Our ability to rate and review almost anything is a mixed blessing. It’s a godsend for the consumer when booking a hotel or investing in an expensive product. Feedback from customers can encourage better standards of service. It can also be irrevocably damaging for small businesses or lesser-known artists if they get hit by trolls.
Criticism is a legitimate activity, but there’s little doubt that the hit-and-run nature of online reviewing has caused a spike in uncivil and toxic behaviour. All too often, individuals on social media are treated as if they were faceless corporations, immune to pain. Their attempts to establish boundaries are met with contempt. Suck it up, snowflake. If you can’t take critique, you shouldn’t put yourself out there.
This was evident from the vitriolic abuse YA author Angie Thomas received when she requested, as other authors have done, that book bloggers desist from the practice of tagging her in on social media when they post a negative review of her book. She was not in any way suggesting they shouldn’t write or share the bad reviews, just that she preferred not to have her attention drawn to them.
I dipped into the ensuing controversy. Some fans saw it as her rudely shutting them out. Others blamed writers’ fragile egos. Some pointed out that nothing receives universal acclaim and that even the most revered classics have their haters, so no author should expect anything different.
I think we already knew that.
It would be hard not to be aware that readers respond differently, and often with fierce passion, to fictional narratives. One of the joys of sharing our literary experiences is the debate and the discussion of ideas that a story can generate. Spaces abound for readers to exchange opinions, whether in literature classes, book clubs, blogs, or review sites such as Goodreads and Amazon.
It is vital for freedom of expression and society’s cultural health that fans and critics have a platform for open dialogue around works of art. Those of us who decide to publish our books have to accept that the way readers interpret and judge them is not something we can or should control.
Nevertheless, many creative professionals are sensitive souls. We pour our hearts and souls into our stories. We love our characters as if they were real. We go through anxiety, depression and self-doubt. We do our best to grow that much-prized thick skin, yet we remain vulnerable.
The fact is some of us need to protect our mental health through self-care. So we look for the things we can control. That could be a decision not to read negative reviews at all. (After all, we’re not obliged to.) Or we might pick our timing carefully. I read reviews, but I have a rule that I never check them late at night or if I’m not feeling strong enough to deal with what I might find.
If someone tags me into their scathing one-star review, it pops up in my social media notifications and inbox. That makes it hard for me to control when and if I see it, without disengaging completely from my online world. It’s a bit like approaching someone at a party and listing their flaws in an aggressive voice, demanding that they listen and react.
Of course, people are free to do it if they must. There’s no law against tagging someone in a tweet. But it makes me wonder why anyone thinks their unkind opinion of a fictional work is so valuable and so important that it has to be heard by the author, when she respectfully asked them not to communicate with her in that way?
The review could be shared in numerous other places where the author is at liberty to find it if she wishes. And she doesn’t owe anyone an explanation or defence of her novel, especially if the critic is hostile or abusive.
It’s been argued that writers should listen to their worst critics on the grounds that it improves their writing. I’m not sure many one-star reviews were composed with the intention of helping the author, but in theory there could be a nugget of insight contained within. But that is a choice each writer must make for themselves.
I don’t gain much from knowing someone hated my story or characters. Not least because it’s inevitable that somebody will, just as there are people who dislike apples or dogs. It’s not in itself an indication that anything needs to be changed.
When I need writing advice, I’d rather get feedback that is specific and objective from someone whose opinion I respect. Luckily there is no shortage of editors and beta readers who can give my work the honest appraisal it deserves.