Dear Ms. Cornwell

 scottie

You’re looking at the painful results of a donkey-porcupine encounter.  I don’t know who started the fight, since I didn’t witness the confrontation, but I suspect my donkey Scottie was the aggressor since porcupines are inclined to scurry away from conflict while donkeys can be, well… territorial.  An infected leg and $2,000 in veterinarian bills later, Scottie was safely home and back in his paddock.  The suspect porcupine was quickly dispatched by our farm caretaker.  Yet only days later our other donkey, Spock, had porcupine quills in his legs.  Resulting in yet another trip to the vet and another hefty bill.  Although we’ve gotten rid of several porcupines since then, new ones keep showing up.  There’s no end to them.

I was reminded of porcupines when I read about author Patricia Cornwell fighting back against the multitude of bad reader reviews she’s received on Amazon.com.  In a letter on her website, she talks about a possible conspiracy against her, and asks her loyal readers to defend her by posting reviews to counteract the unfair ones.  Her request has garnered a certain amount of ridicule and laughter.  The general reaction in the blogosphere is that Cornwell is rich and famous so why does she bother to fight back?  People in her position should be immune to hurt feelings.  People with money and success should be able to shrug off any and all criticism.  

Instead of shrugging it off, she’s attacking her attackers.  Just like Spock and Scottie, she’s kicking back at her tormentors — but she’s getting stuck with the quills of ridicule because of it.

I can understand her impulse to fight back.  Many times, I’ve wanted to fire back an angry letter at a nasty reviewer.  I’ve wanted to respond to 1-star Amazon.com reviews.  I’ve thought of enlisting my readers in defending me.  But then I consider the ramifications of those actions.  You come off looking whiny and desperate.  You reveal just how sensitive — and vulnerable — you really are.

The fact is, we writers are sensitive and vulnerable to criticism.  I know I am — and it appears that Cornwell is as well. 

But we have to grit our teeth and keep smiling.  We have to resist the urge to kick those porcupines. 

Now, I’ve never met Patricia Cornwell, and I doubt she knows who I am.  But if I could write a note to her, this is what I might say:

Dear Ms. Cornwell,

you’ve written some fabulous books.  You’ve also written some books that have not been well received by your readers.  Some of their reviews have been unspeakably nasty and crueler than any novelist deserves.  Don’t give them the satisfaction of a public response.  Don’t let on that you’ve even noticed.  Because no matter what you say, no matter how justified your response may be, you will come off looking bad.  I know it’s hard to take those attacks without fighting back.  Like you, I have a tough time ignoring criticism.  Probably like you, I have fantasies of revenge.  Fantasies involving hitmen and midnight knocks on my tormentors’ doors.

But let’s both be strong, okay?  Let’s show the world we’re true professionals and above the fray. 

And if by chance you’ve already hired that hitman, tell him the plans are off.  Tell him to leave your critics alone.

Send him after mine instead. 

 

26 replies
  1. SandraRuttan
    SandraRuttan says:

    The simple truth is, there will always be some people who want to attack whoever is popular, whether they deserve it or not. Lashing back in such a public display such as this only draws more attention to the criticism, and for many of us who aren’t loyal followers of the work, now we suspect every positive review is there by request and not sincere.

    Although I have to give her this much credit – she surpassed the person who publicly argued over a review last year on DorothyL. I have a standing policy that I don’t review books by people who argue over reviews. A review is a person’s opinion. One hopes the opinions are supported by content from the book (within the limitations of not giving spoiler after spoiler) but you have to trust readers to make up their own minds.

  2. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    the reviewers on amazon are usually oridinary readers who don’t write reviews for a living,so they really don’t carry that much weight,although i like to read them because professional reviewers piss me off frequently with their patronizing attitude- i do notice on amazon when someone writes a bad review amongst generally favorable ones,it is usually found not to be helpful by those reading it,so the review finds its own level of influence by amazon reader response-i couldn’t help enjoying the poor review patrick”dufus”anderson got from luc sante,a brilliant writer and professor at bard college for his non fiction book on thrillers- he can’t write one and can’t apparently even write about them competently -yeah patrick, we don’t move our lips while reading tess’ novels 🙂

  3. struggler
    struggler says:

    If there’s one thing worse than people talking about you – even bad things – it’s people never talking about you at all. Maybe Patricia Cornwell’s ploy is to draw attention to herself at the expense of some ridicule, who knows.

  4. vivien
    vivien says:

    I loved your ‘letter’. A friend of mine who writes non-fiction was often derided in reviews but had a philosophy that there was no such thing as bad publicity.

    I popped over to amazon.com to read the reviews and I have to say there did seem a lot of 1 star ones, now balanced out by 5 stars added possibly by her readers seeking to defend her.

    For comparison I checked amazon.co.uk where there are just 18 reader reviews, 9 of which are 5 star and only 1 one star, with a more even spread between. I don’t think that means there was a conspiracy but it suggests that in the USA it has attracted more extreme reactions.

    I didn’t want to read the reviews too closely as I am part way through said novel now.

    I am surprised that you would say you’d doubt Patricia Cornwell would know who you are. I mean maybe she doesn’t and if so I find this quite disappointing. No matter how rich and famous an author is to not be aware of others working in your genre seems to be short-sighted.

  5. therese
    therese says:

    Poor Scottie & Spock, just for defending their space. I’m not sure how Patricia Cornwell would appreciate being compared to your donkeys.

    Your letter and insights are a true gift to writers who have felt this sting. Thanks.

  6. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    To be honest its a difficult to deal with. It doesnt matter if youre a new author or one thats been writing for a number of years. It all hurts when a bad review comes in as youve beared some of your inner most feelings, emotions and in some cases blood, sweat and tears into a project.

    Everyone no matter who they are reacts the same way until they find a coping mechanism. One author I know took to a punchbag at home, it works out his frustration and helps calm him when its a bad time. Others find different ways to cope.

    As has been said a name will be remembered long after the review be it good or bad. As an example, an author has a computer. Said computer breaks so he calls in a repair guy who’s number he found in his diary. Repair guy turns up, screws the computer even worse and leaves. Author then says “Why did I get him in?” to which the wife replied “I dont know either but he did the same thing last time you called him.”

    Thats a point to remember. Whilst a round about tale it is suscint enough to act as a story with a moral.

    Theres never going to be a book that everyone loves and no one hates. Its what has to be remembered. What one likes another will hate. Theres no point beating youself up about it. The point is those who enjoy your book will come back for more, those who don’t wont. As long as youre happy with it at the end of the day thats all that matters and its all you can judge yourself on.

    Whilst this may be taking the scenic way round the problem an author has to remember that thier way is open to everyone else and whilst most careers arent as open to critism, any time the soul is beared there will be someone willing to take a kick. Just try to get your boot in first. LOL

  7. Craig
    Craig says:

    I’ve probably posted a dozen reviews, and I use the term loosely, on Amazon. With the exception of one CD Review, all were positive, and I panned the one CD because a better collection of music by the artist now made that CD unnecessary. Mostly, I try to give local authors a boost. We have some fabulous authors here in Oklahoma and I’ve reviewed for Marcia Prestion, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, and the Cozy Crime Writers, a group of ladies who collectively wrote a group of short stories and poems featuring pets, one of the pets being an emu.Look for Almostly Murder With Pets. [All of the above available on Amazon.]
    My experience with negative reviews on Amazon is that most have no substance. They don’t like the book but don’t know why. I avoid negative reviews because more often than not it’s a matter a fitting an author with a reader–some times they’re compatible and some times they’re not. Just because I don’t like a book doesn’t make it a bad book–maybe it’s me. I wish folks would be verrrrrryyyy careful when panning a book online.

  8. Tess
    Tess says:

    Eileen,
    don’t think I haven’t considered that!

    Therese, oh, I hope Cornwell doesn’t think I intended the comparison as an insult. KNowing and loving donkeys as I do, I think that to be compared to one of these gentle and curious creatures would be a compliment.

  9. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    I have never read a Cornwell novel, so I would never comment on her writing. I have read the negative reviews on Amazon, and they don’t read like form letter sock puppets following orders. They read like upset consumers, who have bought something they didn’t like. They made pretty detailed criticisms. It’s just possible Ms. Cornwell read them, and felt they hit a little closer to the truth than she liked. If anything, the positive reviews read more like sock puppet material. Ms. Cromwell’s idea to fight back may be the only way she can keep the book from being a complete flop. I wish her well. Any writer can have a bad outing.

  10. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Having had time to think about it, I really dont see it as a positive thing with the author appealing for positive reviews from “fans.” It seems more like demanding accolation from the masses to offset the upset ego of an author.

    It should be the choice of the reader whoever they be to write a review. As has been mentioned everyone has an off day. I dont care who you are, it will happen, the point is to learn by your mistakes and work it out from there. After all if we never fell we would never pick ourselves up and try again. Thats the key, to try again. Prove yourself, its one reason I love Tess, she loves a challenge and isnt afraid of trying something different to keep not only our interest but her own so that she makes the best book she can.

    Incidently no stop offs in Manchester or Lancaster UK. Im upset now, wont get to see Tess this time (unless of course she decides to stop off after the official tour.) 🙁

  11. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Tess–

    Is your vet’s name McCoy, by any chance? 😉

    If a book sucks, I just put it down and move on. I don’t feel the need to publicly blast anyone.

  12. firelight
    firelight says:

    I sympathise with writers who receive bad reviews and I applaud those who can take it with dignity and grace.

    However, I think it’s also useful to bear in mind that writers are not the only people on the planet who get criticised. No matter what occupation you’re in, sooner or later you’re going to come up against someone who doesn’t like your work / doesn’t like you / had a bad hair day and just needed a punchbag, etc. Most of the time, you’re expected to just take it and not lash back at the person making negative remarks about your work, no matter how much effort your poured into it. It’s something most of us learn to do from young.

    I think the thing that bothers me most about Cornwell’s case is not the fact that she enlisted her faithful minions to flood Amazon with positive reviews. What bothers me most is the fact that she came up with a conspiracy theory to explain the bad reviews. Being hurt by bad reviews is one thing – pegging them on the Pentagon? That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

  13. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    Mixed feelings here.

    While I do think it’s petty to respond to critics, I do think it’s kind of cool to call upon your fanbase and ask for some support.

    Anne Rice did something similar a while ago, responding to Amazon critics. It got her a lot of free publicity. So, as a stunt to make people aware of your book (a bit of controversy can’t hurt sales) I applaud it.

    But there’s a widespread belief that Ms. Cornwell’s last several books haven’t been as good as her first couple books.

    I don’t think this belief is based on envy or jealousy, or is some unified effort to attack Patricia. I simply believe that a lot of her fans are wondering why the books have gotten worse.

    I’m all for authors breaking new ground, trying new things, taking chances, speading wings, etc.

    But if you’re getting panned by fans and critics for not one, not two, but six books in a row, maybe it’s time to listen to what they have to say.

  14. ec
    ec says:

    Great post. It reminds me of some advice I received years ago from a writer several rungs up the success ladder, something he’d learned through hard experience:

    Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk.

    Words to live by.

    I have responded to a few bad reviews and message board trolls, and I have always regretted doing so.

  15. Craig
    Craig says:

    Sound advice ec; here’s another way to phrase it [I heard this first from Nancy Grace]. Never wrestle with a pig; you’ll just get dirty and the pig love it.

  16. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    i read a few cornwell books and didn’t like them very much,but apparently a lot of people do,so i hardly felt the need to run them down on amazon-i only gave one negative review-to a stephen king book,and only because it took a great novelette idea(think “Th Mist”)and stretched it into a repetitive novel(“Cell”)-sometimes less is more-horror is hard to sustain at novel length,no matter who the author-fantasy and sf are much different and well suited to the novel form

  17. Josephine Damian
    Josephine Damian says:

    Ouch! Poor donkeys.

    Looking back at Patricia Cornwell’s past history – aka trouble – it’s no surprise how badly she’s handling this latest “battle.”

    She clearly has a lot of issues and demons that go beyond bad reviews. Perhaps if she focused more on writing, and less on these big dramas she keeps getting involved with, she wouldn’t get bad reviews.

  18. ec
    ec says:

    While I do think it’s petty to respond to critics, I do think it’s kind of cool to call upon your fanbase and ask for some support.

    As always, YMMV, but I’ve gotten burned for doing this. A lot of readers see a request for support–even among your fan base–as a negative.

    If you’re going to solicit reader reviews, it’s probably a good idea to keep the potential of reader misperception in mind, and go about it in a manner that’s likely to deflect at least some of the criticism. One of the better methods I’ve seen is a participation contest with the winner selected completely at random; for example, the readers are asked to post a review–be it good, bad, or indifferent–at Amazon.com or wherever, then drop the author an email with a link (or post it as a comment on the author’s blog). The prize is usually a signed copy or signed galleys, and the winner is selected by some variation of pulling a name out of a hat.

    Most writers I’ve talked to seem to agree that it’s best to avoid responding to critics. Another mine field for writers is whether or not to correct misinformation. I’ve come to the conclusion that unless a remark is serious enough to be actionable–and most of the time even then–silence is usually the best response. If for no other reason, this is self-preservation. Someone who’s spreading misinformation is very likely to twist your response into something equally negative, then broadcast their version.

  19. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    I think the other way to phrase it and my personal favourite, is “Never get into an argument with an Idiot. They’ll get you down to thier level and beat you with experience.”

  20. Nancy Lovetere
    Nancy Lovetere says:

    The picture of your donkey reminds me of a true, old Maine story of my veterinarian who had a way with words. A wealthy summer resident brought her little poodle, who was studded with porcupine quills, to his office. She demanded to be seen immediately before other waiting customers. Upon receiving the bill for the removal of the quills she remarked,”This amount is exorbitant! Pray tell, how do you make money in the winter when we summer people are not here to support you?” The vet quickly replied, “We raise porcupines.”

  21. holly y
    holly y says:

    The ancient philosopher Lao Tse (he of Taoism fame) said that it takes two people to have a fight. He said, “No fight, no blame.” Patricia Cornwell, by choosing to fight against bad reviewers, and recruiting back-up, is now receiving blame for the fight.

    When I was a teacher in a very small school we always had a problem of the little kids saying mean things to the older kids. If the older kids fought back, guess who got in trouble — the older kids every time. We expected them to show some restraint to the younger, less mature, crowd. (Of course we were always lecturing the little people about being better, well, people.)

    We want to see well-known people behave better than the less mature crowd. At least Cornwell’s actions have generated very interesting, thought provoking comments.

    I do think Lao Tse would ask you both to lay off the hit men and get them job re-training in, say, copy editing, instead of human editing. 🙂

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