Did the world spin a little off its axis last week, or what? I’m sure nobody missed the rather unusual goings-on in the world of letters over the past few days, but just in case: we had one hugely influential, massively popular and extremely famous writer making some ill-advised and (to my mind) criminally stupid comments on child pornography, and another who described, without remorse, how she had systematically tracked and stalked a blogger who gave her book a poor review. I can’t comment on the first story for fear I lose my reason completely – anyone who was in my company when I first read about it will testify to my spitting rage – but I watched the latter story unfold with growing incredulity; as a blogger who regularly writes book reviews, and a writer with aspirations to a career in words, the issues raised go to the heart of everything I love.
I have written many book reviews. Some of them have been gushing, and some of them have not. Some have barely found so much as an errant piece of punctuation to criticise, and some have dissected a book’s shortcomings in detail. However, I always try to find something good about every book I review, and if a book is truly terrible I have one simple rule: don’t review it. Whether a review is good or bad, I don’t tend to draw the author’s attention to it – if they happen to see it, then that’s fair enough, but the chances of it happening are small. I don’t think it’s fair or kind to Tweet a link to an author, particularly if the review is less than stellar, or find their (publicly available, I should point out!) email address and copy it to them; it’s like playground taunting. Even if I have loved a book with every shred of my soul and my review makes that perfectly clear, I still won’t directly contact an author to say ‘Look! Look! Here’s how much I loved your work!’ – it’s not professional, or respectful of an author’s time or personal space. They don’t exist merely to write books and talk about them to fans – they are people with lives and families, and it’s important not to forget that.
I don’t know the blogger with whom this particular author had her falling-out; to be quite honest, I had never heard of the author before last Saturday, either, despite the fact that she writes YA books. Her book (to date, she has published one novel, with a follow-up due out in early 2015) has, I’ve since seen, received polarised reviews on Goodreads, with some people absolutely loving it and others most assuredly not. Since this story broke, some people have taken an ideological standpoint and given her poor star-ratings simply because of her behaviour, though, which I also believe is misguided. A star rating should reflect the quality of the book, not the reviewer’s feelings about its author. An author’s work stands apart from the author themselves; disapproval or dislike of one doesn’t mean disapproval or dislike of the other, necessarily. The good reviews for this book are intriguing, but it doesn’t sound like the kind of story I’d enjoy, and so chances are I won’t read it. But I know from some of this author’s journalistic work that she can write with power and fluency, and that she can craft a compelling argument, and it’s beyond doubt that she is a talented and intelligent woman.
So why, I found myself asking, did she feel she had the right to take her dissatisfaction with this particular reviewer to such extremes? Without rehashing the linked article, above, the author – no matter what the blogger is alleged to have done – trampled all over the lines of acceptable behaviour in her quest to find out the ‘truth’ about the person who had disliked her book. And for what? Acres of headlines, sure, and plenty of traffic in the gossip columns of the internet. But what does it say about the relationship between authors and bloggers, most of whom blog about books and book reviews purely for the love of it and the desire to drive enthusiasm for reading? Nothing good, I’d wager.
I have been contacted on a few occasions by authors after I reviewed one of their books. A lot of the time, these contacts take the form of a mention on Twitter or a quick message of thanks. Once, an author took the time to send me an email (and this was after I reviewed her work in not entirely favourable terms) to thank me for the thoughtful way I had handled her book, not only the bits I enjoyed but also the bits I didn’t. I was charmed, and moved, that such a highly-regarded and talented person had taken the time to write to me personally in such a generous way. I would hate to see that sort of two-way exchange broken, the mutual respect that exists (or should exist) between writers and reviewers, but to keep it healthy, work is needed on both sides of the equation. Reviews shouldn’t be personal, or spiteful, or focused on the author. They should focus solely on the work, on how it can be made better, on what was (objectively) ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about it, highlighting – if possible – the good. They shouldn’t luxuriate in snide remarks or be written in such a way as to make the author feel bad about themselves – and I’ve seen reviews just like that. If you wouldn’t say it to the author’s face, why say it online? At the same time, if an author comes across a bad review, they really should take the advice of everyone and just not engage with the reviewer. Not at all. Not even to say ‘thanks for reading’. If there’s anything constructive in the review, take it; leave the rest, and walk away. Not everyone is going to like your book, particularly if (as seems to be the case with this author’s work) it’s a little on the unusual side. Embrace the fact that you’re writing for a select audience, and hold your head high.
Let’s all try to remember to be nice, right? Let’s put compassion front and centre. Meet hostility with kindness – or, if you can’t manage kindness, then try respectful silence. And let’s not use the great power of the web to stalk and harass one another. Above all, let writers keep writing, and readers keep reading, and maybe we’ll realise eventually that we’re all on the same team, here.
Happy new week, my loves.