Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

On the Opinion that Authors Should Not Respond to Reviews

In which I list good reasons why authors shouldn’t, two reasons why I wish they would, and I admit to an excess of selfishness.

There is a prevailing opinion among authors and others in the literary community that asserts that authors should not respond to reviews.

This is certainly an understandable contention, for several reasons.

1. Authors have limited time to begin with, and responding to every review would take way too long.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. As a reader, I’d rather an author spend her/his time writing another novel, improving their craft, or simple working up a great piece of entertainment. I’d rather they spent their time completing interviews to explain their novel, writing essays on the writing craft, or whatever it pleases them to do with their talent.

2. Responses to trolls will get nowhere.

Due to the anonymous nature of the internet, people can really let opinions fly without regard for who they hurt. (I have made this mistake, and that is why I make sure my name is there for all the world to see – if I act as a troll, at least people know the name of the person who is such an idjit.) Any author’s defense of their work to a troll – like that guy/gal who really, really hates Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson – will go nowhere, as that person does not want discussion, they just want to vent and the author is their chosen target. Perhaps their criticisms may be justified or even correct, but responding to “trolls” (usually anonymous, uncivil, and totally unyielding) isn’t worth the frustration. Justine Larbalestier eloquently points out that responding to “bad reviews” will get you nowhere. And she develops this argument in a subsequent post (with good quotes and links to others).

3. In some cases, it might be the wrong forum.

Just like those “authors” who get friends to write positive reviews on Amazon just to climb up the rankings (though I believe this is less effective now due to the new ranking system) so too would writing a response in the review section of your book be completely the wrong forum. This does not mean that an author could not take a negative review, excerpt it at their blog or website and then respond to it, but doing so at Amazon is probably the wrong forum. As evidence, I point to this lengthy and interesting post on someone who did just that in June of 2009.

4. Reviews are for readers, not for writers.

While writers may choose to use reviews to help them improve, ultimately, a review is meant for readers, as a help for them to decide whether to read a book or not. Since this is the intent or most reviews (we are not talking about critical analysis here, which is a whole different ball of wax), any author response can seem out of place.

5. The reviewer (or commenters) may misunderstand your response.

A written response does not always convey what you really meant to say. Verbal dialogue works best for the learning of literature (in the sense of thinking beyond your own preconceptions about a work). Since literature is subjective, a good face-to-face dialogue (where facial cues and body language can help a lot) is always preferable, in my opinion. This is not to say it cannot be done in written format, but it is certainly more difficult. And why would an author want to go to that hassle? Even if s/he does, as Philip Roth once did, it may not even be worth posting the response anyway, at least initially.

There are likely other reasons. These are the ones I have most often encountered. (If you have or know of others, please do leave them in the comments.)

I totally understand and agree with all these reasons NOT to respond to reviews.

BUT, I’m also disappointed that they don’t, and wish they would for two reasons:

1. Reviewers want to dialogue (though what they really want is #2).

Part of the joy of reviewing, for me, is the dialogue (both public and private) that I have had on occasion with authors. Literature, being a subjective discipline, is all about learning from one another, having differing opinions, learning and learning from those who would a point of view different from my own. In that same Philip Roth article above Harper’s contributing editor Wyatt Mason prefaces the posting of Roth’s letter by saying “Well, my sense remains that not only can one dispute taste without sounding defensive but, when driven to it by what one deems critical stupidity, one must. Not, of course, to the end of proving that one’s creative enterprise should be liked; rather, to the end of suggesting, to other readers of an unappreciative review, that the critic’s argument was misleading—a suggestion best made through a public, well-reasoned, well-argued rebuttal.”

Part of the reason I review science fiction and fantasy is because I want to dialogue about these books, as the American subculture which is a major part of my physical reality does not have very many readers of my favorite genre (or at least none that will out themselves to me). So I turned to the internet as an outlet for discussion the latest and greatest happenings in my favorite genre.

I want to have good dialogue like what happened a few years ago at Nethspace when the blogger talked about how he could not finish Carole McDonnell’s Wind Follower. At the first, the dialogue was great, talking about African-American fiction, the historical roots of the work, and the use of rape in fantasy. This early part of the conversation was what lovers of literature should be talking about. Sadly, a good conversation got a little snarky, and so it pretty much ended, as the commenters did not rise to the bait. This sparked a similar discussion to this essay, many bloggers and authors talking about this self-same topic.

But that early discussion was interesting to read and great learning opportunity for me (I had just really gotten going on this whole reviewing thing at the time). I learned a lot about my preconceptions and used that to question some of my thought processes and reviewing methods. Shouldn’t literature and its ensuing discussion do that?

Of course, that dialogue can occur without the authors. It is certainly not necessary for them to chime in at all. I think doing so gives the whole discussion a unique perspective that can be found nowhere else, but good conversation can (obviously) be had without an author.

Ultimately, I would like to see some authors taking the opportunity to train some of us reviewers by responding to our reviews. Yes, many of us are amateurs. Yes, you may not know us personally and so shouldn’t care (a la Scalzi). And yes, it might be a total waste of effort. But as a reviewer, I can tell you I crave it. I want to hear from you, even if all you do is say thank you (comments or private email). I really, really, really want to dialogue with you about what you liked or didn’t about my commentary. I want to be taught by those who are most likely smarter, skilled, and talented than I.

I’m being selfish, I know. I’m sorry. I know you have more important things to do. I know that asking for authors to respond to reviews is more about me needing validation than about any real desire for discussion. Yeah, let’s get it out there; let’s talk about the real reason reviewers want authors to respond.

2. Validation

The real reason that reviewers care so much about author responses is that we are seeking validation from you. It may be negative, it may be positive, but it sure does make us feel like we are important for a couple of seconds, an hour, or even a day. “Brandon Sanderson linked to my review of The Gathering Storm, he must like me!” Well, no, he doesn’t really even know who I am, but the link to my review made it round the internet and he decided to link to it on his blog. I felt validated. On another occasion, several contributors to an anthology I reviewed came by and said thanks in the comments. This was good marketing by the small press who published the novel, but it also made me feel good that day.

I think that is the real reason why so many reviewers want authors to respond to their reviews. We want that high we get that “an author I like/dislike noticed me! I have importance!”

When I began writing this essay, I wanted to make the argument that authors should respond to reviews. But now that I think more and more about that second reason why I want authors to respond to my reviews, I see more and more just how selfish and self-involved I am being. Sure, I like validation as much as the next guy, but if the act of reviewing isn’t enough for me, maybe I should get out of this gig. That I could be so self-absorbed and/or needy that I think an author should respond just to make me feel good is horrible. I’m sorry, authors, for even thinking I should argue that you should respond to reviews. I’d like to get the literary discussions going, and I would like to get validation, but I get it now. I get how selfish I am, and how you have gently tried to avoid calling me out on it by giving rational reasons for not responding to reviews.

Please do whatever you wish and I promise that I will be grateful for the responses I do get, enjoy any literary discussion or learning that may ensue, and look for my reviewing validation in more important things, such as the act of creating the review itself.