Further reasons why authors + reviews don’t mix.


It happened again: an author butted into a discussion of his work on the Book Smugglers blog, resulting in the reviewers getting called “bullies” for daring to tell him their own interpretations were valid.

There are -illions of reasons why an author should never intrude into critical discussions of their work, and all the obvious ones—breaching social boundaries, chilling effect on discussion, abuse of power, etc.—have been covered ad nauseam elsewhere. But here’s one that often gets overlooked:

When an author imposes their intentions on readers, it strangles the work.

See, the storyteller’s maxim “show, don’t tell” doesn’t just apply to written text. It applies to the author’s conduct in real life, too. The book does the showing. Any defense, refutation, explanation, or other interference from the author is telling. The book, if it is a good book, will do the showing all on its own. A good book doesn’t need its author to tell the reader how to interpret the story. A very good book is open to multiple interpretations. The author has their own personal interpretation, which may be of interest to certain readers, but that viewpoint should never be imposed on any public critical discussion where the author has not been expressly invited to do so.

Why? Because an interpretation from the author has the ring of the Word of God, and it can easily shut down a lively discussion full of opposing viewpoints. When the author removes the mystery of their intentions, readers tend to stop devising their own interpretations of events, instead accepting whatever the author says because, well, they’re the author. What was once a living text that was debated and attacked and defended then becomes fossilized. Sure, some intrepid readers may refute the author’s explanations and hatch their own, but typically an author’s intrusion into a critical discussion has a deadening effect.

Plus, it just kinda makes the author look like an insecure douchebag.

This is the exact same mechanism that is at play when fledgling writers are told, “Show, don’t tell.” If you tell the reader exactly how to feel or think about something, you’re destroying the magic of reading: the exercise of imagination. If you tell readers how to interpret what they’ve read, you’re destroying the magic of social reading: comparing and contrasting one’s thoughts with others.


Many writers have a knee-jerk reflex to “correct” readings of their work that don’t align precisely with their intentions. Maybe it’s the rabid control freak lurking in our dark little hearts. I’m not above it. I feel a private twinge of dismay when I read an interpretation of my work that conflicts with my intentions (unless it’s favorable, obviously; writers will take any credit for unintended genius). But most of the time the unexpected interpretations amaze and delight me.

When readers have wildly diverse reactions to a character or event or theme in my writing, I know I’m doing something right: I’m not telling them how to think or feel about that thing. Secretly, they’re doing the work for me. They’re using their imaginations and personal experiences to supply their own meaning to those story elements. They’re enriching my work with their own reactions.

That’s alchemy, people. Book (lead) + reader (solvent) = gold.

So, when authors who should know better barge into critical discussions of their work and let their fussy little fingers fly in an ill-advised exegesis about their True Meaning etc. etc., they are not, in fact, enriching the social reading experience. They’re scorching earth. They’re killing a living discussion. They’re reducing the potential artistic richness and aliveness of their novel.

That, personally, is my greatest fear as a creative person. Not harsh critiques—they’re inevitable—but my work dying, whether from neglect or, as above, from too much handsiness and the inability to let go, to let it become its own living entity, forever beyond my control.

I propose that we call such behavior helicopter noveling.

Reading is an act of faith.

One of my Goodreads friends is currently suffering the slings and arrows of a Badly Behaving Author, so I angry-typed this long polemic about why authors should never respond to reviews, and how reviews are a sacred space meant for readers, and negative reviews rarely hurt sales and may even increase them and blah, blah, blah…but it all boiled down to one thing, and that one thing is so fucking important, it’s the only thing I want to talk about at all.

Reading is an act of faith.

A reader opens their brain and lets a stranger’s words cavort inside their mental theater for a few hours or a few days. That takes a huge amount of trust: they’re letting someone dictate the contents of their brain for a given chunk of time. It’s a premise for a sci-fi horror film. Reading is a benign form of mind-control.

Skull X-ray brain

It’s easy to sympathize with the author who receives a harsh review: they spent X years writing the book, pouring blood/sweat/tears/booze/etc. into their labor of love, only for Joe Reviewer to 1-star it.

But readers are giving of themselves, too. They’re letting an author into the most private region of themselves: their thoughts. That’s an amazing act of faith, and it should humble any author, even if it results in a terse 1-star review. If nothing else, respect the awesomeness of that trust. Beyond the money spent, or the time and energy devoted to reading and reviewing, the greatest thing they did was let you sink your creepy phantom author fingers into their brain and press various squishy bits to elicit certain responses.

They had faith in you to not disappoint.

That is some incredible vulnerability. And it’s phenomenally dickish to lash out at someone who made themselves vulnerable to you.

So, my fellow authors: show some damn humility. They’re letting us into their skulls, and most of us are not even qualified neurosurgeons. Respect that trust. Respect the inevitability that you will disappoint some of them, and they will let you know it. Keep your mouth shut. You still have brain goo on your hands.