In every industry, customer feedback is used to improve products and services. Likewise, if we authors don't read our reviews, we can not improve our product. That said, a piece of creative writing is not the same as an engine part, or a sofa, or a coffee maker, for whilst the inventor of a new and innovative product might well pour their heart and soul into it, the end product that we buy off the production line is tried, tested and far removed from that initial creative endeavour. A bad review for a vacuum cleaner, for instance ("this vacuum cleaner sucks - unfortunately not in the literal sense"), is unlikely to cause upset to the manufacturer in the same way that a bad review of a book might upset the author.
There are, of course, those authors who do create 'product'. They've figured out a market place, a formula, a target readership, and they approach writing in the same systematic way as any other manufacturing process. Perhaps for this kind of author, the less positive reviews are not so emotionally difficult to cope with, in the sense that they can say "I need to change that in the next batch" and file it away.
But many authors do not create 'product'. Each work is a crafted, unique piece of art. It is an extension of the author, and thus, when a reviewer critiques that work, they are also critiquing the author. No matter how objective or impersonal the reviewer tries to be, it is still personal to the author. And that's the bit that hurts, or equally, with the good reviews, makes us sing and dance with joy.
When it came to the first reviews for my most recent novel, Crying in the Rain, the initial reviews were mostly just what every author wants to see, and even those that were not especially to my liking were still fair. For instance, one reviewer didn't like my writing style, and I'm sad about that, but it's OK. We're all different. I know other readers do like it, and there are other stories out there more to that particular reader's tastes, so neither of us really lose out. What I found more intriguing was the way in which the characters and their lifestyle were received, and again, this kind of criticism is really about a difference of opinion, but it's also rather complimentary, in that the characters have had sufficient impact on the reader for them to experience an emotion (albeit disdain) towards them.
And then there are the reviews that are, quite simply, unacceptable.
If you're about to argue for freedom of speech, then bring it on. I absolutely agree. However, there are terms to describe the kind of freedom of speech that some reviewers exercise: slander, libel and defamation.
To illustrate this point, and because this review angered me enough to break the months of silence I have endured in the name of professionalism, I'm going to use a two-star review of Checking Him Out.
The review in full (I'll add the [sic] here to cover all of the errors):
I would not have bought this if it hadn't been free, I probably would have tried the preview realized how amateur the writing was and given it a miss. I'm only giving it two stars rather than one because I didn't have to pay for it. I read farther than I should have any only gave up at a point half way through the books when the couple is arguing about the GPS navigation, and I just didn't understand the argument/joke. I tried re-reading that part 3 times. This book needs a lot of research, restructuring and a good editor. Many of the assumptions made are just insulting, such as engineers are more homophobic than other professions. There are a lot of insulting side comments, including one about having a female engineer. I hate the way the (ex)wife becomes an instant bitch. The author seems to know next to nothing about what's involved to get a divorce in MA, find a job in academia, or hold down a job.
Breaking it down:
I would not have bought this if it hadn't been free, I probably would have tried the preview realized how amateur the writing was and given it a miss. I'm only giving it two stars rather than one because I didn't have to pay for it.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I can't really argue with that, although I'd have read a lot less than 30,000 words if I'd hated it as much as this reviewer seems to. That said, I would be interested to know the specific premise on which this writing is adjudged to be "amateur".
In the Cambridge Dictionary (British English), amateur is defined in several ways:
taking part in an activity for pleasure, not as a job
I write for both pleasure and as a job, so I suppose I am, in this respect, fifty percent amateur. However, I suspect the reviewer was working from this definition:
someone who does not have much skill in what they do
Again, we are all entitled to an opinion. I have credentials I could wave around (and will later), but creative writing, and its appreciation (or lack thereof) is an entirely subjective perspective, so I'll let that one pass. For now.
I read farther than I should have any only gave up at a point half way through the books when the couple is arguing about the GPS navigation, and I just didn't understand the argument/joke. I tried re-reading that part 3 times.
And this is the author's fault in what way? None, that I can think of. Moving on.
This book needs a lot of research,
This book had a lot of research, thank you very much, as I will demonstrate in due course.
Nope. The structure is deliberate, and just because you don't like it doesn't mean it needs restructuring.
See, there are these things called narrative devices that we authors like to deploy. For example, there are two main characters in Checking Him Out: Sol, who is hesitant, restrained and overthinks, and Adam, who is impatient and impulsive. A discerning reader might observe that the narrative flow varies according to how much influence Adam has over Sol.
I'm not claiming it's flawless. I'm merely presenting one of many pieces of evidence I could bring forth for your consideration.
and a good editor.
Yes, well I'll thank you on behalf of my editor and the sixteen other people involved in publishing this story, because you've just insulted their work too.
Many of the assumptions made are just insulting, such as engineers are more homophobic than other professions.
Oh, I could tell you a story or three, but it would involve outing engineers that I know wouldn't take too kindly to me doing that, because they work in a homophobic profession. It IS more homophobic than many other professions. This is not assumption, this is social scientific fact.
There are a lot of insulting side comments, including one about having a female engineer.
Likewise, engineering is a sexist profession, or are you referring to the first-person point of view that would make any sexism a character trait as opposed to one possessed by the author? Either way, the issue remains the same: the main character is an engineer; engineering is a sexist profession. Dear sweet reviewer, if you are going to degrade my work on the premise of lack of research DO YOUR OWN DAMNED RESEARCH FIRST! Oh, and incidentally, my first class degree in social science comes complete with a specialism in gender and sexual politics.
I hate the way the (ex)wife becomes an instant bitch.
And look now who's being sexist! A strong woman who stand up for her rights is instantly a bitch. I'm done arguing this point. It's boring.
The author seems to know next to nothing about what's involved to get a divorce in MA...
And this, darling reviewer, is where you irked me sufficiently to provoke this blog post by way of responding to your slanderous attack.
I present for your information, and in no small part to relieve you of your ignorance, Massachusetts divorce law (which, incidentally, I read as part of my research during the process of writing the book):
"Fault" grounds for divorce:
There are 7 "fault" grounds for divorce. With a "fault" grounds, one spouse files for the divorce and blames the other spouse for the end of the marriage. Although there are several fault grounds, "cruel and abusive treatment" is the one that survivors of domestic violence use the most.
You can ask for a hearing 21 days after the sheriff or constable serves your spouse with the Domestic Relations Summons and the Complaint for Divorce. You can get the divorce even if your spouse does not show up for the hearing. After the judge hears your case, the court issues a Judgment of Divorce Nisi. The divorce becomes final 90 days after Judgment of Divorce Nisi.
According to MA law, adultery is "fault" grounds for divorce.
Sol and Elise were divorced after three months because Sol committed adultery. No further argument.
Oh, just one - I had a beta-reader from Boston, who went through a divorce in Boston. It's safe to say that between my research and his reading of the text this has been checked to ensure it accurately depicts a divorce scenario that could happen in Boston, MA.
[The author seems to know next to nothing about what's involved to] find a job in academia, or hold down a job.
I work in academia. I have been a university lecturer for 15 years.
But thanks for your opinion, because it finally convinced me to do what all authors should do, and that is to face up to their bullies.
I refuse to remain silent just because it is deemed 'unprofessional' to respond to reviewers' attacks, which ultimately is what reviews like this are.
I refuse to be bullied and I too will exercise my freedom of speech. If you attack me, I will defend myself. Because I am, just like every other author out there, a person capable of being hurt both emotionally and financially by hateful words of reviewers who refuse to take responsibility for their actions.