Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To Defend or Not to Defend ... When an Author Is Attacked (or it feels that way)

Through Hamlet, Shakespeare once said that “to be or not to be” was the question. For authors, it’s “to defend or not to defend” ourselves from negative media coverage, whether it comes in the form of critical book reviews or—from my own personal experience—news stories.

First, the critical book reviews. There are authors who scan every review of their books and then react publicly (or privately, using e-mail) to all the “bad” reviews. This tends to make the author seem whiny, petty, and insecure. While the temptation to defend yourself may be as strong as your breath after a garlic and onion sandwich, restraint is in order and can serve as your emotional breath mint. Publish good work, and the positive reviews will surely outshine the negative ones. Let those positive reviews be your defense. (I mean reviews from strangers, not relatives or friends; it’s easy to spot a review written by someone with a personal relationship with the author, and those do nothing to enhance an author’s credibility.)

It’s unrealistic to expect every reader to love your work. People with different interests, different tastes, different experiences, and different opinions are going to react to your work ... differently!  If you take the time to defend your work against negative reviews, you are wasting time that could be spent on researching and writing your next book! You are arguing with folks whose opinions are, honestly speaking, as valid as yours. It may be that you are feeding some trolls, who love to upset earnest writers and will return again and again to yank your chain. And you will be steeping yourself in negativity, which may affect your work, your personal relationships, and your health. Too much of that steeping may make you—and your writing—bitter! Don’t succumb to the temptation!

Here is a blog post that shares one such response to a review: Please Remove Your Harsh Review (Please finish reading my blog post before heading over to that one!)

Second, negative news coverage. Chances are, if you accept assignments and are given the task of writing a piece on a controversial topic that is then published with a byline, you will be criticized no matter how unbiased and factual you attempted to be. You are likely to be lambasted instead of the company that contracted you to write the piece! Suppose that your piece, which includes your byline, allows a reporter to track you down. Now the reporter, working on a hot story, invites you to defend your writing in the public arena. Yes, you are asked for an interview that offers you the opportunity to respond to criticism, to tell your side of the story. What then?

Consider the reporter’s goal. Isn’t it to grab the listener or reader’s attention, to sell papers or magazines, collects more clicks and shares, win awards? Don’t imagine that the goal is to clear your good name. That’s boring. (Sorry to be so cynical.) News stories are meant to stir up emotions. Haven’t we all heard stories of victims of the press, who were misrepresented by a reporter? Here’s a recent such story: Huffington Post Twists Sheriff’s Words

Consider the Miranda warning: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. It’s naive to believe otherwise.

In case you are wondering, I have not experienced the first situation, but I have the second. At the request of a client, I had written several of what I felt were unbiased, factual pieces on historical/political events that reporters then picked up and chose to use to add fuel to potentially controversial topics. The reporters were relentless in trying to reach me for comment, but I chose to remain silent, and the storm blew over in a relatively short time. Life is simply too short for unnecessary drama!

So, to return to the question, to defend or not to defend, I believe the best defense is no defense ... in most cases. People are going to believe what they want to believe. I won’t say there is never a case for defense regarding a misleading news story, but choosing to defend yourself should be considered carefully over several days; fire back a response in the heat of the moment, and you’ll only end up scorched. 

Do you agree or disagree? Have you seen authors defend their books from negative reviews? If so, what did you think?

NOTE: I do not own the rights to the historical/political pieces mentioned and therefore cannot provide copies, so please don’t ask.

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