The OF Blog: Should authors comment on reviews of their books?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Should authors comment on reviews of their books?

James over at Speculative Horizons raises that question. He covers some incidents over the past year or so that occurred on the blogs and forums that he visits, in particular referring to two situations involving Richard Morgan and one with Peter Brett. His conclusions are in line with many that I have seen stated elsewhere recently, namely that authors probably ought to stay out of commenting on reviews of their own works.

I, however, think there are certainly situations in which it would be nice for an author to interact with the reviewer. As I've said several times over the past couple of years, I come from an academic background and I have had to review a colleague's grad research while that person was sitting there in front of me. There was then a session where we would respond to the comments, with the end result of strengthening not just my own understanding of my research, but also doing such a roundtable critique gave me greater insights into another writer/reviewer's work. While obviously things such as this have very limited applicability outside the academic world of history research, I think there could be some analogues to the peer-reviewed articles that could be done, if reviewer and author alike were agreeable to the task.

I have absolutely no problem with authors contacting me, whether here or via my email address, and discussing matters. I've even had discussions with a couple of authors about my reviews of other authors, discussions that I choose not to post here due to the private nature of the conversation. However, I will say that these were informative and that I learned quite a bit in the process.

I am not one of those reviewers who is going to be convinced that his/her point of view is immutable. I have a healthy skepticism about my own understanding of what I've read and am willing to consider alternate points. If someone with a relatively privileged point of view, say an author or someone else with a unique vantage point for the topic at hand, were to post comments highlighting their differences with my approach, I certainly would consider what they would have to say. It might even lead to a conversation, even within the review post, that would give readers more to consider than if it were just only my view alone.

Yes, sometimes things can be a bit hostile, but even that can be illuminating, if one is willing to look past the emotion and to the arguments being presented. But too often, both reviewers and authors alike tend to avoid mixing and mingling, which is a shame. Walled-off anything just leads to constraints, many of which are harmful for the free exchange of ideas.

But perhaps I'm mistaken in some of my opinions here. What would you argue on this topic?


mark c said...

I like the book events they have on Crooked Timber, where a group of people (who generally like the author, but that doesn't mean they don't have criticisms of their work) write a bunch of essays and then the author responds to them all at the end - there are good ones with China Mieville, Charles Stross and Susanna Clarke on the site.

James said...

Thanks for the link, Larry.

I agree with you - sometimes it's good for authors to jump in, especially when they have a fair point to raise over something they feel has been misunderstood in their work. Plus it can also be interesting to hear them discuss certain aspects of their novel. I have no problem with this at all.

But for me, as I said in my article, it's about tone. An author doesn't have the right to throw veiled insults at the reviewer just because they didn't like their book. And if the author in question can't be anything other than hostile, then they should stay out of it - for their own benefit.

It takes a long time to build an online reputation, but seconds to destroy one.

Neth said...

As I've said elsewhere - it can be done well and it can be a train wreck. It's great when it's done well and I've had several great experiences with this. But when it goes wrong, it usually makes the author look bad and generally no one comes out looking better. So, I advise caution.

Anonymous said...

Well, Larry, as long as you brought it up, I would like to make a friendly comment on your review of my novel, Tamper. Ordinarily, I wouldn't do this, as it seems kind of petty for a writer to do so, but you seem like a cool, even-tempered guy, so anyway, this is all I want to say:

Some of the background material about my book, which I provided to reviewers, may have inadvertently misled people as to what I was attempting to do with the novel. The original intent of the background material was to prepare people for the small doses of weirdness in an otherwise straightforward book. You, Larry, on the other hand, obviously don't need a tutorial on weird literature, and you might have enjoyed my book more without my distracting commentary.

Plus, you review a lot of great books! With that in mind, I am happy with your opinion that I "show promise" or however you put it.

Hey, not everyone likes everything. I continue to read and enjoy your blog daily!

Omphalos said...

I get a lot of comments from authors on reviews that I write by e-mail, mainly because on my book review site I have the comments turned off. Never have I gotten a critical one, or a "bad" one. In fact, I often find them interesting, and enjoy the conversations that come from them.

Liviu said...

I always stand behind my reviews and whatever I post related to books, so I welcome comments by authors - when I criticized Jeff Vandermeer' story in Other Earths for poor taste and the author answered I was glad to expound on my reasons; same with some private emails regarding this or that aspect of my reviews

I think that as long as everything is done politely interactions are great, but I see the train-wreck possibility and agree with the caution sign :)

Liviu said...

And to add - whenever I change my mind like when I claimed about KJ Parker Company to be "first and last KJ Parker read for me", now to realize I actually enjoy a lot her novels and read 3 more so far with the rest 6 bought and reading now along other stuff, I am not afraid to "eat my words" publicly and explain why

Anonymous said...

Let me add, lest anyone misunderstand, when I say that Larry doesn't need a tutorial on weird literature, I mean it as a compliment.

Mike said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of making it an ongoing 'dialogue' between author and reviewer and readers. Like the sciences, which are supposed to engage in this sort of action to further the profession, and to help each other learn, I think it can only do more good than bad at the end of the day. There will always be people who react poorly to criticism or misunderstanding. The fact is, technology is making all this possible, and we are evolving with it. If that means it is going to take some time for us to be able to think critically before reacting, and therefore engage in productive conversation, I think we have a lot to look forward to.

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