Can people ever truly be honest?

Wow, my last post illustrates how dangerous it is trying to be funny; some people end up taking you too literally.  (And yes, in case people didn’t get it, the previous post was meant to be funny.  I’ve been getting flak for not stating that explicitly.  So here I’m stating it.  I don’t advocate stalking. I was trying to put a humorous spin on “authors who go over the top” and why.  I hope that’s now clear.) 

Humor involves a certain amount of exaggeration, and the actual story I cited is about the exaggerated lengths a certain author has gone to to protect her turf.  Yes, she went way over the line into the creepy.  But am I the only one who found black comedy in the story?  The only one who could see it as a wacky film about people who get carried away into committing absurdities? 

But another facet of humor is that it reveals some universal truth about humanity, and there are several truths I saw demonstrated in what the author did.  First, that some people don’t recognize or accept the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behavior.

And the other truth is that people will criticize such trespasses and declare themselves above such base emotions and would never, ever dream of doing such a thing.  I don’t think they’re being honest.

EC, in her comment, mentioned a little Amazon glitch that occurred a few years ago:

A couple years back, a computer glitch led to the posting of reviewer names and cities of origin on the Canadian site. Suddenly, anonymous posters were publically accountable for their words. Gasp. Clutch the pearls.  

That glitch revealed that certain authors (or their family members) had posted 5-star reviews of their own books.  And there were tons of red faces all around.  But I’ll bet you that those same authors, had you asked them the day before if they would ever even think of doing such a thing, would have angrily denied it and soundly condemned anyone who did it.  It was only the glitch that revealed how fragile their writerly egos really were.

Now, let me say right here and now that I have never given myself a 5-star review –or any review, for that matter.  Would I condemn another author for having done so?  Well, yeah.  But I would completely understand the impulse.  Just as I understand the impulse to follow around an ex-boyfriend or spank your kids, neither of which I’ve ever done.  (And my kids turned out just fine, thank you.)  These are common human impulses, and I recognize them as such.  It doesn’t mean they’re ever the right thing to do, but to claim that normal people shouldn’t even be thinking about, or be tempted to do, these things is a little disingenuous.

But maybe I’m the totally abnormal one here.  Maybe I’m the only author who feels hurt by a bad review, or who feels a stab of anger when an anonymous reader on Amazon calls my latest book schlock.  Maybe I’m the only one who wonders who that reader is — and wonders whether they’re someone I know.  Maybe I’m morally inferior and every other writer is as pure as the driven snow and can honestly say that criticism doesn’t bother them, not one single whit.

I just don’t believe it.     

On NPR a few months ago, there was a fascinating program on honesty and whether it’s ever really achievable.  Some researchers came up with questions that would generate extreme embarrassment should the person answer it truthfully.  One of the questions, asked of men, was: “Have you ever thought, even just fleetingly, about forcing someone to have sex?”  Almost all the men gave a vociferous  “No!” But the researchers realized that the truthful answer was actually, almost universally, yes.  The men simply refused to admit it to themselves, or to the researchers. 

I feel, in a sense, like one of those men who’s just come out and admitted the truth.  

And admitting the truth (that one-star reviews do hurt and make me angry) also means I can sympathize with the impulses that drive an author like McGillivray totally over the edge.  Acknowledging darker human impulses means I also understand why my fictional characters fall into bed with the wrong men, or shoot their lovers, or hunt other human beings.  I understand that normal human beings sometimes entertain totally insane thoughts late at night, in the darkness of their bedrooms.

I could have jumped in with everyone else and just started throwing stones at this author.  But what fascinated me about the story wasn’t her trespasses — it was the impulse that drove her to it.  And I’m going to acknowledge right here and now (even if not a single other author in the world will come out and agree with me) that the emotions that drove her to it are universal.  Even if her actions (thankfully) were not.

(editorial changes)

24 replies
  1. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    What is the saying? There is much truth spoken in jest.

    Any parent whose kids are grown who swears there weren’t times they wanted to strangle the little monsters is a big, fat liar. I do believe that most of us did resist — through super-human control — spanking them or worse when they were belligerent, senseless teenagers.

    In fact, grandmothers, with a sense of humor, readily admit that grandchildren are your reward for not killing your kids.

    I can’t wait to reap that reward since I earned every wrinkle and every one of those awful gray hairs that have driven me to the hair salon too frequently. And I earned them the hard way after raising three sons.

    As far as enlisting a friend to write a positive review, I’d be scared of getting caught but I’d certainly entertain the idea. Even though they’re necessary, I’m sort of wondering if a lot of blurbs aren’t a little bit disingenuous. I honestly don’t know.

  2. Joe Moore
    Joe Moore says:

    As a writer, when I agree to have my words published, I also have to agree to take whatever criticism comes with that privilege. The problem with a negative review (and I’ve received my share) is that I tend to take them personally, which is dumb. Chances are, the reviewer has never met me, knows nothing about me, and never will have any other contact with me except through my books. My books are not me, they are fiction. So there is no logic behind reacting with anger or revenge against a negative review. If anything, writers should feel as much concern for a bad review as we do for glowing praise. I believe that a negative reaction to my work means I somehow failed with that person. And if I fail with one, there’s a chance I will fail with others. Same goes for the positive side. When someone emails me that my words had a profound effect on them, there’s a good chance others will feel the same. But it’s hard to separate the words from the person and the human tendency to take it personally. So I agree with you, Tess, those emotions are universal in all of us.

  3. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    We all have an emotional side where we take negative criticism to heart. Whenever I received a bad grade in school, and knew damn well that I tried my best, I wanted to take that teacher down. But the fear of prison prevented me, and I just did better the next time.
    It is so hard to take criticism with a grain of salt, because that same grain of salt will burn into an open wound.
    I agree with Joe above. The books are not the author personally, it is just fiction. Not everyone can find what you write or say favorable. Take the good with the bad. Maybe whatever the negativity is, it may entice you to do something different next time. I guess it’s just something we have to live with.

  4. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    ‘One of the questions, asked of men, was: “Have you ever thought, even just fleetingly, about forcing someone to have sex?” Almost all the men gave a vociferous “No!” But the researchers realized that the truthful answer was actually, almost universally, yes. The men simply refused to admit it to themselves, or to the researchers.’

    Or perhaps the men really had no impulse at all to force someone to have sex. I’d be more bothered by researchers who universally thought the truthful answer was yes. It’s not, and never has been. I lean toward the other universal truth: for a sum of money, researchers will provide you with any ‘truth’ you want. 🙂

  5. Brett Battles
    Brett Battles says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I hate a low rated review…I tell myself just don’t read my reviews…but I guess I don’t listen to myself very well. Do I understand where Ms. McGillivray’s frustration is coming from? Sure. Would I do what she’s apparently done? Ah…no.

  6. doomer
    doomer says:

    Hmm. Does that mean that humanity’s ability to function depends on its impulse control? Frightening 🙂

  7. lwidmer
    lwidmer says:

    Oh, absolutely we are all prone to that delicious thought of revenge! Would we act on it? Most of us – hell no. That she did shows just how that particular review rattled her. Would I make a judgment on her entire personality based on it? Probably not. Some of us have a tough time with criticism, especially if the criticism doesn’t stop with just the work in question. If it reaches into something like “The author must’ve been on drugs” or “She should take up knitting”, that’s personal.

    It’s human nature to want to straddle the boundaries between acceptable behavior and loathsome behavior. Like you Tess, I’d want to make a mini-series out of the situation. That would be as far as I’d take it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t harbor the thoughts…

  8. ec
    ec says:

    Yeah, the commotion over this author’s extreme reaction to a three-star amuses me, for several reasons.

    1) As TG pointed out, there’s the “Let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone…” factor. Too many people are shocked–shocked!–to hear that a person would even THINK about doing such unprofessional things. Methinks there’s a certain amount of excessive protest going on here.

    2) The glitch revealed another sort of hypocracy: the anonymous posters–readers, not writers–who didn’t want their names revealed and their words held up to public scrutiny. I’m sorry, but if you post, you’ve published, and you should be prepared to play by the same rules as professional authors. If you’re of the option that working writers should suck it up because it comes with the territory, then OWN YOUR WORDS and accept the possibility that what goes around, comes around.

    I’m not saying that writers should take on their critics; to the contrary. Writers should concentrate on writing the next book. If there’s something to be learned from an online critique, great. If there isn’t, shrug and move on. More easily said than done, admittedly, but any attempt to engage critics is doomed.

  9. john lovell
    john lovell says:

    Many years ago, as a new reporter at the Portland Press Herald, I was in a bar with a frosted mug of draft beer and the man on the next stool was reading the paper. Then he put it down and said “What a load of crap!” What, I asked. “This story,” said, pointing at the page one headline. Beneath the head was my byline. What’s wrong with it, I asked. “Ah, this guy can’t write and he can’t get his facts straight.” We talked a bit more, and I learned more about why my story had flunked his review. If there were a five-star rating system, he would have given my story no stars at all. Well, I said, finally, he’s probably young and has a lot to learn. Maybe he’ll get better. “Yeah, maybe,” the man beside me said. The thing is, it seemed worthwhile to find out why he thought my story sucked, and to think about whether his criticisms had any merit, and then, maybe, to bear them in mind on the next thing I would write about.

  10. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Everyone is hurt by a negative review. What probably makes this harder in the artistic field is that the creator (and I use that word as this is pertinent to artists (both musical and painting types) and authors, all expose themselves as thier work is thier “baby.” Youve slaved over it for sometimes for years and yet a person who only knows if they like it or not has the gall to get up and tell you what they think of this body of work, point out its inperfections when its had your heart and soul put into it and, in short, tell you that you have one damn ugly baby in thier opinion.

    That hurts deep, its natural to have the defence of “what do they know” or “how do I find them to rip thier heart out” etc. Its human emotions in the rawest sense. Youve let something thats as precious to you as a real baby out into the world to take its own steps. A negative critism can be felt by the author as an attempted “murder” to the creator. We all hurt but because we do release something it is pleasing to the eye to a number of people who become fans etc.

    But as previously stated you cant please everyone. Another thought that also destroys the soul is to have the work praised and have the reader follow up with “yeah loved the book read it in a couple of hours. Whens the next one out.” My god, that person just summed up a year (or more) of your life in that short sentence and just demanded that you hand over your next “baby”.

    Whilst I do appreciate the dark humour at work here (and lets face it, if a writer handed it over as a film project they’d be told that it wouldnt happen) the people who are in the “limelight” have to set a level of respectablility, theyre like Stars to those of us who try to get there, work the dead end jobs so we can have the money to live whilst we struggle to get our thoughts out. Only truly happy hammering away at that old battered keyboard with half the letters worn away so all you can do is touch type etc.

    So to have one go off the deepend has to provoke a response. Yeah we’d like to grab the people that we’ve endured endless suffering for and rip thier throats out, yeah we’d like to know how the hell they can comment on things that might not be obvious except to the author but its something that we all have to respect. Opinions are like Rectums, everyone has one (some have more but hey, Im not going to look into peoples personal lives and choices. LOL)

    Authors have to generally take the higher ground as its their living thats affected by their outbursts. It hurts like hell to have to surpress your feelings only being allowed to rant and rave at family but its the only outlet available. What do I do, I have a punchbag, I can smack the hell out of it, I can kick the hell out of it, I can pretend its the reviewer thats hurt me etc. No one needs to know and I get a reasonable workout out of the deal, no ones hurt. But I do feel that as a writer that you have to show a number of different things mainly using your intelligence and using decorum. It might not feel so good but it means that you can make light of negative of reviews to the outside world. People buy your work and enjoy it but you cant expect everyone to, it wouldnt match the human psyche.

    Anyway, big hugs to you Tess, we still love you, (Provided that Him indoors doesnt mind that. LOL)


  11. Anne Germain
    Anne Germain says:

    I’m glad to see that I got it right (see my comment on your last post)!!!
    Thanks for reassuring me…

  12. JMH
    JMH says:

    I think it’s perfectly fine, and maybe even healthy, for an author to distain the anonymous reviewer who maliciously trashes the author’s book. I don’t get many of them but when I do my thought is always the same–screw you.

  13. Patricia Wood
    Patricia Wood says:

    Right on Tess!!!!
    I totally agree. I had no problem understanding your intention in your previous post- and I really get the “What would I do if I were king of the world” kind of feeling when I read a crappy review.
    All the authors I meet tell me not to read my reviews and every author I meet reads theirs…LOL
    I SO enjoy your blog…
    (Any hints about what I should do when I go to London in June for the Orange Prize Awards? ……….SQUEEE!!!!!!!!!!!)

  14. Nonny
    Nonny says:

    Ah, the limitations of text. 🙂

    I’m a member of the Romance Divas writing community, and every so often we have threads about bad reviews. You are by far not the only author to become upset at reviews insulting your work. Honestly? I tend to agree that people who insist that they don’t hurt at all are lying to themselves.

    That said, I truly can’t fathom hiring a private investigator to find out the names of a reviewer’s family for the purpose of threatening and harassing her. OK, so she didn’t like my book. I’ll get over it.

    And really, while the initial hurt is definitely there… that’s what a writer’s support group is for. You bitch, piss, and moan to your friends, call the reviewer whatever names you like in private, and vent it out. That’s an appropriate way to deal with the hurt and anger. Net stalking or censoring the reviewer’s opinions via asking your friends to vote down her review is not.

    Maybe I look at it a bit differently because I have reviewed as well as written. As a reader/reviewer, I have a right to my opinion. The author may or may not like it. There are always plenty of people out there to disagree with me; some of the books I’ve hated the most seem to sell quite well. It’s all a matter of personal taste.

    I once had a review of one of my books that completely shredded it. (Link if you’re interested.) It was a very harsh review, but I laughed because I could where she was coming from. I know other people, though, who would’ve been devastated. I try not to take reviews too seriously; they’re only one person’s opinion, after all.

  15. ec
    ec says:

    The thing is, it seemed worthwhile to find out why he thought my story sucked, and to think about whether his criticisms had any merit, and then, maybe, to bear them in mind on the next thing I would write about.

    Really good advice. If you’re going to read reviews–and I think most authors do read at least some–one of the main reasons for doing so it to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

    I know many people will disagree with this, but it seems to me that if something didn’t work for your (collective) audience, IT DIDN’T WORK. Most successful writers I knew are extremely good at figuring out who their audience is, what their expectations are, and delivering stories that meet and exceed these expectations.

  16. DaveR
    DaveR says:

    As a reviewer (formerly at Amazon, but now more at Epinions and Curled Up With a Good Book), I try to be as fair as I can, even when I’m giving a negative review. I always try to find something positive even if I actually hated the book for some reason. I also always try to make sure I’m criticizing the actual book rather than the author him/herself.

    But I completely understand the impulse to do something like this when somebody doesn’t follow those “rules.” And I’m sure even a well-written negative review hurts a little bit, given the time and effort you’ve put into a book, but I would hope the impulse to go after them would be mitigated by how the review was presented.

    Bland, glowing praise is almost as annoying, for the reasons stated by a couple of commenters above. Don’t you want to know *why* the person loved the book? If overall, the book was treasured but there was some bit that they didn’t like, wouldn’t you want to know?

    Thankfully, Tess, you haven’t had to worry about any of my reviews. 🙂 Here’s hoping you never have to!


  17. Joshua James
    Joshua James says:

    I think one cannot read about the exploits of Harlan Ellison and not be amused – he doesn’t suffer fools or critics lightly, and is willing to back it up out in the parking lot if need be.

    You gotta love a writer like that.

    Or a critic, for that matter.

  18. Tess
    Tess says:

    I don’t know what the dress protocol is for the Orange Prize, but if I were you, I’d be out shopping for the most splendid gown I could find! (And once you get there, treat yourself to champagne!)

  19. Sandra_Ruttan
    Sandra_Ruttan says:

    I don’t think it’s a case of people not appreciating black humour, or that we can’t be honest. I think it’s this particular case, combined with this blog’s audience. Increasingly, authors are forced to set the standard for acceptable behaviour. We see some encouraging people to drop their books in people’s shopping baskets, others pester reviewers incessantly. I’m aware of authors asking reviewers to change their wording to strengthen the reviews.

    Honestly, I think there’s a lot of very inappropriate behaviour in the name of promotion, and a lot of us want to distance ourselves from that.

    The black comedy from this story is like a reverse Misery, but the thing is, it’s no laughing matter. Someone recently took my author e-mail address and signed me up for an online dating site, indicating I’m a lesbian. I found out when women started contacting me. On the one hand, I roll my eyes and wonder about people who have nothing better to do with their time. And it’s nice to know if I ever changed orientation, I’d have options. But I spent years being bullied in school, and I don’t care if it’s an author, taylor, baker or puppet maker who’s doing it – an implied threat against a person’s children is NEVER acceptable.

    I don’t think the response is all about attacking the author. It’s also about standing with, and supporting, the reviewer who has endured this. All too often, people get bullied or harassed and everyone else averts their eyes because it’s inconvenient to get involved. I consider it a good sign that people have stood up and said this behaviour is unacceptable. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand that bad reviews hurt – of course they do, and to think that because I’m not going to joke about this particular topic means I don’t feel that just as deeply is wrong. It is the people who slam you without reading your book that I can fantasize about some form of revenge on, but it’s a momentary self indulgence, and investing energy in that just means you’re giving that person (and their opinion) more power in your life.

    Anyone who threatened my family over a “meh” review would find themselves, a) banned from ever being reviewed again (or read by me, for that matter, and since my partner is a reviewer as well, I suspect the ban would be extended to him, because he doesn’t take threats against his children lightly), and b) answering a knock from the police. I’ve got no tolerance for that.

  20. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    I got a review from Kirkus that said, “Konrath’s prose ranges from careless to wretched.”

    I used that line as my blurb on a horror antho I recently appeared in.

    Bad reviews don’t bother me. Everyone has an opinion, and all opinions are valid. If your work failed a reader, it’s your fault, not hers.

    The goal is to fail as few readers as possible, and please as many as possible.

  21. JD Rhoades
    JD Rhoades says:

    Basic principles:
    Whatever you do, somebody isn’t going to like it.
    The Internet gives everyone who has it a voice.
    People who are angry, disgruntled, or just plain nuts are more likely to write about it, especially on the Internet.
    Therefore, you can expect more bad Internet reviews than good ones. If you’re getting more good than bad, you’re beating the odds. Rejoice.

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