Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When Authors Attack

Should authors review another author's work? The question has been floating around for a while now, with no definitive consensus. As an author who originally opened my platform as a candid book reviewer, the issue haunts me on a regular basis. Should I write objective reviews for friends and acquaintances? Am I going to regret that snarky metaphor I used for describing how much mental anguish a particular plot point caused me? Will the next fellow author I meet secretly hate me because I happened to give one of their books a 3-star review? {The method to my personal book reviewing madness - LINK}

        In the end, I try not to sweat it. Why? Because a.) I make a careful point to be impartial and constructive with my reviews, while trying to avoid any personal battering of the author. b.) I fully embrace Edmund Wilson's poignant observation: “No two persons ever read the same book.” And c.) My opinions don't carry all that much weight. I don't say that as a result of my emaciated sense of self-worth--but rather in recognition of where I'm currently at in my career.

One day, when I (hopefully) have multiple published books under my belt, I'll have to reassess how I choose to throw around my theoretical authority. (Get it? Author-ity? Okay...this is probably why I'm still hanging out in pre-published land. >.> ) I think the point I'm meandering toward can be summed up with the old Spiderman adage: "With great power comes great responsibility."

For the last year or so I've been especially aware of how successful/long-established authors conduct themselves. And while some have impressed me with their humility and/or intrigued me with their attempts at a reclusive existence...I've also come across plenty of examples of authors who seem to have fallen into the trap of believing their own hype.         

Fact: Everybody's a critic. Some are just louder and more influential in that capacity.

Just last fall, RJ Ellory, the bestselling British crime writer, was called out for using pseudonyms to post flattering online reviews about his “magnificent genius,” while simultaneously criticizing his literary rivals. This sort of practice has been dubbed by some as 'sock puppeting,' and seems to be universally regarded as a tacky and underhanded means of self-promotion. I haven't seen anyone hesitate to condemn this as a classic 'author behaving badly' move.

More socially acceptable, however, is the tendency for popular/successful authors to participate in the verbal backhanding of another author. Now, being a member of the RWA, I may be a bit spoiled. In our guild there is a tremendous emphasis on cooperation and mutual support, along with the audacious idea that there's "room for all of us" in the wide world of publication. Authors are far more likely to cross-promote each other's work than they are to ever regard each other as competition (at least publicly). And so it really cracks my binding when I hear about authors attacking other authors.

Allow me to present a few examples:

*Nicholas Sparks, already known for fits of exorbitant self-esteem, recently took aim at a fellow author's work:

Cormac McCarthy? “Horrible,” Sparks says, looking at Blood Meridian. “This is probably the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs. Indians story ever written.”

It might just be my contrary nature, but I suddenly have the desire to read Blood Meridian...along with a nagging conviction to drop any and all of Sparks' books from my to-read list. >.>

* In one of her interviews, J.K. Rowling seemed to feel the need to both criticize and provide her own psychic interpretation of the intentions of a classic author (C.S. Lewis), who happens to be too dead to defend his works or otherwise complain:

"There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex," Rowling says. "I have a big problem with that."

But this isn't anything new. Author Phillip Pullman has launched numerous attacks on the long-deceased Lewis, that may or may not amount to expressions of professional jealousy. Pullman and Rowlings at least cater famously well to a very similar genre (Fantasy) and target audience age range (middle grade). But then there's the instance in which the indisputable master of adult horror fiction, Stephen King, decided to take a swipe at another highly successful author...

* “Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. … The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.” ― Stephen King

(And readers are eating up the pointed negativity. This is currently the 7th most popular quote by King, as listed on Goodreads.)

That one got my hackles up. And not because I'm some raging fan of the Twilight Saga (I liked them in their own right, hate on me if you so choose), but because I remember reading her books and identifying with her writing voice. What's more, I remember finding in her works the hope that someone like me might be able to one day attain publication.

Lets' just say, Mr. King deeply annoyed me that day. I still can't look at his picture without getting a little lipcurl-of-disdain. 

To be clear, I'm not knocking free speech. Pop-culture defining authors certainly have as much right to their viewpoints as anyone else. But I'm wondering at what point the judgments and opinions we all feel so entitled to may be crossing the line into lateral bullying. And I'm asserting now, ahead of time, that I don't want to be the kind of author who toes (or leaps headlong) over that line. Not even in the name of publicity.

So to all who know me personally, consider this an invitation to hold me accountable. If my authorial confidence ever looks to be running away with my rudimentary instincts for courtesy and respect, you have permission to ego-check me.

And to those of you who may be on the fence as to how you'd personally prefer to handle the evaluation of other people's work, I would submit to you The Golden Rule of a good critic: “Do not criticize what you have no taste for without great caution.”


P.S. I'm stepping down off my soapbox now.

Looking back through history, I actually found it to be commonplace for big-name authors to take petty swipes at each other. Mark Twain once famously said of Jane Austen:

"Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice,' I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

Okay, that was at least funny...and also implied the veiled compliment that he had read her work repeatedly. (Leave it to Twain to be entertaining, uncouth, and ingenious all in the same sentence.)  If you've hung with me this far, you might appreciate this article from the examiner: The 50 best author vs. author put-downs of all time - LINK

Now tell me what you think about authors sniping other authors? And can anyone come up with another profession where this sort of smack-talking peer review goes on as openly, aside from the following:

-Late Night Comedians



  1. Very entertaining and thought-provoking post, Angela.

    I was advised to follow the old adage of 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all' when it comes to reviews. Publishing is a small world, and even well-intentioned, constructive criticism can garner animosity. To be safe, I only post public reviews for works I really like and can give 4-5 stars, and privately advise friends about the ones that, IMHO, are stinkers.

    As far as other professions with trash talk, war trumps them all. If even some of these are true, hats off!

    1. Thanks so much, Dana! :)

      And bonus points to you for linking me to :D Even if I did go off on a rabbit trail through half a dozen of their articles. >.<

      Most authors I know do seem to follow that age-old advice I hear myself starting to repeat as a parent. "If you can't say anything nice..." Unfortunately, I'm not one of those people to whom 'nice' comes easily. Really, if I were following it more closely, I'd probably spend half my life as a mute. >.< Instead I've adopted a compromise of sorts: "If you must criticize, at least be constructive, and balance what you don't like with what you DO like."

      It's ill-advised, I'm sure. I keep hearing that one day I'll want to go back and delete all of the book reviews I've done that don't involve 4 or 5 stars... but the reality is, I can't. I wrote for a review magazine, under my actual name, and those reviews are forever immortalized on the internet. And as a book reviewer, my duty was to the readers, not the authors. That's a hard mindset to break.

      Ah, well. Playing it safe wasn't getting me anywhere. ^_^

    2. I think constructive criticism is the best. Otherwise how do any of us improve? I don't believe you have to tear down someone else just to give them a review.

  2. Even though I'm an author, I don't like giving reviews so much. I do on occasion, and even if a book isn't to my taste, I can recognize good writing. Now that I'm a narrator, I get attacked for my performances. It stings like a bad review of one of my books, but I remind myself that a. I brought the book to life the way I thought it should be, and b. my publisher's and the authors I work for, like my interpretation.
    Being in the business, I have a new appreciation for other people's work even if I didn't care for it. Everyone's doing their best and expressing themselves in their own way and that should be appreciated no matter what.

    1. Heyo, Kellie! :D Thanks for stopping by.

      I really appreciate your perspective--I hadn't even considered that audio narrators might be subject to the same sort of subjective criticism that a standard author faces. I guess this is just one of the pitfalls of anything that could be considered an art. It'll never be to everyone's taste, no matter who you are or how superbly you perform.

      I'm curious... Authors can sometimes find valid points they can improve upon in certain critiques and reviews. But is there really any possibility of that in terms of narration? Has anyone constructively made mention of something that's made you change anything about how you narrate? (Do they even mention anything you CAN change?)

    2. Actually, yes I have received some feedback I can use. One was with the quality of the recording. Even though it met standards to be distributed, we found that with the feedback we could improve on it and found a way to do so.
      In another review, I was rated for a poor performance of a book. While I try to make all the books "come alive", with that one comment I've made an effort to "act" more in all of my narration. With any job, I get better with time. I take a look at which books do get good reviews and with all the ones I have out, perhaps it's because of the content and I enjoy that type of book, it may come across sounding better. I don't intentionally not do a better job of some than others, however, the review made me think that for all genres I read, I could try to step up my game.

    3. That's quite interesting, Kellie. Thanks for the insight! :) I know next to nothing about the audio angle of publishing. I really need to change that. Might have to interview you about it some time! ;)

    4. Absolutely! You know where to find me ;)

  3. Angela,
    I love this blog--because it brings out very clearly--what you say in publishing--stays FOREVER.

    I like honest reviews of my book--good or bad from friends or people I don't know (even the faint sarcasm or snarky comment is ok.). But, I do think publically bashing another author because you dislike their writing for whatever reason is uncouth.

    I just say, "It's not my cup of tea." which is true--because we all like different things (thank goodness). But it also comes down to this--if I can't give it a very good review--I just don't review it. It doesn't matter who it is.

    You've given lots of thoughts to chew on--and so I will. Makes me sad that one of my favorite authors (C.S. Lewis) was so maligned by other authors I liked. I am going to keep this in mind--no matter what stage I am in writing.

    1. Thanks, M.V.! :)

      I think that's what gets me about the quotes I kept finding...the negativity wasn't cautiously put, or intended to assist the author's growth in any way. There's no attempt at a "criticism sandwich", if you will (compliment + critique + compliment). I've got no patience for ANYONE with a mean-spirited superiority complex--I don't care who they think they are.

      I have great respect for people who have the guts to admit what elements of a story simply don't appeal to them. That's not a personal assault on an author--that's turning a review back into an examination of the reviewer. When I share similar tastes and tolerances as said reviewer, that kind of honesty helps me select and prioritize books--a tremendous time and disappointment saver.

      Oh, and interestingly... C.S. Lewis is the person from whom we've derived the Golden Rule I mentioned in the post. :)

    2. I agree all the way.
      And I like C.S. Lewis even more! :)

  4. Hi Angela,
    I am an unpublished author, and I fear the retaliation if I leave an honest review or comment. I suppose that some will catch on, when I don't do it. When I say I like something, I actually like it. I think if I gave my demons their way (writing honest reviews) that I wouldn't have many friends. I generally read the book in question again, in the case my views were slanted because of a bad day. Some days, I just don't want to punish myself.
    Neat blog!

    1. Greetings S.J.! :)

      I wish I could say you have nothing to fear in terms of retaliation...but not all authors have matured past the mental state of a hormonal adolescent. I've seen reviewers--who are not authors--being attacked in a public forum by hyper-defensive authors and/or their affiliate fan horde (which may or may not consist entirely of family members who've taken on multiple pseudonyms.) I've personally been contacted by a handful of offended authors in private Goodreads messages. One made a valid point about something I could have worded with a bit less emotional reactivity...but for the most part, they were just looking to vent their anger.

      The experiences have made me decide ahead of time that I will NOT be answering my critics. Nothing good can come of it, and it would just make me look all the more like a thin-skinned newbie.

  5. Hi Angela,
    This was a great blog. Maybe it's because I'm super thick skinned or maybe I just love smack - but I treasure criticism. If it's honest and intended to help me, then that's great. If it's snarky and mean-spirited, then I ask myself why and that leads to a bit of introspection. And improvement. Now, since I haven't published anything yet, I can only say I have applied this with other things/jobs in my life.

    And I agree that I don't like to hear one author bashing another. I don't understand it. I think there's a way to say you prefer one style over another without swinging a verbal 5 iron. But we are all wired differently.

    As far as myself? I think it's important to be honest in a review . . . BUT I tend to focus on the good I see and maybe just highlight the things I didn't like. And, over time I've realized not everyone shares my, um, appreciation for criticism. It's a fine line. As a reviewer, you have a responsibility to be honest. But as an author, it may be a slightly different honesty scale.
    p.s. feel free to review my reply as "rambling" lol

    1. Hello Ali! :)

      Nothing rambling about it! I appreciate you taking the time out to share your thoughts. ^_^

      I think I understand where you're coming from. I can appreciate criticism of myself, as long as it's constructive. I covet loving criticism from those who I know and respect, because I know they have my best interests at heart and want to see me improve in whatever area is in question. And I DO want to improve. I've got blind spots a mile wide, and no amount of solo introspection is likely to compensate for them.

      I agree, it's a fine line. And I look forward to the day I may need to decide to stop walking it and only focus on reviewing 4-5 star books. ^_^

  6. I think what people need to remember that a criticism is an opinion - we all have the ability to let it us affect us in a negative or positive way. Some people are negative and we have to work not to let them affect us.

  7. Great read. Well researched. I haven't been able to attend Cahaba Christian Writers lately because I'm in a men's discipleship group that meets that night. However, I would love for you to review my blog at: and let me know what you think. Would welcome any suggestions for improvement or ways to reach a larger audience.