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People Who Don't Like Me: What the Hell is Their Problem?

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First, let me narrow it down. 'People Who Don't Like Me' is potentially way too big as a category. What I'm really talking about is people who don't like my book. Or so they say, although they could be part of a conspiracy. But before I get into that, let's take a calm, objective view of the pathological depravity that compels sick, dysfunctional misfits to write a bad review of my book.

Literary criticism is almost as old as humanity. When the first critic, illuminated by a campfire flickering and sizzling beneath a spitted haunch of woolly mammoth, delivered his verdict on the first story by hitting the first storyteller with a club, and was then eaten by the storyteller and his friends, it set the tone for subsequent literary debate through the ages.

Matters took a turn for the worse when people began writing their stories down, and the battlefield grew larger as opposing ideas about authorship staked out their positions. At one extreme was the notion that the author is in full control of his story, his characters, his readers and pretty much everything else except his bank balance. At the other extreme was the assertion that the author is a kind of gifted idiot who has no idea what he's doing and whose intentions can only be interpreted by well-paid academics. The ground in between was occupied by marauding squadrons of Marxists, social historians, feminists, and supercilious French semioticians who are probably just having a laugh. That, at least, was the position for much of the twentieth century. Everybody knew who they were meant to hate, and why.

Then e-books happened and everything changed. For the unpublished writer (or 'pre-published' as some like to say), the opportunity a site like Amazon offers an author to sell his book is a triumph for the democratization of culture. Then the same writer gets his first negative Amazon review, and he suddenly realizes that the opportunity a site like Amazon offers an unqualified nitwit to review his book is a disaster for the future of literature. Then he gets another good review, and changes his mind again.

This is a downside of the publishing revolution. As so many revolutionaries have discovered in the past, giving the people a voice is a great idea until they start saying things you don't like. It can make some authors hanker for the bad old days of a snobbish elite whose critical judgment could transform a literary career at a stroke. For a certain kind of writer a few bad reviews from a handful of influential people can still mean the difference between a morning spent clearing a shelf for a row of awards and one spent researching methods of suicide.

But at least it was all over relatively quickly. The reviews came in, they were good or bad, and as a result you either rejoiced or despaired. Now the process is endlessly protracted. Every day the author checks whether his prospects have been improved by a good review from a perceptive sage, or damaged by a bad one from an insensitive dolt.

For a writer this can be stressful. As you begin to discover that there are, inexplicably, certain individuals who fail to recognize your genius, you begin to wonder... just... WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? Are they the same people who unfollow me on Twitter for no good reason? Actually, there could be a reason for that. It could be because I'm not following them back. But I have a strict policy about this:

I don't follow people back on Twitter if I suspect they're the type of follower who'll unfollow me if I don't follow them back.

That's fair, isn't it? Of course, there are web sites you can use to find out who unfollowed you. But what's the point, unless they also disclose the unfollower's home address and their deepest fears? However, it's quite possible that at least some of these people are the same wretches who have the temerity to read my book, not like it, and SAY SO IN PUBLIC. And I suspect they may all be in it together. Which brings me back to the possibility of a conspiracy. What if these reviewers, who seem suspiciously unconnected, are all working together? Now, you may say that I'm suffering from paranoid delusions, but I'm not, and all my imaginary friends agree with me, and I trust them. Unless they're in on the plot as well.

If you're not a writer you may find it hard to relate to all this. So, here's an analogy. Think of a writer as a teenager at a party, trying to get laid:

WRITER:
Hi, I really like you. Will you go out with me?

READER:
No. I don't find you attractive, and your breath smells.

WRITER:
Actually, I wasn't talking to you.

READER:
Yes, you were. You were looking right at me.

WRITER:
I have a lazy eye. I was talking to the person behind you.

ANOTHER READER:
Who, me?

WRITER:
Yes. Will you go out with me?

OTHER READER:
Well... you're not totally repulsive... so... maybe.

WRITER:
I love you. Will you marry me?

It's true. Writers are needy, insecure and desperate for approval. Just like everyone else, in other words, but because writers don't get out much they believe these challenges are unique to them, and tend to over-dramatize them. There's nothing new in all this; what's changed is that online reviews are reminding writers of something that, in the end, is probably good for us: everyone is different. Some people like to read books about teenage vampires, and other people like to read books in which several hundred pages are devoted to the complex concatenations of memory evoked by eating a small French cake. And everyone is entitled to read what they want, think what they want about it, and say so. It has to be that way because, apart from anything else, it's too late to change it. The critical toothpaste is out of the cultural tube, and writers will just have to deal with it. That doesn't mean I have to like it. If I write a book about, say, espionage, in which a couple of characters happen to run through a garden, and someone gives it a rotten review because they don't like rhododendron, it can bring out the homicidal maniac in me, although I usually get over it after a few months.

But I can't complain. I published my book and it's done well. Despite paranoid fantasies I seem to have avoided (so far) the murky world of bogus reviews and spiteful sock puppets, on the deranged fringes of which many writers are locked in gruesome combat. Even the book's minority of lukewarm or negative reviews have been instructive, and after the red mist has subsided they've given me something to chew over. Not about the book itself, which I wouldn't change as a result of any of the feedback I've had, but about the inevitability of getting reviews from people who may not like my type of book. Or maybe even any type of book: it's weird to find that yours is the only book that's been reviewed by someone whose other reviews are all for fishing rods. And even more worrying if along with a viciously critical review of your book, the reviewer also appears to have been checking out digging implements, rope, chloroform and quicklime.

But is there any case for trying to restrict or censor online reviews other than those that have been self-penned, paid for, or clearly written as part of a concerted campaign that has nothing to do with the book's perceived merit? Right now I can't see a way of policing the world of online reviews from an aesthetic or cultural perspective without seriously damaging freedom of expression, and that's the last thing any real writer wants. If, on balance, online reviews provide an opportunity for more people to say more of what they want, I'm all for it. Even if you give me a bad review.

My book is called Utter Folly and here's a link:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B009VXWPDM