To Rip or Not to Rip by Jeffrey S. Savage
No, I’m not talking about tearing up those rejection letters. (Which I am totally fine with, BTW.) Or the latest cute baby video making the rounds. (And this is definitely not me engaging in a chance to slip some potty humor by LDSPublisher.)
What I’m talking about is whether or not you feel it is appropriate as an author to post negative reviews of other authors’ books. Most people have a knee jerk reaction to this one way or the other. “I would never post a negative review of another author’s book. What If they read it?” Or “Wait, are you suggesting that I should say I like a book when I really don’t, just because I’m an author too?
It would be nice if it was that black and white. You read a book, you like it, you tell people. You read a book, you hate it, you tell people. That’s the way it works in real life. And it’s actually a pretty good process. Regardless of whether we’re talking about e-book, hardbacks, traditionally pubbed, or self-pubbed works, I still believe that word of mouth is what turns a good book into a bestseller.
Why shouldn’t that translate to the internet?
Becca Fitzpatrick, author of Hush Hush, wrote an interesting post about a situation where an up and coming author wrote a scathing review not only of Hush Hush, but of many other YA books. Later when this author was looking for cover blurbs, her editor approached Becca and asked for a blurb. Hmmm. Awkward to say the least. I liked this comment by Becca.
“You might think I turned down reading the manuscript out of revenge or to give the author the finger, so to speak. I hope I'm not that petty. The reason I decided not to read the manuscript was because I wondered what would happen if I did read it...and loved it. What if I sent the editor a handful of glowing words, and she decided to stick them on the front cover of her author's book? Would the author love having my praise splashed on her cover? Probably not. In the end, I decided to take the higher road and let the author breathe easy. (It didn't slip my mind that the ultimate revenge would have been making sure my name got on the cover of her book. But again. Higher road. Always the better path.)”
The ultimate revenge line totally cracked me up. That would be the ultimate revenge.
I’ve had a similar experience, where a would-be author savaged (pun semi-intentional) my first Farworld novel. He didn’t just dislike it. He loathed it. It was horrible writing combined with a complete rip off of Harry Potter. Normally I ignore bad reviews. But this guy just seemed to hate me personally. Enough so, that I did some research and discovered that he was an attendee at a conference I was speaking at. I seriously wanted to trash the guy. Instead, I introduced myself, explained that I’d read his review and wanted to know what he hated so much. It turned out that we had a pretty good discussion and we’ve since become friends.
But the truth of the matter, as Becca explained, is that the writing world is so small. If you’re going to become part of it, there is every chance that you’ll eventually run into authors you have read before. And the thing that makes the internet different from talking to a friend is that your words to your friend don’t pop up on the author’s Google Alerts. More than likely within an hour of this blog post going up, Becca will get an e-mail. It will be a direct link to what I have written. Becca will go, “Hmm, wonder what this dude is saying about me and she will come read this.” (Hi Becca!!) A lot of people don’t consider the fact that authors are real people. Who have heard of the internet. And most of us read our reviews.
In addition, even if I decide I don’t like what I wrote and delete it down the road, the internet is a tricky beast. It stores caches of things. You think your words are gone, but they really aren’t. So down the road when you are looking for help from another author, that author can Google and see all the snarky things you said about them.
So, am I saying you should only write good things about other authors, even if you didn’t like their work? Should you say wonderful things and hope they remember you down the road? Unlike a lot of authors, I LOVE Goodreads. If someone hates my book, I really want to know what didn’t work for them. If they liked it, I want to know that too. I hate looking at a book on Amazon that only has six reviews. All of them are five stars, and none of the reviewers have posted another review. It tells me this author got a bunch of his friends together and begged them to give him good reviews. I personally would rather have no reviews than people giving me five stars because they were my friends.
And as authors we should be the most discriminating readers there are. Because we can look behind the curtain at what the author did and didn’t do to make his or her book work. I’ll admit that when I finished reading Hush Hush, I had mixed emotions. (You’ve stopped reading now Becca, right?) Her prose was excellent—especially for a first book. Really well done. Her plot was gripping. Now maybe this is just the dad in me, but some parts of the story made me really uncomfortable. Becca did a great job of walking the fine line between sexual tension and having her main character courting death, rape, and a lot of other bad stuff. If my daughter acted like that, I would lock her in her room until she was forty. So it wasn’t necessarily a perfect read for me.
But here’s the thing. As a forty-eight year old guy, I am not Becca’s target audience. If I go out and rip this book, I’m ignoring the fact that it probably wasn’t intended for me to like. And while I don’t know Becca personally, my guess is that she wouldn’t have a problem with me saying that this isn’t the greatest book for dads of teenage girls. Lu Ann, a Junior High English teacher and fellow writer, loved the book. (She has no daughters by the way.)
Shannon Hale, another LDS writer who I do happen to know personally wrote a good blog post about reading as a writer.
She says, “Reading as a writer changed me completely as a reader. I find I can still appreciate books I dislike because I am learning through them how to write stories I do like.”
That’s pretty close to where I stand. It’s easy to say, “This book stinks!” And maybe to you it does. But if you have aspirations of becoming a published author yourself, you are a lot better off to ask yourself, “What was it about this book—which I may not have liked—that got it past an agent, an editor, a publishing committee, and ultimately into the hands of a lot of readers that did like it?”
I’m not saying don’t write negative reviews. Speaking only for myself, I want to hear what people did and didn’t like about my books. I’m willing to live with some pain to improve my writing. What I hate is one star reviews with no comment at all. Or something like, “Blech.” Blech? Really? You just spent ten hours reading my novel and all you have to offer is Blech? Grrr. But I will say that before you write a less than glowing review, think about what worked and didn’t work for you and why it did and didn’t. A while back, a very nice woman blogged about how Water Keep didn’t have the same character depth as Elantris. Of course it didn’t. One is a middle grade novel aimed at nine-year-olds and the other is epic fantasy aimed at adults who read 800 page tomes.
She was right. But my point is that if you’re going to complain about how a middle grade book doesn’t have the depth of an epic fantasy, consider who the audience is. Consider what the author was going for. Then when you do write a review, you can write a fair review that explains what you liked, what you didn’t like, and why that might have been. I think most authors appreciate an honest review. And if you really hate the book that a lot of people like, maybe you aren’t the best judge of it at after all.
How do you feel? As an author would you be offended if another author ripped your book? If you hate a book by an author you might meet one day, how do you handle it?