How not to take criticism

Yesterday evening, I wrote a review of a book I received through the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. It was not a positive review: I didn’t enjoy the book. I don’t think it was a particularly vicious review, though – I tried to be measured, and reasonable, and offer some constructive feedback.

The author of the book I’d reviewed unfortunately took it rather badly. There was an exchange of comments on our LT profile pages, and I first removed my review (because I was shocked that he’d taken it so badly, and I don’t like upsetting people) then put it back, at his suggestion, with an extra couple of paragraphs clarifying a few of the points that the author had objected to.

I’m posting this here for two reasons. First, that the author in question has now deleted the comments he left on my profile, and has also deleted the comments I left on his in response. More than anything else, this made me quite cross: I think the whole exchange says quite a lot about him and his attitude to criticism, and it seems cowardly of him not to want to stand by his own comments. I think our exchange says quite a lot about him, and I don’t like the fact that he’s tried to cover his tracks by deleting his comments. Luckily, I still have the automated emails from LibraryThing containing the text of his comments. I also have my own comments pasted into a Word document: I’m in the habit of doing this for any website that requires you to submit comments via a non-saveable web form. I’ve lost a very long, considered post too often not to try to back it up somewhere! I’m also posting it because I think it’s quite a good illustration of how not to respond to criticism.

This author put something he’d created out into the world, and invited people to share their views on it. He did so explicitly in offering his book via LT member giveaways – he asked in the email he sent with the PDF of his book that people review it on LibraryThing. He did not specify that they had to be positive reviews. If you do this, then you have to be prepared for the possibility that people won’t like it, and will say so. If you’re not willing to listen to people who don’t rate your work very highly, for whatever reason, then you won’t learn anything. I would also add that if you can’t deal with a negative review, however unfair you think it might be, then you are probably not cut out to be a professional writer.

I do know how gut wrenching it is to have something you’ve poured your heart and soul into torn apart in front of you. I went through this several times with various drafts of my dissertation: my supervisor was not shy about telling me when my drafts weren’t worth the paper they were written on. She didn’t mince her words either! It was horrible at the time, but I’m grateful to her for doing it – if she hadn’t been so brutally honest in her critiques of my work, I probably wouldn’t have got the Distinction I graduated with.

So, I’m posting the entire exchange here. I don’t have screenshots of these comments in place on LibraryThing, so you’ll have to take my word for it that these are reproduced exactly as they appeared on the site (including my own typos – you don’t know how much it pains me not to correct “grammer” to “grammar” in my last comment on the author’s page!)

If you’re interested, the book is The Gargoyle Prophecies, Part I, The Savior Rises, and the author is Christopher C. Payne (aka Duncan Moron). It’s published through JournalStone, which appears to be Christopher/Duncan’s own publishing company/agency.

So, here’s my exchange with Christopher/Duncan via LibraryThing. I’m not going to expand on anything I or he has written here, as I’d rather let it speak for itself.
Here’s my original review:

I got this as a Library Thing member giveaway. I have to say that with hindsight I probably shouldn’t have clicked “request” next to this book – this really isn’t my kind of book at all. I didn’t get very far into it before I gave up, it just didn’t interest me.

From the little I read, it looks like it could be an ok story. I could see it appealing to teenaged girls, perhaps the same girls who devour the Twilight series (the first of which I found similarly impossible to keep reading).

Another reviewer on this site has commented that this book reads like a first draft rather than a finished novel. I would agree with this: the writing is often clumsy. For the first two chapters (which was as far as I read) it felt like the author was in a rush to tell us everything we needed to know. It might have worked better had he remembered the maxim “show, don’t tell”. The scene which made me give up on the book was that in which the protagonist meets a strange man in a strip club, who has apparently been waiting for her and needs to warn her about something: I didn’t stick around to find out what it was, because the way the perspective kept shifting really distracted me.

So: probably not a bad book, but in need of someone to go through it with a red pen, and not something I would choose to read.

Here’s his comment on my profile in response:

First I think I should apologize to you. I can only assume that I have offended you, even though I have no idea who you are. I can’t imagine somebody being so callous as to order a book for review they hated, before it was received, spend 15 minutes looking at it, and give it the worst review it has received from anyone, by far.

So I apologize. I am not sure how or where I offended you, but I am sorry.

Hopefully whoever is reviewing your dissertation will give you more courtesy than you have afforded me and at least read it, before telling you how bad it is.

I should also note that I have never responded to a review before, and don’t plan on ever doing so again. Yours was just so cruel in its intention that I felt I should at least say something.

Granted, I am not sure you will actually read this entire response, but I did at least want to say I apologize for whatever it is that I did to offend you.

Thanks and good luck in finishing school.

Here’s my response to that comment:

Wow. Ok, not sure how to respond to that. I am genuinely sorry if I hurt your feelings. I will remove the review I posted – I didn’t want to upset you. I will say, in my defence, that I feel strongly that if I’m going to review a book, I should be honest about it. I don’t think I said anything malicious in my review. A bad review is not personal – there are clearly plenty of people on this site who read your book and enjoyed it, as shown by the other, positive reviews. I just didn’t enjoy it. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way but I think that as a writer, you may need thicker skin when it comes to hearing other people’s opinions of your work. Not everyone is going to love everything you write.

Let me take your points one at a time:
– I never said that I “order[ed] a book for review [I] hated, before it was received”. I do think I should have read the description more carefully, but I request these member giveaway books very often and have never received one before, so I tend to just request anything that catches my eye. Perhaps I should be more discriminating in future. As for your point about me spending “15 minutes looking at it” before I reviewed it – true, I only read the first two chapters, but I made it clear in my review that I was only basing my opinion on those first chapters. I didn’t continue with the book because it was clear to me by that point that it wasn’t my kind of book, and I have plenty of others on my tbr pile.

– You say “Hopefully whoever is reviewing your dissertation will give you more courtesy than you have afforded me and at least read it, before telling you how bad it is” – well yes, I would hope so, as that’s an examination process. The people who reviewed my dissertation (I’ve finished library school now – just realised I haven’t updated my profile for a while!) were paid to do so, and the results were a bit more lasting than a single, short review on a social networking site. I posted what I thought was a legitimate response to the opening chapters of your book, and made it clear that I was only reviewing those chapters. Are you angry because I stopped reading your book, or because I posted a review based on my initial impressions? If the former, apologies but I don’t think it’s a good use of time to continue with a book I’m not enjoying, for whatever reason. If the latter, again I apologise, and as I mentioned before I will be removing my review of your book. My understanding of the LT member giveaways was that in accepting a book, you were agreeing to post a review in return. I wanted to honour that commitment, hence my review. Sorry if I misunderstood.

– I do take issue with your calling my review “cruel in intention”. I’ll say again: a book review is not personal. I did not post a review to hurt your feelings, or out of malice, but simply to share my thoughts on something I’d read. I know it’s unpleasant to get negative feedback from something you’ve worked hard to create – believe me, I’ve been there – which is why I tried to be constructive, and find something positive to say. I stand by my initial impression of your book: that it is a potentially interesting story, but not my kind of thing and the writing needs tidying up. I really don’t see what’s so cruel about saying that.

– You finish your message to me by saying “Granted, I am not sure you will actually read this entire response” – which is a cheap shot; and “but I did at least want to say I apologize for whatever it is that I did to offend you” – which is petty. I’ll say it again: this is not personal. It’s ridiculous to suggest, even if in jest, that I left a bad review because I have some sort of personal grievance against you. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. I read the first few chapters of a book I didn’t enjoy, and left a short review saying why I didn’t enjoy it. I know this is easier said than done but I think you need to learn to look at reviews of your work objectively.

Sorry for the mammoth response but I thought your message deserved a considered reply. Once more, I am truly sorry for upsetting you. I hope that my reply has given you some insight into why I wrote the review that I did, and that you can forget all about it and concentrate on the people on this site who clearly did enjoy your book.

All the best,

Here’s his reply:

I think there are too many points to respond to, so let me hit the highlights.

I actually think I have pretty thick skin. I have never responded to a negative review, ever. I actually had one lady say in a review, and I quote, “I was so disgusted, I couldn’t even finish it.” She was reviewing another book of mine, which she hated. I will say at least she gave it a try though.

Your review bothered me mostly because you stated, “I have to say that with hindsight I probably shouldn’t have clicked “request” next to this book – this really isn’t my kind of book at all.” It seemed that you were destined to hate the book before you even read it, of which you did not do.

In writing this book I was told by my editor and early reviewers that a certain group of “intellectual” people would not tolerate the “improper” POV changes. They wouldn’t get it. I was also told that certain genre fantasy faithful would not like the book because it is not a true genre novel. It is a hybrid.

Sadly, I don’t seem capable of writing a straightforward book.

POV, the changes were intended to subtly confuse the reader from the beginning. If you would have read the book you would have realized it is a book about gargoyles, possibly, or it might be a book about a girl who was abused as a child and is insane. POV shifts are the beginning of the confusion, helping question whether this is all happening in her head. There are geographic shifts later on, then less subtle hints, when she wakes up in an insane asylum, etc.

By the end of the book you should not know whether this is a genre novel or not. Book two will be more revealing and then book three will have you confused again by the end. I can’t say any more, I don’t want to give it away.

So you see, I don’t want it edited, and it is not a draft. It was intended to be written that way, for better or worse. Now that would be a debate, but somebody would have to actually read the book to have that debate.

Now several people have done so and still do not get it. I just got a two star review from somebody who hated the last half of the book because it wasn’t all genre, it got to confusing for them.

I guess I have the opportunity to alienate everyone on all sides with this novel. Time will tell, but I would ask people to actually read it before completely trashing it with the worst rating I have ever received.

If you do that, and still give it a half star, then what can I say. Smile and move on to the next review I guess.

Anyway, thanks and you do not have to remove your review. I have never asked anyone to do that, and I never would. It is your review. Post what you feel, but I do reserve the right to actually respond with an opinion.

Thanks and have a good rest of your Wednesday.

And my reply to that…

So, the person who said she “so disgusted” she couldn’t finish it was fine, but my saying I was so distracted by the poor grammer I couldn’t finish it isn’t? Sorry but I’m not really sure of your point here. I did give the book a try, I got two chapters in, then stopped because I wasn’t enjoying it. Don’t see how that’s any different from the other lady you mention.

I was not “destined” to hate the book before I’d received it. I enjoy fantasy fiction and I enjoy YA fiction. I don’t enjoy melodrama and sloppy writing. That was what I menat by saying that I shouldn’t have requested this book: had I read the description more carefully, I might have had a better idea of what to expect from this book. I started reading it and it became apparent that it really wasn’t my cup of tea, so I stopped. I’m not going to apologise for that.

I’ve put my review back up, and added a note at the end addressing some of the points you’ve made. Hopefully that will clarify why I left the review I did. I trust that this closes the matter.

I then re-posted my review as above, with this section added:

I actually removed this review after the author left me a comment (see my profile page, and his for my response) complaining that I’d been unfair. I don’t think this is an unfair review – it is my honest opinion of the book and I stand by it. I will address some of the points he raised, as it is possible that some of what I said above isn’t clear.

The author had, as I see it, two main complaints about my review. The first was that in giving up after 2 chapters I was not giving the book a fair chance. I can see his point, but I really don’t believe in ploughing through a book I’m not enjoying just to see if it gets better. I can’t comment on the actual story because I didn’t read far enough to see what that was. I stopped reading because the sloppy POV changes, bad grammar and excessive use of adjectives were too distracting for me. If you are more interested in the story than the quality of the writing then this probably won’t bother you, but it does bother me.

His second complaint was that I was wrong to criticise his POV changes – apparently these were intentional, and were meant to confuse and disorientate the reader in advance of what was to be a confusing situation for the protagonist. Fair enough, but my opinion is that this attempt is unsuccessful. It just looks like lazy writing. From the part I read, one moment we were with the protagonist, approaching this man and wondering who he was; the next, we were with the man and he was telling us exactly who he was and why he was there. There are subtler ways of writing exposition, and there are better ways of creating an atmosphere of confusion for the reader.

As I said in my original review: this isn’t necessarily a bad book, it just didn’t work for me. I still believe that it could benefit from somebody going through it with a red pen. I hope this clarifies things, and would like to thank the author for engaging with my review, and apologise again for any offence I may have caused.

At that point, I saw that Christopher/Duncan had deleted my comments from his page, and had also deleted his own comments from my page. For that reason, I am going to edit my review again to add a link to this blog post. Perhaps that’s a little petty, but I think the author’s behaviour here has been odd enough to justify calling attention to.

Anyway, apologies for the massive off-topic blog post! I do have some neat library-related content for this blog in the works, so do stay tuned πŸ™‚


14 comments on “How not to take criticism

  1. What a fascinating little saga. I left wondering if there are any lessons to be learned other than that some authors are very sensitive to criticism.

  2. Oh wow. From his comments it seems he thought since you have to review it, you should read the whole thing. But still . . . not sure his response was correct. Not sure I would have stuck with it either – I don’t like POV shifts.

    • I do get his point there, but I think you can tell pretty quickly of a book doesn’t appeal to you. I don’t think not having read the whole thing precludes me from having an opinion. If I’d totally slagged off the story after only two chapters then that would have been unfair, as I wouldn’t really know anything about the story. That’s why I kept my comments to the writing style, which was what put me off.

  3. His second message is amazing (‘Sadly, I don’t seem capable of writing a straightforward book’). I suspect the lesson here is to avoid self-published books about sexy gargoyles.

  4. Hi Laura. An interesting saga that we can all learn from! From experience when taking criticism in written form, I try to not respond in the heat of the moment and come back to it at a later stage, as there is always the possibility of a knee-jerk reaction, which appears to be the case here (and probably why the comments were deleted – perhaps out of regret). There is also an art to giving criticism (which isn’t a comment on your review) and http://theclosetentrepreneur.com/giving-criticism-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly looks quite useful. If we’re all honest, I don’t thing anyone likes receiving criticism, but it is a necessary evil. That’s why it is best to consider how we deliver our criticism and, this way, the person receiving is likely to be less defensive and response positively to comments, e.g. “I don’t like the end of your report” could be “your report is excellent, but the end feels a bit rushed. What do you think?”.

    • Totally agree. That’s good advice about stepping back and reflecting on criticism before you respond, rather than lashing out in the heat of the moment: I think we could probably all learn from that! Cheers for the link too – looks useful, will have a read through.

  5. I just slogged through a terrible book I had offered to review and then struggled to be nice about it – it was really not my cup of tea at all. But I knew the audience I was writing for would probably love the book so I tried to be positive, but I felt a level of intellectual dishonesty in the writing of the review. A bit like commenting on the emperor’s new clothes. Anyway, no point to that, except I didn’t have the choice to stop after 2 chapters… This guy’s comments were odd and unexpected, but now you’ve blogged it, it’s time to forget it, move on, log it to experience and don’t let the bloke live rent-free in your head.

    • Good point! I’m not dwelling on it really, just wanted to post here as it was all so bloody odd. As you say though, it’s all over and done now!

      That’s an interesting point about reviewing in a professional context. I agree that in that sort of scenario, there’s an obligation to be a bit more careful about what you write. It sounds like you took the right approach in thinking about how the book would appeal to your audience.

  6. I think there are some – relatively rare – people who actually like criticism, and know they need it to continue their learning and growth. They will actually ask for such criticism. They know its a natural part of life.

    These are the same few people who prove able to create diverse and open information-sharing networks around themselves, in their organisations, etc.

    The lesson for me is that good information-sharing is as much about the mindset of the individual as it is about web access, usability or whatever.

    I’ve never seen any library science work that looks at these differing mindsets – not that I’ve ever seen very much (I’m not an academic).

    Scroll down to the section titled ‘Your information sharing approach depends on your leadership maturity’ in this blog post of mine for more about this:


    By the way, I’ve had the same experience of writing a fairly even-handed review of a rather weak book.

    The author went fairly nuts, demanded a right of reply – in which he didn’t really respond to any of the queries and loose ends I’d ‘helpfully’ raised. He even wrote that I’d refused to take account in the review of various things he’d told me. But he’d only told me that stuff *after* the review was already published and he’d seen it – how could I have ignored it before publication. I asked the editor to remove that false accusation about me ignoring him from the right to reply.

    I particularly enjoyed being accused of pursuing a secret agenda – though one which was in fact pretty much diametrically opposed to the kind of view I do in fact have…

    I’d better never risk writing a book myself πŸ˜‰


    Matthew Mezey
    (Library & Information Update magazine)

    (PS Second attempt at posting this).

    • Interesting article, thanks for sharing. And good to know I’m not the only one to have suffered the wrath of an offended author!

      BTW, both of your attempts posted… they just ended up in my spam folder for some reason, hence it’s taken a while for me to see and publish. Sorry about that! Not sure why WordPress thinks you’re spam, it does some odd things with comment moderation sometimes!

  7. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reviewing a book that you stopped reading because you didn’t enjoy it. The reason I read reviews is to see whether it’s worth my time/money to read the book, and if there are people who give up reading partway through, I want to know that!! If they’d refrained from reviewing the book because they didn’t read it all then I wouldn’t be getting an honest picture of what the general consensus about the book is.

    I think Dean’s probably right that the author realised he’d been overly touchy and so took down the comments. It does seem odd to pick out your review to respond to though, if he’s “have never responded to a negative review, ever”!

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