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How Not To Handle a Negative Review

Big Al’s Books and Pals is a website dedicated to Kindle book reviews that has gained a fair amount of attention in the past few days for a review of Jacqueline Howett’s summer 2010 debut, The Greek Seaman. On March 16th of this year, Big Al posted a negative review of the book — two days later, he received the first comment from its author.

Howett, an English author who now resides in Florida, responded to Big Al’s two-star review with the following: “My Amazon readers/reviewers give it 5 stars and 4 stars and they say they really enjoyed The Greek Seaman and thought it was well written. Maybe its [sic] just my style and being English is what you don’t get.”

Howett proceeded to cut-and-paste three comments from satisfied Amazon readers before Big Al responded, calmly explaining that there were numerous spelling errors and issues with the syntax that prevented him from fully enjoying the novel. Howett insists that Big Al read an unpolished copy and queries, “Why read the wrong copy? that don’t make sense.” She later writes, “You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous [sic] venom. Lots of luck to authors who come here and slip in that!”

Comments flooded in responding to Howett’s public meltdown. On March 28th, ten days after Howett’s first response, an anonymous commenter offered the author some sage advice: “Remember, as I’m sure you know: once it’s on the web, it’s there forever. No matter how you may wish to take it back, the internet doesn’t forget.”

Last summer, Jacob Silverman wrote about negative reviews in VQR and cited Saul Bellow’s 1944 letter to Alfred Kazin at The New Yorker. Bellow refers to his novel, Dangling Man, as “a hash, a mishmash for which I deserve to be mercilessly handled.” We can chalk this up to an established author’s self-flagellation in front of an esteemed critic — part of it is for show and the rest is a plea for an honest assessment of the work. Bellow sincerely believed in the importance of developing his craft and a review was a window into that process. As Rebecca West wrote in a 1914 essay in The New Republic, “Criticism matters as it never did in the past, because of the present pride of great writers. They take all life as their province to-day.”

Perhaps we can’t hold indie writers to the same level of accountability as we do with established authors. But we must at least hold them accountable for basic errors. Al writes, “Being an indie author doesn’t mean a free pass for those things that are objective and clearly wrong,” and he’s right. There are basic standards that authors should adhere to if they want to be taken seriously. If they don’t, then they should be prepared to be mocked in a public forum. Howett learned the hard way that once a book is released, it is out there for anyone to judge, and that inevitably some people will respond to it negatively. At this point, the author has lost control of the work and needs to accept this fact, otherwise, we should all be prepared for additional Howett-style meltdowns.

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