And We Thought American Book Review Controversies Got Contentious…

Dagestan is a province in the Northern Caucasus of Russia. (Don’t let the “Northern” in its name fool you. By Russian standards, that’s in the south.) It is known as the site of some terrorist activity, as well as corruption. According to the Library of Congress web site, it is also the site of the latest book review controversy. A novelist in Dagestan sued a book reviewer over a negative review that appeared in the local press. The author complained that the review gave him medical symptoms such as chest pains, as well as causing both himself and his family to undergo “severe mental suffering.”

The author won the suit and was granted the equivalent of $1,000. However, he is still unhappy with the result because he was looking for about $150,000. The reviewer is, of course, also unhappy over the result. In other words, this suit looks like it could drag on and on, in Bleak House fashion. Well, let’s not get too worried yet. Dagestan is not like the U.S. or most parts of Europe. Still, when it came to authors responding to negative reviews, I thought I’d seen everything. Authors calling on their fans to report negative reviews to Amazon? Been there. Authors calling reviewers names for daring to have opinions? Seen that. Authors creating false identities to post on boards or lists? Got the T-shirt. There are writers who think sites such as AAR should be shunned, if not strapped into a dunking stool. On AARlist2, an author once admitted that she clicked “Not Helpful” on all negative reviews on Amazon, even if she hadn’t read the book, because those were “mean”.

Luckily, those authors are outliers and most authors “get” the point of reviews. Let’s take Susan Lyons, who blogged about this case on the Aphrodisia Authors blog. She realizes that reviews are written for the readers, not the authors, and that not every review is going to be glowing, just as not every book is going to be great. However, she did qualify that with “Now, if a review is a deliberate, mean attempt to sabotage an author’s career, and that can be proved, then maybe an author ought to be able to sue the reviewer.”

But how do you define “mean”? Heck, how do you define “deliberate”? Almost since I first got on-line, I’ve seen authors have meltdowns over negative reviews. Some authors seem to believe that every negative (in other words, three stars or below) review on Amazon was placed by a rival author using a false identity. As if those authors had the time to write all those reviews. As if the negative reviews made that much of an impact in sales. Will this law suit give those writers any ideas? Let’s hope not. Let’s hope that outside of Dagestan, most lawyers would refuse to take a case such as this.

Still, this case got me thinking. Maybe there are cases where a review can cross a line. What if the review was defamatory, wrongfully accusing the author of being a pedophile or a plagiarist? What if the review posted private information about the author? Then what recourse does the author have? The author may be able to get the review removed, but what if the damage is already done? In that case, do you think that a law suit might be the only way the author can be vindicated? Is there ever a circumstance in which you think a reviewer can become open to being sued? I’m leaning toward “Hell no.” After all, most pros believe that responding to a negative review is one of the biggest mistakes an author can make and that advice makes sense because responding to a review often reflects badly on the author.

-Anne Marble

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7 Responses to “And We Thought American Book Review Controversies Got Contentious…”

  1. Nathalie says:

    I think it’s rather weird that authors get so angry over bad review. Heck, we all have different taste. But if all reviews are bad, maybe the book isn’s so good?

  2. maggie b. says:

    Quote: What if the review was defamatory, wrongfully accusing the author of being a pedophile or a plagiarist? What if the review posted private information about the author? Then what recourse does the author have? The author may be able to get the review removed, but what if the damage is already done? In that case, do you think that a law suit might be the only way the author can be vindicated? Is there ever a circumstance in which you think a reviewer can become open to being sued?

    I think reviews cross the line when they speak about the author personally. It is fine to discuss how the author never met an adjective she didn’t like, couldn’t come up with a decent transition sentence to save her life and had zero character growth in her novels. Since many authors now do this for business rather than art I think it is also OK to that aspect of the author in a review. But I think how an author looks, what they wear at photo shoots, etc. should be off limits. To me that is a personal attack and shows a lack of professionalism on the part of the reviewer.
    Whatever they had to say about the book I would not be interested in because it would be biased by their clear prejudice against the author.

    Personally I also avoid review sites that specialize in “funny” (translated snarky) reviews. I just don’t find it that entertaining to rip to shreds someone’s hard work, even if that person should never have released it into public domain. Some of AAR’s F reviews can be funny but they always seem to take themselves seriously as well. That I appreciate. But when you are just ripping at someone for entertainment? Just don’t get the amusement value in that.

  3. MarySkl says:

    Thank goodness we have different laws in the US concerning freedom of speech. When an author puts something out in the public domain, they become a public figure. The legal test for defamation in that case is “malice aforethought.” But you also have to counter that with opinion. Any criticism of the book itself is fair game, no matter how bad the review. Opinion is not objectionable speech. For a review to be considered defamation, it must first of all be false. Truth is an incontrovertible defense to a slander/libel action. If in the course of a review the reviewer calls the author a pedophile AND that is not true, AND it can be shown that the reviewer KNEW the author was not a pedophile, then there is a case for defamation. In the case of a non-public personality, the “reviewer’s/defamer’s” knowledge of whether or not the “author/victim” was a pedophile has no bearing. If it was false, it was defamation. For example: I could write an editorial calling my next door neighbor a pedophile and be sued and lose. I could write an editorial calling a public figure a pedophile and if I really believed it was true, then that would be a defense against a defamation action because I did not act with malice aforethought.

    When you put yourself into the public arena, you open yourself to criticism. If you cannot stand the heat, you need to get out of the kitchen. No one likes negative things said about something they worked very hard to complete, but literature by its very nature is an area that critique/criticism is essential to its survival. In a free society, even snarky reviewers should have no limits placed on them unless the comments meet the malice aforethought test. No one is going to write a book that everyone likes. Even J.K. Rowling who is the richest woman alive due to her Harry Potter books, took untold amounts of criticism for those books. Most brilliant books do have a bit of controversy to them that invites both negative and positive opinions. You have to take the good with the bad.

    I would think authors who live and breath communication would not want any limits placed on other’s right to communicate.

  4. Estella says:

    Not every book pleases every reader. There are bound to be negative reviews sometimes.

  5. Katie Mack says:

    I think MarySkl brings up a good point. Having an opinion (positive or negative), and expressing that opinion is not a crime. (At least not in countries with free speech protections.) I think suing someone over expressing their opinion is really just another form of censorship, and I am very strongly against censorship.

    Plus, if an author could sue a reviewer for writing a “bad” review, wouldn’t that be opening the door for readers to sue an author for writing a “bad” book? Some of Stephen King’s books sure gave me nightmares. Should I be able to sue him for mental anguish? :)

  6. Sue P says:

    Quote: What if the review was defamatory, wrongfully accusing the author of being a pedophile or a plagiarist? What if the review posted private information about the author? Then what recourse does the author have?

    The first situation (wrongful accusation of pedophilia or plagiarism) constitute libel, and would be actionable — the reviewer stepped out of his/her protection by reviewing the author inaccurately. Now, the reviewer’s OPINIONS about the work are never actionable.

  7. Just thought I’d weigh in on this. As someone who is aggressively working toward publication, I take what I say online seriously. I make it a point to pass along great reviews with positive comments because I know how hard it is to get those words on paper and go through the process of seeking publication. So if I don’t have anything stellar to say to support my fellow authors, I opt to remain silent. That doesn’t mean if I don’t say something, I didn’t like it, but I do my best to support my fellow writers by staying positive and supportive.

    I tend to look at the blogs and review sites for honest assessments on books to read but if I post something like – I feel so betrayed by an author, I won’t mention who that author is. For me as an individual who is not running a review site, I can do that. However, if a review site only publishes stellar reviews, then no, it will probably not be looked at honestly.

    All that being said, I recently saw a reader on Amazon give an author a 1 star rating because she was angry about the price of the kindle version. The reviewer stated that if the author lowered the price, she’d take down the review.

    Reviews can hurt but I have to agree with other commenters: Everyone is not going to like the same thing. Honest assessments are the only way we as readers know what to expect from books our friends have read. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    It is difficult not to take things personally, however and that’s something that we as writers need to tuck aside and take the high road on. Everything that is put out into cyberspace is traceable back to you so if you as an author engage in snarky flame wars, it will probably come back to bite you.
    Just my thoughts.
    Jess Scott
    http://www.jessicascott.net