Book covers can conceal lots of dark, fearsome things. Delve inside their pages and you might come across ogres or pirates or murderers. Rarer, but equally scary, lurks another literary danger: an author’s epic-sized ego. When this emerges into daylight, lawsuits and quarrels can wreak havoc?even on unsuspecting readers who’ve dared an unflattering review. So what makes some writers think they’re the only ones who get to have a say?
Most writers, whether they’re self-published or a HarperCollins constant, know that putting themselves in the public eye is a two-way street. Professional reviewers, private bloggers, and everyone in between have the right to voice an opinion about a book. As long as they stay on the right side of libel laws and reveal any conflicts of interest, It’s fair play.
But unlike Jane Austen’s universally acknowledged truth about bachelors, this basic rule doesn’t seem quite so obvious to some. Take author Jonathan Lethem, for example, and his novel The Fortress of Solitude. Eight years ago, the book was reviewed in The New Republic. The review, even by Lethem’s account, ?wasn’t horrible.? Yet Lethem has now come out swinging against the reviewer, in a post that (revealingly) turns out to be ?completely and utterly? about himself, as the Moby Lives blog notes.
Then there’s the case of Chris McGrath, the self-published author of The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know. Vaughan Jones was one of several readers who gave the book negative customer reviews, and McGrath is now suing him. Not content with that, McGrath is also going after Amazon and Richard Dawkins in the case (as this Telegraph article explains, ?the Richard Dawkins Foundation also published an article by Mr Jones on its website?).
Obviously, if writers? public words are open to public scrutiny, so are reviewers?. No one gets a pass on that. But just as reviewers (whether professional journalists or customers on retail sites) should never grind personal axes disguised as thoughtful opinion, neither should a writer presume that his delicate ego deserves to be soothed in public.
It’s one thing to point out flaws in fact or reasoning; quite another to sue a reviewer whose honest opinion is that your book is ?meaningless crud.? Or to rant in a public comments section, like Alain de Botton did in his famous attack on a New York Times reviewer, saying ?I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.?
No one likes a bad review, whether It’s about your latest novel or your day job as a bus driver. But learning to accept legitimate criticism is simply part of life. For writers tempted to forget that rule, they could quickly find themselves in the grip of another literary monster: the editor’s slush pile.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several novels, including the suspenseful Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing?and for more musings on the literary world.