Writers, said the science fiction author Isaac Asimov, fall into two groups: "Those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review."
Jacqueline Howett falls into the former category. Her now-infamous online outburst against a two-star review of her self-published novel The Greek Seaman on Big Al's Books and Pals, a website devoted to reviewing the output of the independent presses, is less "bleeding visibly", more an out-and-out gorefest.
But Howett can perhaps take comfort amid the opprobrium flung her way from the fact that more successful authors are not immune to such outbursts. Authors frequently bite back, and it is rarely pretty. Just this week, in fact, there has been much to-ing and fro-ing in the Irish Times, following literary editor Eileen Battersby's review on Saturday of Dermot Healey's Long Time, No See. Battersby calls Healey's book "difficult; it is slow moving and complacent, and at times dangerously relaxed, lacking the urgency of his life's achievement to date, A Goat's Song." She goes on to opine that the author has "attempted to write a young man's book. It doesn't quite work."
On this occasion, it wasn't Healey who bit back on this occasion, but a correspondent named Eugene McCabe, who took issue with the review and turned his ire on the reviewer herself, saying he has taken a ghost story of Battersby's published in the Irish Times, which he calls "stunningly bad", and "used it in a workshop as an example of how to avoid writing 'Shite and onions'." Today, though, the pendulum swung back again, with the novelist John Banville leaping to Battersby's defence against McCabe's rather tremendous Joycean epithet, calling it an "ad hominem and scatological assault".
But all this was rather civilised, really, when you compare it with Howett's gleefully-tweeted meltdown. Big Al did not get on well with The Greek Seaman, which he summarises thus: "An eighteen-year-old newlywed finds herself on a romantic adventure when she goes to sea with her sailor husband on a large cargo ship. However, the ship owner and captain have plans that could disrupt her wedded bliss."
The review, posted last Wednesday, starts promisingly enough: "If you read The Greek Seaman from the start until you click next page for the last time I think you'll find the story compelling and interesting." But Big Al goes on: "However, odds of making that final click are slim. One reason is the spelling and grammar errors, which come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it's difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant." And he finally awards the book two stars.
Disappointing for Howett, you would imagine. You would be right. Internet reviews being what they are, it's easy for an author to respond directly to their critic should they choose not to be one of Asimov's secret bleeders – and Howett did so, all guns blazing. Her major beef seems to be that Big Al read the wrong version of the book, when she had asked him to download a "cleaner" copy.
"You obviously didn't read the second clean copy I requested you download," she says, "so this is a very unfair review. My Amazon readers/reviewers give it 5 stars and 4 stars and they say they really enjoyed The Greek Seaman and thought it was well written. Maybe its just my style and being English is what you don't get. Sorry it wasn't your cup of tea, but I think I will stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks."
And there it might have ended – had Howett not been unable to resist the lure of the comment box. She posts some of her Amazon reviews, to which Big Al responds by quoting a couple of choice lines from the book - including "Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance." Howett goes ballistic.
She says: "Look AL, I'm not in the mood for playing snake with you, what I read above has no flaws. My writing is fine."
And: "Besides if you want to throw crap at authors you should first ask their permission if they want it stuck up on the internet."
And: "You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous (SIC) venom. Lots of luck to authors who come here and slip in that!"
Of course, by the time other people have weighed in, linked to the row on their own blogs, and tweeted the exchange – well. Howett is enjoying a brief moment of internet fame, but it's only tangentially for The Greek Seaman.
Reviewing's a tough business, and reading reviews of your own work is even tougher. But the traditional line in the sand between a print reviewer and an author – which necessitates taking time to sit down and pen a response, time during which the author will generally come to their senses and decide to take the criticism on the chin – have been wiped out by the internet's immediacy. Howett won't be the last to respond – and she certainly isn't the first. In 2009, Alain de Botton logged on to a critic's blog to denounce a review of his The Pleasures of Sorrows and Work in the New York Times, "driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth". Round about the same time, novelist Alice Hoffman tweeted that a Boston Globe critic was "a moron" for his bad review of her The Story Sisters.
While it's too late for Howett to learn from these high-profile meltdowns, perhaps she will take on board Big Al's comments. Perhaps next time she'll sit on her hands and count to 100 the next time she reads a bad review. Perhaps she'll adopt Iris Murdoch's philosophical line on reviews: "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia." Or, given Howett's final posting to the Big Al blog just before comments were closed on the thread, perhaps not.
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