I must admit this week I read the story of Jacqueline Howlett's online meltdown (over a bad review of her book) with mixed feelings. (You can read about it, and handling reviews in general, here. For those who want the source material, it's here, but be warned, it's not pretty). It was kind of funny, and yes, it showed spectacularly bad judgement on her part. It went viral with the speed that only these things can, and an awful lot more people now know about her book than would have done had she not attempted to mount a reasoned defence of her work (albeit it one that quickly degenerated into mudslinging). Whether they'll want to buy it is another question (along with "Is it really true that any publicity is good publicity?").
But I actually feel a little sorry for Howlett. I understand why she responded to those reviews. Before I Go to Sleep is out there, now. Not released yet, but there are advanced reader copies doing the rounds. It's public property. People are having an opinion, and some of those people are posting their opinion on their blogs and on review sites.
And I'm reading them. I can't help it. It's my baby. I conceived it, raised it, nurtured it, sent it to school with a lunch box, helped it to do its homework and stood by with tissues when it was dumped by its first girlfriend (OK OK I've taken the childrearing metaphor too far...) But now it's off, on its own. Not my property any more. I'm anxious to know what people think.
Mostly I've been happy. Mostly I've been absolutely delighted in fact. But there have been a few people who haven't been quite so gushing. Some have just said 'It's not really my cup of tea', and they're easy to cope with. That's fair enough. (In fact I like to think of a line of Emo Phillips about playing to middle-class audiences in Edinburgh - he said he enjoyed it because if they don't enjoy his show they blame themselves for making a poor entertainment choice. 'If I'm rubbish, never mind,' he said. 'You'll do better next time.')
But there are those who identify what they see as flaws and weaknesses. And yes, the temptation as an author is to respond. To say, Actually, I did that deliberately. Or to say Well, no one else thinks that scene doesn't work, so you're very much on your own there. Or to point out that such-and-such a character would say that, or do this, or whatever, and you should know, because you invented them.
Before the internet these rights-of-reply weren't available, or weren't so easy at least. I imagine that if Jacqueline Howlett had had to find a pen and some paper, or load a ribbon into her typewriter, and then compose a response before finding the correct address and an envelope and stamp, she'd have cooled down enough by the end of it to not post her letter at all. But now we can read a review and within two minutes we've typed and posted, publicly no less, our ire. And, has been proven again this week, it would be a mistake. At best you look petty and insecure, at worst it makes the book look as though it doesn't work unless the author is on standby to explain what he or she meant at any given point. Howlett has been rounded on by hordes of readers, all keen to shoot her down (and to be fair, they probably have a point - her final comments towards her reviewer were childish and offensive). I imagine she's feeling pretty rotten right now though, in a sort of Oh-no-what-on-earth-did-I-do-last-night-kind-of-way (unless she really does have such enormous self belief in her writing that she continues to feel her response was justified). Surely she didn't ask for this.
So, I guess the take home message from this is that it's probably better to keep our mouth shut. Just because the right of reply is there, that doesn't mean we should use it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and the internet means that everyone can now share theirs with the world. But, just because we can, that doesn't mean we should answer back. We want people to judge the work, not the author, and it has to speak for itself, no matter how tempting it might be to intervene. Wading into a public forum, and directly challenging a reviewer (who is, after all, entitled to their opinion) immediately removes the distance between the work and the author, and put the focus on the latter.
In any case, how can we expect to please everyone, all the time, and for everyone to get every little subtlety in our writing? We can't, and when people don't get it, don't like it, or both, we have to take it on the chin.
Or maybe not read reviews at all?