On Reviews

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
The Internet is a marvelous place, full of ponies and rainbows and unicorns. It has also been revolutionary for consumers and readers sharing information. There are a million review sites and ways for readers to rank and talk about and pick apart a book. This is a good thing, despite the echo-chamber factor, but it underlines one thing I wish I could tell newly-published writers.

Do not respond to reviews, positive or negative. On that path lies danger.

Reviews are meant for readers. I use them myself in my capacity as a reader, just like anyone else. But there is something I have to consider when I review a book–professional standing. As a professional, I tend not to review something unless I have something positive to say about it. That’s one constraint on my speech on the Internet, and a self-chosen one. I don’t have time for a flame war, and when I say something nasty, it reflects badly on me. (Publishing is an incestuous little business, too. What one says WILL get around.) Sometimes I choose to say something controversial, like when I’m talking about my politics, my religion, or a Mel Gibson snuff film. I make no bones about having opinions, I’m human. I think long and hard before posting my opinions, but the idea of disagreement doesn’t stop me.

Still, when it comes to reviews of my work, I just shut up. Period. I used to say “thanks” and link to positive reviews, a while ago. Then I really thought about it, and decided to cut that out.

The trouble with responding to any reviews, even just the positive ones, is that it makes it much more likely you will respond to a negative or critical review. And when you’re talking about something as personal as your writing, that “response” can quickly turn into a sucking hole of Internet fail that makes you look like a crazy person. (Remember Anne Rice’s Amazon meltdown?) The chances of getting into a flamewar or touching off an Internet sh!tstorm go up exponentially the moment one starts responding AT ALL to reviews, positive or negative. There is no shortage of Internet sh!tstorm-age. We don’t really need more.

You’ll notice, please, that I don’t say I don’t read reviews, both positive and negative. I do. I read Amazon reviews (sometimes, when I’m fairly sure I’m calm and balanced) and I keep a watch on my Google mentions just like anyone else. If more than three or four reviewers say the same thing about a craft aspect of a book, I’m likely to do some hard thinking and take it under advisement. I’m not stupid, and I listen to my readers.

But responding is a different slice of cake entirely. Even a “thank you” to the positive reviews tempts me to answer the negative reviews. That is a temptation I do not need. Some healthy, balanced, sane and sober people can say “thank you” to even a negative screed and move on. I doubt I am one of those blessed few, so I avoid the temptation and am happier all around.

Sometimes, when a lot of readers note something, I will quietly address it. But I will not talk about reviews online[1]. I’d rather concentrate on writing.

Here is an example. (Yes, I am about to break this rule, sort of, in the interests of education.) Sometimes, some reviewers take issue with my characters making certain choices in stressful situations. “I would NEVER do that, therefore X shouldn’t and Saintcrow is a horrible writer for making him/her!” I often would like to point out that I’ve made intensive study of psychological deconstruction under stress (mostly to understand some of my own lingering trauma, but also because the process fascinates me) and sometimes my characters’ reactions are that: deconstruction under stress in a particular way. Breaking a character along a fault line they’ve had all along is part of what jazzes me about being a writer.

Now, noting this in the interests of education is one thing. But to link to particular reviews and take it point by point? Danger, Will Robinson! This is treading close to the line of “taking it personally”–that magical event horizon where measured, reasoned response can degenerate into attack, flamewar, and complete and utter epic fail.

Do I have time for that? No. So I accept it as one of those things, where I as an author have not reached a particular reader. There’s nine billion people in the world. I am not going to please every single one of them, and due to the vagaries and the imperfect nature of communication, I am not ever even going to reach a significant percentage of them without some distortion and message-loss.

Nothing’s perfect.

There are authors who manage to respond gracefully to all kinds of reviews, and they have my undying admiration. I am not one of them. I listen, certainly, but I know myself. The risk of getting into an insult-slinging match is just too high, and part of being an adult is learning to shut your yap rather than make things worse. I’m not perfect at that, either, but having a rule about never responding in public to reviews at least ensures I don’t shoot myself in the foot. (Much. Over reviews, at least. I still manage to damage myself in other ways. I’m cool like that.)

I see some writers getting into flamewars and taking reviews utterly personally. Sometimes I just want to grab them and sit them down and make them tea and say, “Honey, just cut it out. Focus on the writing and back away from the forums and chatrooms. Yes, the Internet is a great tool for helping your readers feel a connection with you. But don’t let it get personal, because the Internet never forgets and rarely forgives. Just chill, drink some tea, knit a few rows, or go shopping. Do something else and don’t respond to this stuff. Life is too short, it will make you too tired, and you should really be spending this time writing, anyway.”

But who would listen to that?

[1] Now, sometimes I’ll moan about reviews over drinks with the Selkie. But that’s different, honest. If you can’t bitch with your beta, who can you bitch with?