Authors vs. Critics — Round One, FFFFight!

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Sorry about the recent posting rate. It has been teh infrequent. This is not the shape of things to come. The shape of things to come is more about giant global ant colonies.

Now for an off-topic post, because I feel like I have to say something about the completely mental interactions that are going on between authors and critics online right now. Like between Alice Hoffman and the Boston Globe, or between Alain de Botton and Caleb Crain — “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make,” — and also this blogger. (On a side note, I went to college with Caleb Crain. Hey man.)

Obviously reviewers and writers didn’t used to be able to interact like this — this easily and this publicly. Suddenly they can, and nobody has any idea how to do it. It’s like they used to go out, then broke up messily, then somebody forgot and invited them both to the same party. That party being the Internet. Awkward!

Weirdly, as a writer/reviewer/blogger I can identify with both sides of these conversations. (In retrospect the wisdom of multiclassing in this way seems questionable, but too late.) I’ve been on both sides. I have written some things about other people’s books that, had they been written about my book, I would never forgive until I died. I know this because other people have in fact written things this bad about my books. (I tried to find Newsday‘s review of my novel Codex from 2004 to link to, but thankfully it’s not online. Well, just go to the Amazon reviews, you’ll find everything you need.)

Getting panned (scroll down) is such an incredibly personal, painful, rage-making experience, I can only compare it to taking a psychoactive drug. Your initial reaction is always to become completely demented with wrath. The only way I’ve figured out to deal with it is first a) to think about how little people care about what critics say, then b) to think about the fact that there are some people out there who don’t like Mrs. Dalloway and The Sun Also Rises and Brideshead Revisited, which means basically that it’s possible for any person to think anything about any book ever, which means that all reviewing is just ridiculously subjective. And c) to put a temporary hold on all public statements or gestures related to said review. Which is very difficult to do when you’re demented with wrath.

I write fewer pans than I used to. Readers actually egg you on to do it — you always get a bunch of fan mail after you seriously whale on someone — but unless the writer is sufficiently established that he or she can take the hit, with hit points to spare, it just feels mean. (I have a certain amount of luxury in this regard, since I’m a staff reviewer and can pick and choose a bit. Freelance reviewers who get assigned things don’t have it that easy.) Reviews have a much longer and more public life-span now than they used to, because of Google. Instead of fading away, they keep on affecting a book’s reputation for years. Anybody who wants to buy a copy of my new book on Amazon or has to get past the word ‘derivative,’ right up front, in the Publishers Weekly review. Possibly they always will. It didn’t used to work that way.

Plus, now that we have the Internet, people are just too close together. Everything feels personal. I have a suggestion for Amazon, and all makers of blogging software, and any other venue where people can publish book reviews online. When you click to post a review, a little pop-up box should come up. It should say, PLEASE BE ADVISED, UNLESS HE OR SHE IS DEAD OR A LUDDITE, THE AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK HAS A GOOGLE ALERT SET UP FOR HIM OR HERSELF AND HIS OR HER BOOK. DO NOT BE IN ANY DOUBT, THE AUTHOR WILL READ YOUR REVIEW, AND IF IT IS A PAN, THEY WILL FEEL BAD. ARE YOU STILL UP FOR THIS (Y/N)?

I don’t know if this would produce nicer reviews or meaner ones. But people would at least know what they’re getting into.