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On Reviewing the Reviewers

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Jan. 19th, 2009 | 07:37 am

I'm feeling the need to clarify my position on this one, if only because I have seen my last post on the subject cited a few times in reference to a recent practical example of what can happen when an author responds (in any way) to a review. Seeing the two radically different examples of 'author responding to reviewer' cited in reference to each other made my eyebrows go up a bit cos - well, on the one hand you have an author threatening the life of an editor who wrote one line criticising a short story of his, and on the other hand you have benpeek being a bit snarky. Also, angriest recently picked up the topic of reviewing the reviewers and my feelings are a bit less black and white than his, so I wanted to chew them over in public. Because that's the fun part!

I am both a writer and a reviewer. I have both experiences of a) having people write reviews about my work that makes me want to stab myself (or someone) in the eye and b) having writers overreact drastically and offensively to my reviews, taking the matter far further than sane people really should. [note: I am aware that writers are not sane, but really for the sake of the children, we should PRETEND most of the time]

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

1) The author is in a difficult position, because let's face it, the majority of the reviews of their work are *wrong*. Even the glowing ones have a tendency to misrepresent the author and/or the book, in niggly tiny ways. The non-glowing ones are of course worse because they are WRONG and BAD and really, why did the reviewer bother to put words to paper if they weren't going to review it PROPERLY?

1a) Sadly in most instances, any attempt the author makes to express the above views, will almost always result in them looking like i) a crazy person or ii) a dickhead or iii) a crazy self-obsessed dickhead.

1b) this is a TRAGEDY and in many cases the bane of an author's life.

2) However, just because I believe the above is true does not mean I believe it is never okay for an author to respond to reviews. No one should be above criticism, least of all the critics themselves. I've seen several people recently suggesting that because of the hard work reviewers do for little gratification that authors should cut them a break and not assume they are mad power-hungry soul-sucking parasites who should be grateful for all the free books. Which I agree with (that is I agree the authors should cut them a break and that free books are no incentive after the first six months). Also that reviewers should be able to express their opinion without being shouted down, abused, attacked, or threated by authors. Which I also agree with.

2a) really, no one should ever criticise a reviewer ever? Really?

2b) all opinions are valid and all readings of a work are valid. That means that almost all reviews have a validity to them in that they are the reader's response to the work. Even if they are a) badly written, b) riddled with errors, c) appear to be evidence that the reviewer never opened the book, d) dumb as a stone. But just because a review/response is valid doesn't mean that the review is automatically above reproach.

2c) if someone is going to respond to a review, politely and in a civilised manner pointing out any obvious deficiencies in it, it's probably better that the person doing so is not the author. Not out of any moral rule, but simply because of 1a) - chances are, even if they are making a valid criticism (all opinions are valid) the author will still come out looking like a nob for doing so.

2d) polite notes of thanks to a reviewer, even if the review was not a positive one, are not necessary, but usually appreciated, if only because the reviewer never knows where the next crazycakes author is coming from, and it's always good to know where they aren't.

2e) having said that, an author responding to Amazon reviews is a special kind of crazycakes DON'T DO IT DON'T DO IT REMEMBER ANNE RICE.

3) I can think already of several examples in which 1a) does not apply. It's all in the execution. Some authors are able to respond to criticism in an interesting, thoughtful way that offers respect to the reviewers and adds an extra layer of dialogue. margolanagan is one who regularly publishes snippets of all her reviews, good or bad, and analyses them in an entertaining manner. Her snarky, self-deprecating meta-commentary is one of my favourite things about her blog, and I love that when she does poke fun at reviews, there's a 50-50 chance it may be a positive or a negative one. Considering the amount of noise that tends to surround Margo's work these days, it's rather nice to have her there, poking holes in the pomp on a regular basis. I'm sure some of you out there can think of other examples of authors who do much the same thing. I'm normally bored to tears by blog entries that are nothing but reprints of positive reviews and blurbs - Margo does something a bit different with it, and I really respect that.

3a) if an author responds to a review - critically, mockingly, or merely drawing attention to it, this is not necessarily an attack on the reviewer. Believe me. An attack on the reviewer is when the author privately or publicly attempts to communicate insult or injury upon a reviewer. Otherwise, it is merely expressing an opinion. I personally recommend that authors keep 1a) in mind to remind themselves of the consequences should they choose to do express said opinion, but that doesn't make their opinion invalid.

3b) yes, there's often a fine line between expressing an opinion and mounting an attack. But it's always worth stopping to think about what is going on there. Perhaps they were trying to be funny. For instance, I considered this post to be an unwarranted, belittling and utterly unnecessary mockery a topic I care deeply about, and it made me incandescent with rage and hurt for at least a day. But a whole lot of people found it hilariously funny, and not responding to it at the time was the best thing I could possibly have done. I still don't think it's funny, but then I don't have to. I'm not going to use that mean-spirited blog post as a reason to suggest that people should never mock feminism, or other ideas that I consider important. Mocking the world is our sacred right, even when we are amusing no one but ourselves.

4) When a reviewer writes a negative review this is not a reflection on the author as a person (cough except when the reviewer says things like "I hate xxx's book, she should die in a fire" which is Not Nice and is one of those reasons why 'reviewer always above criticism' makes my skin twitch). A lot of heartache would be saved if new, squishy, innocent authors were taught early on that bad reviews are a part of life, and they should move on and ignore them. Unless they're prepared to consider them critically, learn from the experience, and have something to say about said review beyond "wahhhh the reviewer didn't read my book properly!"

Okay, I feel better now, and hopefully will now be able to keep my mouth happily shut when I see future people suggesting that reviewers should be above reproach, or that authors have no right to express their views. It's COMPLICATED, people.

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Comments {32}

Tehani

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from: editormum
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC)
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Well said m'lady.

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Ben Peek

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from: benpeek
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 10:22 pm (UTC)
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what i enjoy about yesterdays little excitement is that when i reveiw anything local, there's no end to the people who want to tell me i'm wrong, just plain wrong, also, a fucker. i figure that's okay, cause my reviews are informative and funny and educate the masses. in many ways, i'm like jesus.

perspective, that's what it's all about.

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
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This is where it's weird seeing people talk about reviewer vs. author - when you're both it makes you want to run around in circles pointing out how EVERYONE is wrong.

(hehehe love your perspective there, Ben)

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Ben Peek

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from: benpeek
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC)
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no doubt, someone will come past and read this and begin telling everyone what an arrogent bastard i am ;)

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 10:44 pm (UTC)
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*cough* you mean there are people who might have needed further evidence??? This can't be the first time you've compared yourself to Jesus.

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Ben Peek

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from: benpeek
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 10:51 pm (UTC)
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i do it all the time. after the first couple of times you say it, it just seems to get funnier.

and, like, more accurate. it gets more accurate all the time.

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Eneit

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from: eneit
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 01:17 am (UTC)
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if it helps, apparently Jesus was a woman: http://www.basicjokes.com/djoke.php?id=846

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Sarah

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from: callistra
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 02:44 am (UTC)
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LOL
I love it!
:-)

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Hum Hallelujah

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from: narrelle
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 11:30 pm (UTC)
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I'm sort of still blinking in astonishment at recent events, and would llike to add my tuppenceworth to your comments. I get some good reviews of my books, which is nice, and I get awful reviews, which are less nice, but well, it's all just one person's opinion, good or bad. The good stuff gives me blurbs to put on my website and hopefully encourages others to buy my book - to which, yayness. Sometimes, as you say, reviewers (positive or negative) say something which indicates to me that they've missed a massive point, or are contradicting themselves or in other ways fail to be the work of perfect criticism and annaloyed promotion that my heart would like it to be. Welcome to life. I may have a minor whine to my partner or a friend about it, but have better sense than to go public with my whinging.

The fact is, I used to review thatre for a website, and so I know what it's like on both sides of that fence. I (and my partner who still reviews theatre for The Age from time to time) have been challenged by people who didn't like our reviews with the essence of "What gives you the right?!!". I maintain that the only two things that give you the right to review anything - books, theatre, music or art - are to have an opinion and the ability to express it. A good review should never make a personal attack on the creator of the work, but an analysis of the creator's intentions, success in achieving their (perceived) goals etc is totally part of the process.

If I don't like a work, I can say that it strikes me as poorly thought out or badly written, or a bunch of other stuff relating to the *work* but I can't say the creator is stupid, morally suspect or has an inappropriate relationship with a close blood relation. Certainly not 'I hate this work and the creator should die.'

It would be churlish and hypocrticial of me therefore to attack anyone reviewing my work who didn't like it. Everyone's entitled not to like it, or like it, as the mood strikes. I'd be unimpressed with a personal attack, but I've seen too many flame wars to actually *engage*. Unless, maybe, I felt the comments were defamatory, in which case I'd find a lawyer to do my flame war for me, with excitingly long words and hopefully some Latin.

Your comments about folks saying reviewers should be grateful for all the free books made me laugh. It's like folks getting all excited at the free theatre we get to see when Tim is reviewing for a festival. I mean, it's only super dooper wonderful if all the shows we see are uniformly excellent. But sometimes, all you really want are those two hours of your life BACK, damnit. :-)

And a final word on reviewing - when we ran Stage Left ( a theatre review website which went for several years before we realised it was sucking time away from completing our own creative endeavours and letting other people have a chance to pick it apart) we had a few basic rules for reviewing. No personal attacks. No being smart-arsey in the review just because we thought it was funny. Constructive criticism, please, of the type you could defend if you ever bumped into the actor/writer/director on the tram, which in Melbourne is pretty odds-on. Basically, write nothing you would be ashamed to say to the person face to face. It held us in good stead over the years, though the funniest backlash we ever got was giving a good review to a show someone else hated and then we got flamed for *that*. Life is so confusing.

anyway, that's a lot of babble. But thanks for the thoughtful post.

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for your comment! Your guidelines for criticism are excellent, and just as appropriate for the small and tangled world of spec fic as for theatre.

Trying on a variety of professional hats is one of the really cool things about small press - most of us do it - and you'd think that all that hat swapping would mean we were all a little more sympathetic & understanding of each other. (heh, you'd think)

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Hum Hallelujah

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from: narrelle
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 12:20 am (UTC)
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Ahhh, human nature. This is, of course, why humanity is so much fun to write about. We are crazy contradictory creatures. And every now and then we inappropriately comment on reviews of our work and prove it.

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Nyssa

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from: nyssa_p
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
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Actually one of my reviewers had a good experience just today. He reviewed Paul of Dune, and emailled the publisher himself (what a good little reviewer!).

Then Kevin J Anderson responded himself, thanked him for his comments, said 'writers are never supposed to respond to reviewers...and this is not a complaint, just a response..." and continued on by explaining an issue that Ross had with Irulan and the contraceptives given to Chani. It was not snarky or rude, it was very polite and just explaining an issue Ross had admitted to not quite understanding.

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 18th, 2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
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Nods, it's cool when that happens.

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angriest

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from: angriest
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 12:30 am (UTC)
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Thanks for all of this. I'm kind of debated out over the issue myself, but it was good to read.

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Eneit

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from: eneit
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 01:25 am (UTC)
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You're right, it is complicated. The thing that a lot of people lose sight of, or were never taught (which says a a lot about our society) is simple respect. Other people have the right to breath, eat, drink and think. Out of these, the only thing we absolutely all have to share is oxygen.

I got an email the other day with a saying attached to the persons name as a signature - Life isn't about how it should be in a perfect world, life is how it is ... it's how you respeond to life that makes the difference.

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girlie jones

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from: girliejones
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 01:31 am (UTC)
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Do you mean me? I didn't say reviewers should never be criticised, did I ? I think I said that it would be nice if we all just had one job but that will never happen.

Also ..though yes Margo's poking fun might be entertaining, I don't always find it appropriate and she often looks like she thinks she is smarter than everyone else in a condescending way.

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 06:55 am (UTC)
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hee no you didn't, but Grant's post really strongly implied it, as did a lot of comments on there.

Hmm, well there you go, it's all about how it's read. And of course is the risk authors run in commenting on their own critique.

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girlie jones

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from: girliejones
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 06:58 am (UTC)
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And how some writers can get away with it and others not so much ...

in other words, make sure you are brilliant when you snark and make the snark entertaining.

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angriest

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from: angriest
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 07:09 am (UTC)
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To clarify: I don't think there's any positive benefit for an author to wrangle with reviewers and critics beyond immediate self-gratification. Whatever the author's intention, it will more often than not make them look to be a bit of an arse.

I have tried to make clear around the place that this obviously doesn't apply in cases of factual inaccuracy, or direct personal attacks, but if a review merely savages the work because the critic really didn't like it, then the author really needs to just wear that and move on.

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reviewing

from: anonymous
date: Feb. 5th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
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The best advice I ever got was: never respond to a review no matter how just your cause, because you will sound like a sensitive little plant. It's true.

Speaking as a reviewer, I was once in a car listening to a lit program on 3RRR, and there was an author I'd reviewed beginning a complaint about my review. I was darn annoyed, because I hadn't been half as nasty about the book as I could have, in fact had gone to some trouble to be nice. But it wasn't worth getting out the mobile and phoning the station. He obviously couldn't take the heat in the lit kitchen, and hasn't been heard of since.

Speaking as a reviewee, there are other subtle ways you can revenge yourselves upon adverse reviewers, heh, heh.

Speaking as a reviewer, there are equally subtle ways you can put the reader off a book without actually giving the author anything concrete to snark about.

Lucy Sussex

Lucy Sussex

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S

(no subject)

from: oui_je_danse
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 04:20 am (UTC)
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It's kind of funny how the word "reviewer" brings different things to mind for people. When you put "reviewer" I only think of people reviewing on places like amazon. My mind defaults to the general public. But I now release a lot of other people mean it like published or more journalistic reviews. The rules are different for the two. Interesting!

I actually had a really horrible experience once on this topic. In a different personal journal I once gave my opinion on a book I'd read. It was negative and since it wasn't on a website more than 4 people would ever see I wasn't nice about it. The author found it by looking at all the websites who linked to a description of his book. A crowd of his friends then proceeded to stalk me through the internet flaming me and hurling insults my way. Their actions were out of line even if I'd put the review on amazon or in a public review site.

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S

(no subject)

from: oui_je_danse
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 04:21 am (UTC)
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Er, imagine that but without the grammar mistakes. Naptime!

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 06:47 am (UTC)
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*nods* the comment that caused Steve Berman such trouble was on his blog, not a formal review.

The lines are blurring, but there are two kinds of review for me: one which formally sets itself up as a review and is published by someone other than the reviewer (as you say, journalistic) and ones which are just personal responses to books, on blogs or Amazon. Obviously the quality control tends to be higher for the journalistic type, as they are usually read by at least one editorial/publisher type person before being published, though that does not necessarily mean better quality. Some of the best reviews I have read are informal blog ones.

Of course you also have people whose reviewing blog takes on extra status due to a build up of credibility, to the point where publishers start sending books to them...

The reason why Amazon reviews and some blog reviews, particularly the throat-slashingly nasty ones, are often held in contempt or dismissed by authors is because of the accountability issue. Narelle had a great piece to say above about the importance of not saying anything in a review you would feel embarrassed to say to the author's face. Anonymous reviews don't have anything near that restraint, and therefore have the freedom to be generally appalling in all kinds of ways. In the case of Amazon reviews this can be particularly galling for an author because those anonymous, vicious reviews can be seen by so many people, and in some instances may be seen at the first point people encourage their work.

A good rule of thumb for anyone talking about books ever is - all authors Google search their names. Some are even canny enough to ego-search for MISSPELLINGS of their name. There's no privacy on the internet, so if you mention someone's name, assume they will find it and read it.

Having said that, your experience was terrible! Author posses can be pretty vicious, and that's absolutely not on. I'd say their actions were exactly as out of line as if you'd put the review somewhere more public.

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S

(no subject)

from: oui_je_danse
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 07:25 am (UTC)
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Whoops! Keyboard mistake on first comment.

I said to one of the people that I was how confused as to why they'd even care what I said. I was a nobody talking to practically nobody. Even if I was the biggest, stupidest bitch in all the land it was this one little thing in the middle of nowhere. How empty is your life that you let everything in emotionally?

I've done amazon reviews and I try really hard to be fair and respectful there. I just learned my lesson the hard way that the internet changes the rules. It's funny how people in my generation know the internet rules so well yet don't really get them at the same time. Oh, youth!

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(no subject)

from: justinelavaworm
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 08:43 am (UTC)
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I don't review. Not because I'm a coward, though I am, but because writing a good review is really hard and I'm lazy.

Also writers are crazy. The one time I mentioned a book by name and said something a tiny bit negative about it the author emailed me in a snit fit. A New York Times bestseller wrote little old me and hissy fitted at me. It was a one-line mention! And all I said was that their book didn't work for me.

I also don't much read reviews of my own work. Because I'm crazy and can't trust myself not to go all snit-fitty at people. And I no longer blog about reviews---because Margo notwithstanding---I find it deadly dull. I always feel like I'm saying, "Whee! Look at me. I'm so special. People LERVE me!" And, honestly, who cares?

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(no subject)

from: justinelavaworm
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 08:44 am (UTC)
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Ooops! Forgot to say: excellent post!

Though you really need to stop the riff raff from commenting. I mean you, Ben Peek who thinks he's Jesus! Honestly.

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 10:03 am (UTC)
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You mean he's not Jesus?

FALSE ADVERTISING, PEEK

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 10:06 am (UTC)
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nods nods, well to be fair the people on your LJ already know about your books, and they're not really there to hear what OTHER people think of them.

Writers really are crazy. People often look at me oddly when I say this. But it's true.

I love reviewing, but I've had my share of snit fit reactions. It's never fun.

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(no subject)

from: justinelavaworm
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 10:44 am (UTC)
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Heh hem. Some of us do not have LJs. And think all you LJers are a demented bunch of cultists.

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 10:58 am (UTC)
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hahaha oh that is a faux pas isn't it? *reads everything through LJ f-list*

*is definite cultist*

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(no subject)

from: ex_benpayne119
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 09:28 am (UTC)
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I think.... generally.... a good rule of thumb is that other people shouldn't comment on reviews... but that I should be allowed to...

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Tansy Rayner Roberts

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from: cassiphone
date: Jan. 19th, 2009 10:04 am (UTC)
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nods nods

yes, the "apart from me" clause is pretty essential in these matters

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