Yesterday brought yet another post about an author responding badly to a negative review, this one from Beatrice‘s Ron Hogan. But Hogan also suggested that there is a right way to respond to negative reviews, referring to author Elle Lothlorien’s “philosophy that a writer is also a businessperson and a reader is also a customer . . . [so politely responding] is simply attentive customer service.” When some people suggested on Twitter that reviewers are intimidated by the sense that authors are looking over their shoulders, Hogan responded, “If you can’t handle the prospect that someone you’re writing about might see what you’ve written, you aren’t ready to share it. Don’t.”
I’ve been trying to get off the ranty-go-round. Do I really want to write about this again? But Hogan is widely-respected in the on (and off) line literary world, and authors listen to him. So here, as non-rantingly as possible, is why I disagree with him and Lothlorien.
It might help to understand why many readers I know don’t care to see Elle Lothlorien’s view cited approvingly. Awhile back, she did a series of posts at Digital Book World on why and how she responds to negative reviews. There she reported that
every negative review I’ve responded to that resulted in a dialogue [this is key] with the reader ended with them 1) deleting their review altogether; 2) amending their review with more favorable language; 3) Increasing their rating at least one “star,” but more typically by two, three, or even four.
Lothlorien interpreted this as effective customer service–she’d made those reviewers who didn’t just ignore her comments/e-mails feel more positive about her and her books. And maybe she’s right. But many of us who read her examples interpreted it as readers a) feeling harassed by the author so they did what they had to to make her go away; or b) being made to feel bad about being “mean” to such a “nice person” so they adjusted their reviews even though their view of the book did not change. And maybe we were right. Several people I know vowed never to read her books after seeing those posts. I’m not sure I’d call that effective customer service.
Here’s the thing about the “customer service” model of authorship: I don’t think of myself as the author’s customer. It’s very rare to purchase a book as object or digital file directly from the author. When I buy a book, my transaction is with the bookstore. I do want good customer service from them, like prompt delivery or taking a digital book back if the formatting is messed up.
When I read, my “transaction” is with the book, not the author. Our responses to art of any kind are deeply personal. And this is why a “customer service” approach is pointless to me. I don’t care if the author is sorry I didn’t like the book or some element of it. That doesn’t change my reading experience. If I think the author can’t use commas to save her life, or I hate the kind of heroine she writes, I’m not going to pick up another of her books just because she’s a “nice person.” (And since I’m confident in my opinions, I’m not changing my review or rating, either. I am going to be pissed off).
A review is a “transaction” with with other readers. I’m sharing my opinion, I hope prompting a discussion, maybe helping them discover a book they’ll love or avoid one they’d hate. Here’s where I take issue with the tweet of Hogan’s I quoted above–though to be fair, a Twitter debate is not the place for the most nuanced and well-considered arguments, so he may not have meant what I take him to be saying. First, a review is not “writing about someone,” it’s about a book. (If it is about the author, that’s a whole different story and not a review). Second, accepting that an author might see my opinion of her book is different from accepting that she will come and engage me about my opinion, which she cannot change. I accept the former; I don’t like the latter. A review is an invitation for other readers to discuss the book, agree or disagree with my view of it. It is not an invitation for the author to join in. An author’s relationship to a book is, obviously, different from the readers’. Almost inevitably, if she weighs in, she appears to be correcting or approving my reading. She can’t be just another voice in the conversation.
In my view, authors should not respond to reviews. That’s not a moral “should,” in case any author wants to ask why reviewers get free speech rights and she doesn’t. It’s common sense. Most of the time, when authors comment on reviews, it chills discussion about books, and that’s not good for anyone.
I do make exceptions. (I’m not even going to touch whether an author should correct a “factual error” because some authors’ ideas on what constitutes a “fact” are . . . different from mine: “Lord Cockmonster is not an asshole!“). I accept that reviews are now part of book promotion, and that many authors read reviews, and “like” and tweet links to positive reviews. Fair enough. Sometimes when I review a book by an author I interact with on Twitter, she responds privately to say she liked my review. I’m fine with that, too, because there’s a relationship context for it and it doesn’t come across as “thanks for helping promote my book!” or as trying to correct my response. (Doing it off the site of the review also means it won’t discourage other readers from sharing their opinions in the comments). Is there a customer service function to those replies? I suppose so, in the sense that I am happy to think that a writer I like and respect returns those feelings. But it works because it’s a genuine response (or else the best, most calculated customer service ever).
There’s really only one kind of “customer service” I want from authors: write the best damn book you can. After that, my experience is out of your hands.