When the authors weigh in

It’s always interesting to see how people respond to criticism, constructive or otherwise. Some authors who feel stung publicly blast reviews of their work. Or you could be like Michael Crichton, who has set the book blogging world abuzz. Reportedly, his new book gives a child rapist with a small penis the same name as someone who wrote an article critical of Crichton’s views on global warming, views that were expressed in his last book. I, too, occasionally hear from authors after reviewing their work. While some aren’t happy, none have gone to the those extremes. In fact, I’ve found most are at least as fair and honest as I try to be in reading and reviewing their work.

For example, a relatively recent review was posted verbatim on the author’s blog. One of his introductory comments? “I thought it was fair and honest and I can’t ask for more than that.” Likewise, about a year and a half ago, an author posted a comment on a brief (five paragraph) somewhat critical review I did of his book. His opening comment: “Can’t say as I disagree with much the ‘review’ has to offer.”

Others are appreciative of the time I take to read and review their work. One author e-mailed me earlier this year saying she appreciated my “open-mindedness. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to read my book.” Other authors don’t respond directly to a review. They simply add you to their e-mail lists after the review has appeared.

Then there’s the authors who get a mixed bag. One author started sending me various e-mails following a favorable review of one of this books. When I didn’t view his next one quite as favorably and both my review and subsequent e-mail to him with the hyperlinks to the review indicated I thought it was a weaker effort, he didn’t say a word. Yet I still continue to receive occasional personal e-mails from him on various subjects that are as friendly as they were before the more negative review.

Of course, there’s also those authors who strongly disagree. Here’s the core of an e-mail I got several months ago from one author:

You did . . . mention the dialogue, which in your judgment was “contrived and unnatural.” Actually, the dialogue was quite engaging and thought provoking. At least this is what I’ve been told by several published authors whose opinions I respect. But you’re a second-shelf reviewer and not a published author, are you, Tim? But I bet you’d like to be.

Perhaps one day you will be. In the meantime you should be a little more generous to your fellow writers. What goes around comes around. I, too, have written book reviews. And even if I hate a particular book, or think it’s substandard, I always give the author one or two lines that he can use in a blurb for publicity — especially if his book comes from a progressive or independent press.

My response was simple. I told the author I was sorry the review offended him but that I gave my honest opinion about the book. I also told him I had no problem being “a second-shelf reviewer” if making the top shelf meant that “the quid pro quo for accepting a book for review is not to give your true opinion but to provide ‘a blurb for publicity.'” I actually thought long and and hard before responding. There was so much more I wanted to say, including certain criticisms that didn’t make it into the review. I thought it best to simply address the core issue — whether I owed the author anything more than my honest assessment of his book.

But I’m not offended by his criticisms or anyone else’s. My opinion of a book is simply that — my opinion. Take it for what it’s worth, which probably is not be a heckuva lot. Besides, if you’re going to hold your writing out for public view (even on a blog), you gotta expect some people may not like it. While I don’t recall where I first read it, I’ve remembered an adage for decades. Even if someone says they hate what you’ve produced, they have at least acknowledged your existence.

The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.

William Faulkner, interview in Writers at Work, First Series

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