It is perfectly acceptable for an author not to like another writer’s work. Writers, especially good ones, are generally prolific readers and—because we are “in the biz”—it’s not surprising that we have strong opinions as to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to plot or prose. While wearing our “readers hats” we may even have cause to comment on or review books written by others (most of us are members of Goodreads at the very least). And, I would argue, it is perfectly acceptable for a writer to express his/her disappointment with a book in a review, comments to friends, and/or even an email to the author of the novel.
What is not acceptable is gratuitous cruelty or, worse still, attacking the person not the book.
A blog post by fellow debut author Nancy Bilyeau got me thinking about this subject. In a piece for English Historical Fiction Authors, Nancy discussed the rise and fall of an author few of us have heard of—William Harrison Ainsworth. While there was plenty of interesting information in Nancy’s piece (about the man, his work, and how he shaped popular images of The Tower of London), what will stick with me is this:
“One writer said of him in 1870: ‘Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored.’ Ainsworth was still alive when this sentiment was published, and in reduced circumstances.” (emphasis added)
I do not know who “one writer” was but that is just as well because if I did I would be sorely tempted to dig him up and give him a stern talking to. I cannot imagine ANYTHING less appropriate or professional than wishing another writer—another human being—did not exist purely on the grounds of his prose (Nancy’s article makes clear Mr. Ainsworth was an upstanding fellow). Did “one writer” give a moment’s thought to how his fellow author might feel stumbling over such comment in the morning paper or overhearing it at a gathering of writers?
We all know this sort of behavior is, sadly, not a thing of the past. I can think of several recent examples from the blogosphere. I will not list them (or link to them), however, because to do so would be to repeat hurtful words spoken about living authors. Suffice it to say the modern examples are chilling—just as you’d expect from a culture that prides itself on speaking its mind and then some.
Civility and professional courtesy—that’s what we need. Without them we might as well be politicians. First off we need to remember we are not required to share every writerly thought or opinion that comes into our heads. But, to the extent we choose to offer criticisms of other writers work we can choose to:
- Be polite and constructive. For example, “the novel’s pacing lagged in the mid-section” not “the pace was so slow I aged ten years in the last five chapters. I can only recommend this book to insomniacs.”
- SCRUPULOUSLY focus our comments on the book not the writer. For example, “I found the alternating first-person perspectives confusing,” not “that Sophie Perinot doesn’t have the talent to write two viewpoints successfully. In fact I am not sure she could even pull off one.”
- Make certain we are judging the book against the author’s goals (what she set out to do) rather than what we would have written or would rather read. For example, “the author cast the book as a thriller but I was never in suspense” not “the book is a thriller but I wish more time had been spent on the romantic plotline because I love romances.”
A great way to test whether our comments are appropriate before making them public is to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of them. No matter how deserved your comment was Mr. Edgar Allen Poe, couldn’t you have thought of kinder phrase than “turgid prose” when describing Mr. Ainsworth’s writing (another example from Nancy’s piece)?
If empathy and human kindness (our better angels) won’t sway us away from personal attacks and virulently worded critiques, then self-interest should. When you read Mr. Poe’s comment above were you disappointed in him? I was (thinking of driving to Baltimore and giving him a stern talking to). If such comments make readers think less of the writer who penned them how is that good for sales? Besides, the world of writing is a small world. Someday the author you savaged may be asked what he thinks of including you on a panel at a writers conference, or he may be asked to recommend a next novel for a book club. I am betting you get neither the seat nor the recommendation. So before you prick a fellow writer with personal attacks or cutting remarks about his novel, remember there will be blood and not all of it may be the other guy’s.
Sophie Perinot is author of THE SISTER QUEENS (NAL/2012). For those in the Mid-Atlantic region Sophie will be a Presenting Author at the Baltimore Book Festival this September. If you are looking for her in the virtual world she both blogs and tweets.