dare to post negative reactions to our books, then we create an environment in which readers have to be very careful about what they say and to whom they say it. They’re likely to tell their friends about their bad experiences with rude authors. They might lose interest in reading books by authors who aren’t already well-known for being able to leave well enough alone. I dare say this environment could make it even more difficult for new and obscure writers to build their audience. Let’s not make the readership too nervous to speak their minds about the books they read. Let’s give them space to tell each other how they feel without fear of punishment. Don’t crap my bed.

I think those are all the necessary points about why authors need to behave themselves, but all that said, there’s still something about this discussion that doesn’t quite add up for me.

It’s the idea that reviews are not for the author.

We know that, technically, reviews are not about readers making personal statements to authors, they are about readers talking to each other, but realistically? Authors are constantly told—and this is especially salient for indie authors—that book reviews can help us sell books. We are increasingly told that if we want to be read, talked about and paid at all, we need to get our work in book bloggers’ hands. So, in that sense, reviews of our books are actually for our benefit, too. We maintain our Goodreads profiles, and when someone new adds our books to their shelf, we notice. We tend our product pages, and when someone posts a new review on Amazon or B&N, we see it. The message we get over and over is that our careers live and die on the strength of those messages from readers. This is no reason to hit the capslock button and call names on Goodreads, but as long as authors are taught to see book reviews as the path to success, emotional investment will be made and excessive hope will be pinned on readers giving their personal opinions to other readers on public forums. I would like to acknowledge that anxiety, while still demanding that it not be turned into crying Bully at anyone who posts a critical review. There is a gap between the emphasis of “OMG you have to get your book reviewed, your writing career depends on it!” and the minimization of, “Oh, but it’s not for you, it’s for other readers!” I’d like to bridge that gap. I’d like to be realistic about the way authors experience reviews of their books.

8 thoughts on “If criticism is bullying, then all writers choose to be victims.

  1. Wonderful post. I couldn’t agree more. Reviews ARE for readers, but at the same time, authors are told again AND again how important reviews are for their careers. I honestly don’t know what the solution is, but I can tell you I never looked at it from the way you have presented it before. So what do we do?

    I just wish that authors that can’t handle reading negative reviews of their books would shut the computer down and not read them. Hit the x button and go bitch to your friends and family privately. I would never attack a reviewer in public. And I have had my editing attacked a few times. It’s not easy but that’s not my call to make. It’s the reader’s opinion and I have to respect that even if I don’t agree.

    I’m always team reviewer first anyway. Freedom of speech is a really important thing. It’s not bullying if you can walk away from it. And authors can walk away from negative reviews. If you continue to read them and you can’t handle it, you are doing it to yourself. Anyway, that’s my collection of jumbled thoughts. Thank you for writing this.

    • I think that authors who can’t handle reading negative reviews of their books should…probably not write books. I guess anyone can recognize an unpleasant one early on and go browse somewhere else, but ultimately, I think a lot of these authors are suffering from an inability to take criticism. That was the talking point I forgot last night, possibly because it feels so natural to me that I don’t think it needs to be said anymore: all writers will receive criticism. No way around it.

  2. Hi! I saw this link on Twitter and was surprised to see my name. ;-)

    I did have a have a fairly thick skin when this happened. I was hurt and angry of course, but considering the source took care of that. And you’re right, my original review got very little interest. The author truly hurt herself more than my review ever could have.

    I know that if this had happened a year ago, I probably would have quit reviewing.

    I personally there are benefits to authors reading reviews, as long as they can use the feedback to their advantage.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I hope all who read it can take your words to heart.

      • She requested the review from Andrea.

        I’m sorry to butt in, but when I started blogging back in November, Andrea’s name came up among the first from authors to follow because of her integrity and honesty. I’ve since been fortunate enough to become close friends with her and I can say that she has never once disrespected an author nor has she been inappropriate in a review. She always leave links to positive reviews for a book if she doesn’t like a book. Heather was so far out of line with her comments, in my opinion.

        As far as your point about reviews for the reader….I agree that the reviews are for the reader, but most definitely for the author too. I’m a big advocate for helping authors get the word out about their books. I don’t always choose to do a review when I get a request, but I offer book spotlights or other promo posts to help.

        As a fellow blogger and friend of Andrea’s, thank you for this post.

      • I ask about the request because I suspect that authors tend to get more invested in reviews they’ve personally requested. I can’t speak for myself, because I haven’t yet gotten a book review outside of the blog tour with Novel Publicity, but it makes sense that one would get more het up over a negative write-up when you personally asked the reviewer to read your book. Jacqueline Howett also got pissed off at a reviewer whom she had contacted.

        Which is absolutely not a justification! If anything, that means politeness is even more important, because you, the reviewer, have also made a bit more investment in your reaction to the book, due to having communicated with the author.

  3. As a self-published author who has followed the whole mess, and STGRB, with sadness, I enjoyed your post. You’re right, we do have an investment in reviews, just as the readers do. The funny thing is that I’ve read several reviewers say they don’t take a self-pubbed book seriously if all the reviews are good. They assume the reviews are by family and friends. So I keep hoping for my first 1-star review to validate the good ones. ;)

    The sad thing is the few idiots out there who are attacking reviewers are, as you said, crapping in all our beds. The number of reviewers who accept indie books is falling rapidly.

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