Susanne Dunlap

Sticks and Stones

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2011 at 10:47 am

Yesterday I stumbled into a news item about a legal scholar in Israel who was suing someone in the French Courts (a German) who gave her book a less than positive review. Wow. The upshot was that she’s probably done more damage to her case by bringing the suit than by just letting it go, but it raises the issue in a very dramatic way about negative reviews and how authors respond to them.

First, full disclosure: not only have I had my share of those—thankfully outweighed by positive ones—but recently someone decided to lacerate my adult book published in 2007, Liszt’s Kiss, in a lengthy blog that tore apart just about every aspect of the book. I skimmed the article, but what I found most disturbing was the “reviewer’s” accusations about historical inaccuracy. She called me on things I knew were actually correct.

So what do authors do when faced with negative, nasty reviews?

If they’re on the big pre-release sites (Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal), basically you just suck it up and figure it’s one person’s opinion. Which it is. No book is ever going to appeal to everyone equally strongly, or even at all. I’m not a huge fan of Jonathan Franzen, even though I recognize his writing skill, but a lot of people disagree with me about that.

The trouble is that nowadays, everyone on the Internet who reads and has an opinion can make that opinion public. This is in many ways a good and helpful thing. I love the many book blogs out there (I’ve been treated very well lately by The Book Pixie, for instance) where passionate readers share their explorations. By and large, the main bloggers treat authors with respect, and don’t bother to review/feature books that they think are substandard. Silence can be deadly to an author, but far less hurtful.

In the Shadow of the Lamp

Coming April, 2011

I have heard many stories from author friends who have experienced bitter criticisms from readers who just decide to trash someone’s books, whatever the reason. That, to me, is cowardly. It’s akin to cyber-bullying, saying horrible things about someone you never have to face and with no consequences. What people who delight in this kind of criticism don’t realize is that once something’s on the Internet, it stays there. And writing a book, going through the many hoops to get it published, and sending it out into the world is hard, hard work. All authors deserve respect and consideration for managing it, even if what they’ve produced is not to your taste.

I spent some time reviewing books for the Historical Novels Review. I quickly learned to volunteer only for those books that had a fair chance of being my cup of tea. Why? Because I know that just because I don’t care for inspirational fiction doesn’t mean there aren’t readers out there who love it. Just because I’m not versed in the requirements of certain genres doesn’t mean that the readership of those genres aren’t waiting with bated breath for another example to come out.

Reviewers should be honest. Otherwise there’s no point in a review. But also, reviewers should be aware of the weight their words carry. A panning review, although fun to write, doesn’t really serve the reader, and it certainly makes it difficult for the author to connect with readers who might really disagree with that one person’s assessment if they got past the review and read the book anyway. As a reviewer, I always try to say something positive about a book. There invariably is something positive to say: the book wouldn’t have made it past the gatekeepers of the publishing world if it didn’t have some merit. And then, I also try to say what kind of reader might enjoy the book. If I loved it, I have no trouble waxing lyrical with praise.

These things are on my mind lately as I wait for the first major reviews of my next novel, In the Shadow of the Lamp, to come out. I’ve had some fabulous early feedback from teen bloggers, but a lot of chains and libraries wait for the big reviews to come out before making purchase decisions. And that’s the crux of the matter: Reviews are one of the few avenues of publicity open to book authors. The primary publicity a publisher engages in is sending out ARCs for review.

This is all nothing new. Ever since Amazon started allowing people to rate and review books, there have been issues with nasty reviews. But in the spirit of trying to keep the generosity going with the book world, here’s a list of wonderful books I think everyone should read:

  • Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt
  • Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell
  • Father of the Rain by Lily King
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • The Tudor Secret by C. W. Gortner
  • Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland

And I’m sure there are tons more I’ve read recently that I should include. I’ll add to the list in comments!

So, happy reading. Happy reviewing. Just remember that it isn’t true about sticks and stones: words do hurt, so if you’re going to write something negative, be sure it’s worth the pain it will inflict.

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  1. I do review books I read, and it’s nearly always possible to find positive things to say. It’s prudent and honest to come out with irking errors and blatant omissions, however, or there might be no point to the exercise.
    To damn with faint praise is always annoying to the author, and always a danger a reviewer risks. Perhaps it is better to say nothing, sometimes. And sometimes, an apparently harsh critique might save a discerning reader from a disastrous purchase.
    There are also those rough and ready reviews that tear strips off a fairly creditable effort… and go on to make that book an object of curiosity or notoriety, if it happens a few times.
    Some authors out there might bless the twenty odd bad reviews that made their novel the object of many train, lunch and phone discussions.

    • All very good points, Rosanne, and I don’t disagree at all. Reviews have to be meaningful, and yes, indeed, a variety of responses to a book can stimulate discussion and ultimately purchase. What I’m talking about are the absolute slams, the people who appear to take delight in saying really awful things and trashing the sincere efforts of an author. Those aren’t usually very helpful. Perhaps the one exception is a negative, scathing review in the New York Times. I’d actually prefer that to none at all! (Which, as an author of young adult historical fiction, is more likely to be my fate for any book I write.)

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Susanne Dunlap, DeAnna Cameron. DeAnna Cameron said: RT @Susanne_Dunlap: Sticks and Stones http://wp.me/pXMXc-5i […]

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