This time last week, Jacqueline Howett was just another hopeful writer, eagerly awaiting positive feedback for her recently self-published debut novel, The Greek Seaman. And, happily, she was getting some, from the admittedly amorphous mass of critical opinion that is Amazon's customer reviews.
Little did she know, however, that it would be a less than supportive review that would secure her the kind of literary stardom of which she could previously only have dreamed. Unfortunately for Howett, she was, for a brief while, an internet phenomenon for all the wrong reasons.
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The two-star review by "Big Al", who writes the Big Al's Books and Pals blog, criticised The Greek Seaman's "numerous proofing, typo, and grammar issues" and bemoaned the fact that it was "difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unravelling what the author meant". Of course, a hitherto unknown blogger criticising a self-published book is hardly an international news story. Howett became one because she answered back. In style.
The comments section on the review is a masterclass in authorial meltdown. Howett begins relatively gently - she calls the review "unfair" because the writer didn't download the correct copy of the book. She had her right of reply, and she used it. The problem was, Howett didn't stop there. She flooded the site with the positive Amazon reviews she'd received - which prompted the reviewer to respond with a fuller justification for his response to the book.
And then it all kicked off.
"My writing is fine," she said. "Who are you anyway… now get this review off here." She called Big Al a liar, and told everyone (by now this had become a very public argument, with hundreds of comments) that "my first book is great". But she saved her best until last. With the blog gleefully tweeted around the world, Howett had what can only be described as a major flounce. She said: "You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom." The spelling error only confirming what Big Al had initially complained about.
It was a lesson in how not to handle bad reviews and Howett became a laughing stock. Big Al's blog went from 50 to 200,000 hits a day. But it was difficult not to feel just a little sorry for the first-time author defending her pride and joy. Where, in decades past, a dissatisfied writer might sit down and pen a letter to the critics (by which time, one imagines, rage might have subsided a little), now he or she can let off steam immediately via the internet.
And better writers than Howett have succumbed to the strange lure of an online review's comments section. Take philosophy writer Alain de Botton's response to a negative review of one of his books in The New York Times Book Review by Caleb Crain. Like Howett, de Botton began relatively tamely. "In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value," he wrote. And then he really warmed to his subject. "You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review… I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make."
In 2009, I interviewed de Botton for the book in question - The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work -just after the storm his comments had provoked. I asked him about them because they seemed so out of character from one of the nicest, most mild-mannered authors in literary circles. By then he was genuinely sorry he had been so vitriolic. "I don't like the way people can be so mean and destructive in reviews, but it was a stupid thing to write in a new public age," he told me.
In the same year, Practical Magic author Alice Hoffman knew exactly how powerful such a new public age could be when she called the Boston Globe reviewer of her latest book a "moron" in a tweet. "Now any idiot can be a critic," she continued, "we writers don't have to say nothing when someone tries to destroy us." Fair enough, but it was going a bit far to tweet the reviewer's phone number and e-mail address too.
Like de Botton, she ended up apologising - but as yet Howett has remained silent. The final word, for now, has gone to a tweet from fantasy author Neil Gaiman. "If you ever have dreams of being a writer, please trust me & DON'T DO THIS," he wrote, linking to Howett's comments. "Just don't".
Read the review and comments at booksandpals.blogspot.com.
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