If you’ve been watching Breaking Bad, you’ve gotten to see a brilliant contemporary exposition of a how a bad choice made with the best of intentions can spin horribly out of control. Walt’s story is sordid and extreme, with the first lie leading to inextricably to the next, one bad decision tumbling into the next, as inevitable as death.
One of the many, many things Breaking Bad gets right is the double-down. In the double-down, when a lie found out, rather than own up and come clean, the liar tosses out a new lie, adds another layer to the deceit. In Breaking Bad, Walt’s arc is one double-down after another, a new lie followed by the next bad choice patched up by a yet another lie. It’s painful to watch, not the least because for all the damage his lies do to those around him, the family and friends he cares for, the destructive fury of the double-down is perhaps the most pointed in Walt himself.
So what does all this have to do with Authors (Trying Not to) Behave Badly? Well, yesterday I saw word of yet another author responding really badly to a less than stellar review who then made matters worse by doubling-down when called out. This time it was New York Times bestseller Emily Giffin, but it’s not like she’s the first. Nor is it likely she will be the last.
Which isn’t simply too damn bad.
It’s batshit crazy†.
Authors, sheesh, don’t do this. And don’t have your minions do it. And when your minions do it, don’t play coy and passive-aggressively mumble on Facebook about how golly, I wish my minions hadn’t done this but who am I to tell them what to do and oh by the way here is another reviewer who didn’t like my book. All this “Nice book blog you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it” shit has got to stop. Bloody hell, it never should have started to begin with.
Every writer gets bad reviews. Beloved and wildly popular authors like J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman get bad reviews. Occasionally beliked and mildly known authors such as myself also get bad reviews. Over the years there have been any number of articles and blog posts documenting the one-star travails of even classic books, so no one is exempt. And why should they be? Any book written to appeal to everyone will probably appeal to no one.
But, Bill, what about grossly unfair and mean-spirited reviews which make personal attacks against the author and call babies mean names and spit on the graves of Abe Lincoln and/or Mother Theresa? Surely they deserve full-throated minion opprobrium. Unleash the hounds? Right?
Let. It. Go.
Clearly I have been tempted, and not just early in my writing career before I had a chance to learn better.
Not long ago, the Great and Powerful Google Alerts alerted me to a review of County Line which was bad. The reviewer did not like the book At All. Now, I usually don’t even read reviews any more. The warm glow of ten great reviews can be washed away by a single tepid dismissal, and who needs that? Besides, reviews aren’t for me. They’re for readers. The Google Alert is set-up mostly so I can link to reviews for my potential readers, not so I can read them and then feel bad about myself for weeks on end.
But in this case I read the damn thing, and not only did the reviewer not like the book but they also made a number of factual errors.
Ah-hah! you may say. An exception! Unleash the hounds.
Once again, no. Let it go.
Mind you, I was tempted to write a note pointing out the errors. They were substantive and would certainly have suggested something to a potential reader which would significantly mislead them about the novel. But you know what?
Not worth it.
Writers have lots of opportunity to control the reading experience of readers, but that ends once a book is published. From that point on, it’s out of our hands. Either we did our work well or didn’t, but we can’t go in later and re-read the book for readers. Maybe they misunderstood something, or maybe our writing failed in some critical way. Doesn’t matter. Readers and reviewers have their experience, and the best thing which can come of trying to influence them after the fact is the writer comes off looking fussy and needy and maybe desperate. The best thing… It’s likely to be a lot worse. Case in point, the above mentioned Emily Giffin.
Yes, I am fussy and needy and desperate, but I don’t need to go putting that crap on display. (Any more than I do naturally, I mean.) And I certainly don’t need to encourage my minions* to go on a full-throated assault on my behalf.
John Scalzi does a masterful job of explicating how writers should respond to bad reviews. The inestimable Chuck Wendig speaks eloquently about more general bad author behaviors. Stacia Kane brings her own brilliant wit to bear on this and related problems in an incisive satire.
In the end, it all comes down to one simple rule. Let it go. And if you do slip and make the bad choice to go all medieval on some reviewer, don’t pull a Walt and double-down when you are inevitably called on your bullshit. Move on and write your next book. If you put your energy into that, you have a much better chance of getting good reviews than if you go to the mattresses with some reviewer or book blogger.
Note: two small edits to correct a typo and subject/verb agreement were made after this was first published.
Update: I’ve just read another post by the thoughtful and talented Jeremy Duns about yet another author behaving badly. All I can do is shake my head.
† Since I originally wrote this post, I’ve been reading up on the use of ableist language, particularly around the issue of mental health. I’m now endeavoring to avoid language which implies bad ideas and bad choices are evidence of mental illness.