Thursday, April 29, 2021

If You Can’t Say Something Nice... from James W. Ziskin

When a reader takes the time to find your email address and compose a letter telling you they don’t like your books, how do you respond? How would you like to respond, if that’s different?

Two Stories:

1. The Case of the Nitpicker

I’ve never received an actual e-mail saying the reader didn’t like my books, but I have received critical feedback. One time a reader wrote to me and expressed his admiration for Styx & Stone, the first book in my Ellie Stone series. He noted the things he thought I’d done well and how the subject matter appealed to him. But he also offered a couple of quibbles he had with my research. 

One, he wrote, was that the word “pheromone” was coined in 1959, and, therefore, it was unlikely that Ellie Stone would have used it in January of 1960. He was right, of course. 

The second suggestion he made concerned a fictional LP I’d included in the story. It was a collection of excerpts from Rossini’s William Tell, conducted by Toscanini. My eagle-eyed reader pointed out that Toscanini had only recorded the overture (of course) and one other piece from the opera. That was not enough for an entire LP. Some folks might think it a forgivable error on my part, but I wished I had done better research. My correspondent was absolutely right.

His third point was that he could find no evidence that Van Cliburn had ever recorded Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, another fictional album in my book. On the whole, however, he pronounced himself satisfied with Styx & Stone and went on to read—and critique—the next six books in the series.

I have continued to correspond with him all along, and we have become good friends, even if we’ve never met in person. We share similar interests and tastes. I even enlisted him as a beta reader for my last two books because—I told him—I’d rather he find the anachronisms and errors in my stories BEFORE they were published rather than AFTER. He’s an immensely thoughtful, educated, and intelligent guy. I’m so glad he wrote to me. I’ll identify him here only as Fred, though I gave him a full acknowledgement in my latest book, Turn to Stone.

2. The Case of the Brutally Frank Critic

My mother taught me if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

The second story involves a reader who spoke to me at an author event hosted by a large library in Southern California. Many writers participated in several panels that day, and we all enjoyed lunch at our tables with ten readers each. After the main event and our meal, we writers repaired to the book room, where we waited for readers to mosey past and perhaps buy a book and get it signed. One lady strolled by my table twice, eyeing my books as if debating whether to buy one. On her third pass, she stopped and informed me she’d read my first Ellie Stone mystery, the very same Styx & Stone Fred had written to me about.

“That’s very nice,” I said. “Thank you.”

She fixed her gaze on me for a moment then added, “I didn’t think much of it.”

I probably blanched. But, remembering the solid advice I’d received never to argue with reviewers, I told her I was sorry she hadn’t enjoyed it. What I really wanted to say would have qualified as ungentlemanly.

Having made my day, she moved on, surely to spread more sunshine to the other authors.


Edith Maxwell said...

Great stories, Jim. When I was in grad school and starting to give papers at conferences, a professor told me, "If someone asks you a question you can't answer, just smile and say thank you." I think that would work with the critic at your table, too!

Ann Mason said...

I can’t imagine offering criticism, even constructive — which it rarely is! Your first example is an exception. I like some books better than others, even some of yours. And wth did that person want to accomplish be telling you she didn’t think much of Styx and Stones? Pftt.

Barb Goffman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barb Goffman said...

I have a friend, and author, who told me a few years ago about a reader she has who writes to her after every book, saying she bought the book, she read the book, she didn't like the book. Every single book. And you have to wonder, if she doesn't like my friend's writing, why does this woman keep buying book after book after book. But at least she does.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Every author has a tale of the one reader that reads every single book and never likes any of them and makes sure to tell the author each time. Seems to me that it is long past time that the person must be hunted down and eliminated by a squad of CIA trained Ninja Assassin Librarians.

Catriona McPherson said...

You're a better man than I am, Gunga Jim. Cx

Susan C Shea said...

We need to put our heads together and come up with a brilliant zinger of a comeback to the "I just want you to know I don't like your books" useless critic. With these creative Minds , I think we could create the perfect all-purpose reply. Then, if said critic wanders over and pulls that stunt, she will begin to notice a certain refrain and maybe think we are spooky.

Catriona McPherson said...

Susan, how about "And you have now fulfilled that desire. *My* currents desires are going unmet."

James W. Ziskin said...

Hi, all. Thank you for your kind and funny responses. I laugh at the Library Lady Story still. You have to have a thick skin and sense of humor about these things. But at the time, I was shocked. I managed to smile and apologize, though, gritting my teeth, I’m sure.


Frank Zafiro said...

It always amazes me at how critical and self-important people can be about something someone else created that is hard to do.

I'm a hockey guy. Hockey is a hard sport - the skating alone is enough to doom most who try it. One pundit equated the skillset mix as trying to play basketball on a uni-cycle, and I don't think that's far off.

But there are plenty of so-called fans who scream at the players, "You suck!" and "Learn to skate!" while never venturing to strap on skates themselves... and these folks are season ticket holders who go to thirty or forty games a year, year after year, just to tell those players how much they don't enjoy their game.

"I didn't care much for your book" is pretty much the same thing, albeit with less fisticuffs. Although... it might change the dynamic if it was socially acceptable to respond to a snide comment like this by dropping the gloves and chucking some knucks. I mean, Brenda's idea for a agreed-upon comeback is nicer, I know, but still...

In the end, Jim gritting his teeth and smiling, and Dietrich's call back to TR's one-in-the-arena quote is probably our best bet.

But wouldn't it be cool?

"I read your book."
"I didn't think much of it."
[gloves drop] "You wanna go?"

Five pages for fighting and a book misconduct, eh?

James W. Ziskin said...

Frank, maybe I should have pulled her sweater over her head and started pinching. ;-)

James W. Ziskin said...

Punching not pinching!