Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

WTF Wednesday: Only Writers Should Review Books

By now, you’ve probably heard about author Alice Hoffman’s unseemly outbursts on Twitter in response to a less-than-glowing review of her latest novel by Roberta Silman for the Boston Globe. If you haven’t, you’ve probably been living in a hole in the ground. (I’d say a cave, but I kinda think you can get wireless in most caves these days.) However, for those who did manage to miss it, here are a couple of links to summarize:

Now, I’ve always said that an author never does herself a favor by responding to a negative review unless it’s simply to thank the reviewer for his/her time and thoughtful commentary. In other words, if you defend the book or attack the reviewer or call on your fans to give said reviewer what-for, you’re only going to come of looking bad. A truly inaccurate or vicious review speaks for itself, and readers will know it’s not trustworthy. No need for the author to come out with both guns blazing like a mother bear defending her cub. (Yeah, I know. Way to mix metaphors. So shoot me!)

That observation out of the way, what set me off about this incident isn’t Hoffman’s behavior, because as foolish and unprofessional as it may be, what she did was hardly unique. (Heck, this very week, another author by the name of Alain de Boton posted on a reviewer’s blog that he wished said reviewer nothing but ill will and would hate him until the day he died. Oh yeah, way to sound like an adult!)

No, what got me about this whole episode is this Tweet of Ms. Hoffman’s and the response to it:

“Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. Who is Roberta Silman?”

Many of Ms. Hoffman’s critics were quick to point out that Ms. Silman is, in fact, an author with numerous publishing credits to her name. They also suggested Ms. Hoffman might have considering Googling Ms. Silman’s name before she suggested the woman wasn’t “qualified” to review books by virtue of not being an author.

But that entirely misses the point, doesn’t it? Do people honestly believe only writers should review other writers’ work? WTF?

That’s like saying that anyone who’s not a painter can’t have an opinion about a painting or that a film critic has to be an actor or director to provide an accurate assessment of a movie’s merits. And I don’t think anyone believes either of those constructs. So where on God’s green earth does this “only writers can review books because they’re the only ones who can ‘understand’ them” come from? Because Ms. Hoffman is hardly the first writer I’ve seen express this opinion, and the folks who determined Ms. Silman’s qualifications for the job seem to be supporting that contention. (Note: I haven’t read everything that’s been said on this point; there may be folks out there who are saying exactly what I am. I just haven’t found them yet.)

Okay, so here’s the deal. READERS are the people we should expect and WANT to review our work. Why? Because they’re our customers! And while most writers are also readers, and therefore a segment of our “market,” they’re a tiny subset of the much larger group of folks who are just readers. If your book only appeals to the segment of readers who are also writers, you’ve got a problem. By the same token, if the segment of readers who are writers generally dislike your book, but the readers who aren’t love it (I can think of a few recent runaway bestsellers in recent years that probably fit this criteria–Da Vinci Code, anyone), I think you’re in much better shape.

It’s true that pure readers and readers who are also writers don’t always see books the same way. Just as the painter who looks at another painter’s work sees how the brush strokes were applied, how the colors were mixed, and other technical aspects that the rest of us don’t, the writer who is reading can appreciate technical elements of the craft (or decry the lack thereof) in a way readers probably can’t…at least not consciously. But that doesn’t mean that a reader’s response to a book is any less valid or less well-considered than a writer’s. And as a writer myself, I want to know that my book worked (or didn’t) for my readers…all of them, not just a tiny subset who happen to write.

So, to all the reader-reviewers out there: Please keep it up! If you review my book, I will never attack you in any way if any element of your reaction is less than positive (even if it’s really negative), and I will never pull the “you just don’t understand because you’re not a writer” card. I value and appreciate readers who take the time to think about and comment on my work (and that of other writers), so don’t let the nasties out there treat you as if you are not worthy.

In my opinion, you’re the worthiest people I know!


  • Lainey Bancroft July 1, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Wow. Just…wow. I was in a cave, or in the midst of a HBB air conditioning season in Canada, take your pick, and hadn’t heard this. What an incredibly knee jerk response. Twitter obviously isn’t for everyone. (I haven’t made the leap)

    I’m with you, Jackie, on all points. An iffy review is ONE persons opinion. Either ignore it or thank the reviewer for taking the time to read and offer an opinion. And hell, I’d sooner have emails from handfuls of happy readers who don’t write than a pat on the head from a single writer who reads and reviews and ‘approved’ my story.

    (p.s. I don’t ‘get’ a lot of art, either, but I know what pleases me.)

  • Ericka Scott July 1, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    I’m with you on reviews. I always just thank them for their time…even if it doesn’t garner a great review. At least they read it (and since mine are e-books, I can be assured they didn’t toss it against the wall! LOL)

  • B.E. Sanderson July 3, 2009 at 8:43 am

    I’ve heard the sentiment before, and it always confused me. Excellent point following the line of thinking, Jackie. Artists, etc. are not and should not be the only ones to comment on their craft. Everyone has an opinion of the things they experience, and opinions are all different. (Of course, sometimes I think some people should keep their opinions to themselves, but they probably think the same about me.)

    I don’t know Hoffman, and I don’t think I’ve ever read her work, but I think she did herself a tremendous disservice with all this kerfluffle. She would’ve been better off sucking up the negative review and moving on with her life.


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