May 2, 2011

Author’s temper tantrum good lesson for writers

By Patti Thorn, BlueInk Managing Partner

Looking for a review of your book? There’s a lesson to be learned in the case of Jacqueline Howett. Howett’s angry response to a bad review of her book posted online went viral, and now her fit is nearly as infamous as the punch Snooki took to the jaw on Jersey Shore.

Here’s the backstory:

Howett wrote and published an ebook novel titled The Greek Seaman. She then managed to get it reviewed by a blogger – not an easy task in this world of exploding digital content. So far, so good.

But all good things must end, and Howett’s good thing ended the moment the review came out. While the blogger thought Howett’s story had some merit, he complained of its many grammatical errors and difficult-to read sentence structure. Few readers, he said, would persevere through the thicket of obstacles to experience the story.

Howett was not amused.

She accused the reviewer of reading the wrong format (he insists this was not the case). She said her Amazon reviewers gave the book “5 stars and 4 stars and they say they really enjoyed the Greek Seaman and thought it was really well written.” She posted 3 of those reviews, just to prove her case.

She was just getting warmed up.

Back in the heyday of newspapers, they used to say: never pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel. Someone should have updated that warning for Howett: never pick a fight with those who have a forward button on their computer.

After she posted her response to the review, others began posting on the site in support of the reviewer. And Howett, summoning all graciousness and restraint, told the blogger that his behavior was “discusting” (proving his point that she was no Strunk or White).  She then called him a liar. This fueled the fire until Howett lost it altogether and told her online tormenters to “Fuck off!”…Not once, but twice.

(In case you’re wondering if Howett had a right to be angry at the review, here are a few sentences from her book, posted by the reviewer:

“She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs.”

“Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.”

That deafening sound you hear is every English teacher in America clucking their tongues in unison.)

By the end, more than 300 people had all piled on Howett, and the whole interchange went viral. No one, it seems, was impressed with the hapless author’s ability to handle criticism.

Aside from giving everyone a chuckle, Howett’s temper tantrum should serve as a reality check to other authors. At BlueInk Review, we are occasionally in the unfortunate position of handing out bad reviews and responding to upset authors. Like Howett, the authors often defend themselves by telling us that others loved their book: family and friends, reviewers on Amazon, etc.

One author recently protested his review by saying that he had 11  4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon – all for a book our reviewer found “atrocious.”  The online reviews, our critic pointed out to us, were all from first-time Amazon reviewers (can you say “friends and family”?)

If there’s one thing you learn quickly in this business of criticism, it’s this: never trust feedback from friends and family. Friends and family don’t like to hurt the feelings of friends and family. Case in point: I was at dinner recently with my girlfriend, Lori, who was in the midst of a dilemma. A colleague of hers had just self published a book. Lori was invited to the upcoming booksigning.  The book was dreadful, Lori said. What was she going to tell her friend when asked if she liked it?

After much discussion, she came to a decision: “I’m going to tell her it was great!” she said.

That’s what friends do for friends. And, let’s be honest, friends also write lots of 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon for friends.

The point is this: Howett’s defensiveness will only kill her own progress as a writer. An objective, third-party critique is not only helpful, but absolutely essential to a writer’s understanding of his or her work. Whether that critique comes from a fellow author, a teacher, or a professional critic, few can learn without it.

Yes, such feedback is only one person’s opinion. But in the hands of a professional critic, at least, that one person is someone who understands the genre, is widely read, can recognize the difference between a powerful sentence and a muddled one and – most importantly — doesn’t worry about losing a friend by articulating the pros and cons of the work. An objective assessment is far more valuable than asking Aunt Sadie or your English major buddy what they think of your work.

Writers who believe in their craft should seek out objective reviews, as Howett did — then have the wisdom to receive the result with some introspection. Sure, getting a bad review hurts. But it also has the power to instruct. After reading a review, an author should take a deep breath. Take a jog around the block. Take a tranquilizer, if she must. But finally, when she has stopped seeing red, she needs to look at what the reviewer is saying and try to understand where she might have gone off track and discern what she can do differently next time.

Oh yeah. And she would do well to avoid telling the reviewer to F— off — especially in full view of the Internet public. Being humiliated in front of thousands of web voyeurs is no way to launch a career.

Unless, of course, you’re Snooki.

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