Three Stars out of Five.

It is a fact widely ignored that noteworthy people about whom one may share opinions on social media are flesh-and-blood human beings capable of responding to such comments directly.

I realized this all too well when I wrote a fair but critical book review last fall and the author left me a kind but lengthy rebuttal in the comments section.

I’m starting to dip my toe into the waters of book reviews, and with that comes the reality that authors sometimes read what reviewers write. Sometimes they even respond.

And sometimes, in the bizarre case of Kathleen Hale, they go to great lengths (some would call it stalking) to contact negative reviewers who post on social media sites and then write confessional pieces about said “pursuit” in (inter)national papers. Spooky.

I’m glad I’ve never had to deal with that level of crazy intensity, but it does give the online reviewer pause: what if the author actually reads my review? Am I being critical or just cruel? Are my critiques justifiable or personal?

I will freely admit, being snarky is fun. It’s easy to go for the cheap dig and the harsh slam. But critical red-meat and ad hominem attack doesn’t make for a good review. What matters are things like style and content, not cheap shots. I’m not writing clickbait for Buzzfeed here. [#Irony]

When I wrote my recent review of The Art of Work, I wrestled with this tension a little, even though I really liked the book. I was part of Jeff Goins’ online launch team. He sent me a free copy of his book to review, and I knew that he and others on the team would see the review. Of course the temptation to write a puff piece was high! But I had legitimate critiques and I owed it to you (and to Jeff) to be honest about that.

A short time after I shared my review on the Launch Team Facebook page, Jeff reposted an article about handling criticism and  ignoring haters. As i read the post, I felt dread and a little shame rise up in my gut. I went back over my post to see if I made a mistake, and decided that I still stood by it. I was honest but very positive on the book. In the end, I realized that Jeff’s post was written years prior and had nothing to do with me; but it nevertheless made me reconsider how I write about others’ work. After all, someday soonish, I’m going to be the author tempted to read people’s reviews of my work.

Which brings me back to my original point: the people we talk about online, whether book reviews or blog posts or Twitter updates, are real people. So if we criticize, we must be careful to do so lovingly, wisely, and only when necessary.

This may sound like a Pollyanna policy, but it’s not. I’m not advising you to say nothing if you can’t be “nice.” Sometimes “nice” isn’t loving, if stern words of correction are needed. But what happens more often in social media interaction is that we reach for sabres over scalpels because sabres are easier to swing. Unfortunately, that often reveals who’s more interested in being a swordsman than a surgeon.

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