Is it time for a Miss Manners intervention? These days it’s tricky to keep up with the name-calling surrounding citizen reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and Twitter.
In the biggest recent dustup, over a one-star January 13 Goodreads review of Kiera Cass’s The Selection – a YA novel about a lottery that allowed 35 teenage girls to compete, a la The Bachelor, for a handsome prince – the war of words got heated enough that one commenter referred to a citizen reviewer as “that bitch.”
Other recent commenting controversies: responses to a negative review in the Guardian for Moira Young’s YA novel Blood Red Road by The Knife That Killed Me author Anthony McGowan and a followup story in that newspaper, and various critiques of citizen reviews on Twitter and book blogs, summarized on the CuddleBuggery blog, for Tempest by Julie Cross and Carrier of the Mark by Leigh Fallon. Fallon apparently sent an email to friends that encouraged them to go on Amazon and click “yes” for all the good reviews.
But the main fuss concerned “The Selection” – because of the heated written exchanges and because of the agent and author’s apparent attempts to boost the rankings. The two (apparently unaware that they were publicly messaging each other) discuss manipulating the rating system, with the agent saying she “just went through all the 4 and 5 star reviews and liked them.” The putdowns of Wendy Darling rankled the Goodreads community, which posted supportive notes. Commenter Hana-Joy, for example, wrote, “I’m actually going to track them down and punch them in the FACE. UGGGGHHH!”
In her review, Darling said she “didn’t find a single aspect of this story that I enjoyed” and noted, “the story ends on a cliffhanger, as if there was so much going on in this one book, it could not be contained in a single volume.”
No one knows for sure whether the author and agent themselves made the comments using their own names. “I put it out there, and there’s been no denial,” says Darling. “I did get an official expression of regret from the author.”
Some writers seem unsure about how to handle social media and public criticism from readers. “Some of these authors don’t seem to have PR training or common sense,” says Darling. “It’s very unfortunate the focus is taken off books, and now we’re spending all our time focusing on people’s egos.”
Goodreads is not Publishers Weekly or Booklist, with professional reviewers. Reviewers are “ordinary citizens,” and the site is “a social-networking site,” says Darling. “It’s impossible to regulate social media, but what you can do is regulate your reactions.”
An imbalance of power exists between authors and readers. “”What I find very unseemly is that you have public figures who are on the attack with private citizens,” says Darling. “Certainly these outbursts are not the way to draw fans and to protect your reputation.”
With some six million users, Goodreads is a go-social media site for bibliophiles. But with that popularity comes some unavailable byproducts, such as the unpleasant dialogue found elsewhere on the Internet as well.
It was the public exchange, more than the review itself, that appeared to turn off Goodreads users. Erika wrote, “I hate it when authors do that. Instead of taking low ratings as constructive criticism to improve on next books they just complain and insult readers.... Don’t pay attention to them, though. Based on your popularity here in Goodreads a LOT of people will know the kind of author they are and they’ll lose possible readers.”
In an email to PW, Cross gave her thoughts on the Guardian article: “One positive outcome of the recent controversy between authors and reviewers is that we’ve opened up a topic that obviously needs to be explored. I’m excited to be a part of a larger conversation about publishing and the relationships between readers, reviewers, and authors. As a first time author, I’m grateful for anyone who takes the time to read Tempest and discuss it regardless of their opinion.
Blood Red Road author Moira Young declined to talk about the Guardian review and the subsequent comments. McGowan, who wrote that review for the Guardian, emailed PW a response to a question about the brouhaha. “On the issue of authors responding to criticism, I actually think that one of the great things about the modern connected world is that a dialogue is possible, indeed easy. I often respond gratefully to reviews on Goodreads – even when the review is essentially critical. Some authors may prefer to keep a distance from their readers, but I love being involved in a conversation. But the truth is you have to learn to roll with the punches. Not everyone is going to like your work. Either you can close up when someone says your book sucks, or you can listen, ponder, and take from it what you can.”
The Blood Red Road review generated comments on the Guardian’s site by readers such as Matt Maguire, founder of Candescent Press, an e-book publisher. He, too, emailed PW a response to a question about the dustups: “There’s a big difference between the print world and the online world when responding to feedback,” he said. “Space in a newspaper is limited, and controlled editorially, so any disagreement is likely to be short lived and restrained. Online, anyone can contribute, and no one ever gets the last word.” Responding to bad reviews “risks making the author look petty,” he said. “Allowing your friends and colleagues to support you may feel comforting, but they are unlikely to appear objective – and any orchestrated response will be met with claims of bullying, something that really stirs up an online community.... Authors should leave the arguments to the readers, and take the view that it’s better their book is talked about than ignored.”
Do these brouhahas sound like a plot straight out of a TV show? Indeed, a recent episode of Gossip Girl featured a similar storyline, with Dan Humphrey getting especially negative comments from someone – who turned out to be his agent, trying to build buzz for his client’s novel.