It’s always understandable when an author does not react well to a negative review of one’s work. After all the time and labor one has put into writing a book, it smarts when someone finds that the result isn’t as good as one had hoped. Moreover, a number of positive reviews does not numb the sting left by a negative review, especially when it concerns one’s first book. Over time, one can develop a thicker skin and a more philosophical approach to reviews of one’s work, but to ask that someone not react is to suggest that they should not be human.
That said, as I’ve suggested, it usually is not wise to respond immediately to criticism of one’s work. Responses composed in emotional heat rarely work out well (that observation is not limited to reactions to negative reviews). People might say things they later regret, and might go a bit too far in what they claim. Once upon a time exercising some self-restraint was all too easy. Even if you took the time to compose a reply, you would have to mail a letter to the reviewer or the journal/magazine/newspaper in which the review appeared. That’s no longer the case. You can simply turn on your computer, type up a response, press “send,” and it’s out there. Sometimes, if you offer your response on a blog or in the comments section of a review or a blog, it’s out there for all to see, especially if someone knows how to link to it.
This past weekend illustrated the process. I would not have known of the brewing battle over Carole Emberton’s review of Stephen Hood’s volume on John Bell Hood had it not been mentioned in social media, where I came across it while contemplating whether to complain about the poor play of the New York Giants on Facebook as I took a break from some long-overdue grading.
Let me begin by saying that while I understand Stephen Hood’s frustration, I would also have advised him to stew about it quietly for a while. Instead, he reacted here as he has done elsewhere, but with far more passion and dismay, and with predictable results. In the case of Emberton’s review, the discussion moved quickly, perhaps too quickly in the world of rapid fire cyber-exchanges, and one would be remiss if one did not note that he’s had second thoughts about his first reaction.
That said, what really made this argument take off in my mind is a comment offered by Hood’s publisher, Ted Savas:
In the end, this professor did not read this book, and the fact that she did not and tried to pawn off a hit review is disgusting. If I was her dean, I would investigate and if I reached the same conclusion, I would fire her. She is unethical. This is the issue.
That’s a rather strong claim to make, especially without any evidence to support it … although Mr. Savas initially chose to respond to a question concerning whether he could prove that Professor Emberton did not read the book by declaring:
What I wrote is evidence, and readers will decide.
What Mr. Savas is evidence of what he thinks, not of what Professor Emberton did or did not do. Perhaps Mr. Savas grasped this fact, for it did not take him long to modify his initial claim.
I stated in a comment above that Ms. Emberton did not read the book. If you read my blog post, you will see I qualified that. I should have qualified it in my comments as well.
I don’t know whether she did or not.
Readers who have actually read it will have to decide for themselves.
Let’s say that Professor Emberton chose to demonstrate that Mr. Savas was in error as to whether she read the book. What would you advise Mr. Savas to do, given what he thinks should happen should the professor’s dean undertake an investigation of the review and conclude that Mr. Savas was right?
Remember: what goes around comes around. Mr. Savas has opened up a Pandora’s box worth of possibilities.
Oh, by the way … the Giants came back to beat the Washington NFL franchise. Sorry, Ethan.
UPDATE: Mr. Savas has issued a retraction.