Sunday, September 15, 2013

Unforgivable Curses

There have been some interesting discussions on the author-critic dynamic of late.

This appeared on a now-defunct forum and I'm reposting with permission of the author.

 

Unforgivable Curses

Because I’m such a muggle I can’t get myself a life sentence simply by uttering one of three different words or phrases. You know, crucio, or that one that sounds like abracadabra. As a writer though, I can get myself chased by a sizable horde of internet villagers, complete with pitchforks and torches, with a simple unforgivable phrase. For the wizard it’s all about the exact wording and pronunciation (it’s not leviosa, it’s leviosa), for the writer it’s less about the words and more about where you put them. If you place them in the comments section of a negative review... bang!

Now common sense and anecdote are sufficient to furnish a writer with the notion that replying to negative reviews is by and large a waste of time. The reviewer has an opinion, they’re perfectly entitled to it, and they’re incredibly unlikely to change it because of anything you’ve got to say about the matter.  Couldn’t convince them in 400 pages? 5 more lines isn’t going to swing it.

On the flip side, readers of the review will add their comments as invited, and many of them will have different opinions about the book in hand. We like to read those different opinions – that’s why the comments section is there. So why should a writer avoid commenting on a negative review of their own book? Answer: “Escalation”. It will often be the case that one comment leads to a reply and, step-by-step along a path paved with less-than-good intentions, the exchange descends into flames.

However, things seem to have moved on. Somewhere along the line the concept that a writer is ill-advised to comment on a negative review seems to have morphed into a law that a writer may not comment on a negative review, and that if they do they have committed some crime for which they must not be forgiven and must be punished. Even slight and innocuous incidents, occasions where someone who knows the writer might have commented, occasions where fans of the writer’s work may have commented, become celebrated events. Twitter lights up. Fevered messages are exchanged. The details are utterly unimportant – someone has committed the unforgivable crime and the troops must be marshaled  WTF, they say. The shops run short of exclamation points and question marks. It’s a fete day, people unfold their blankets and open picnic hampers to watch the train wreck. Indignant goodfolk declare they were on the very verge of buying that self same book but now wouldn’t piss on the writer in question were they on fire. The hit squad sets off for Goodreads to set up new accounts and dole out a ritual punishment of 1*s. It’s another happy day of righteous anger.




Rewind. The writer has done something that’s ill-advised because it may lead to an exchange that reflects poorly on them. They haven’t scanned and posted their klu-klux-klan membership card. They haven’t reversed over a baby and driven away howling with laughter... They haven’t yet even had a heated exchange that reflects poorly on them. The reviewer is happier than any Larry you care to mention because site traffic is through the roof and that the person whose book they didn’t like has taken the trouble to register their opinion. The reviewer is not sitting in a shaded corner surrounded by concerned well-wishers as they fan themselves and try to recover from the shock. They have not been intimidated by BIG WRITING.

Unprofessional!  scream the fevered masses. How dare this person open their mouth in the place where comments are invited? How can they live with themselves having let down the side and brought shame upon the well ordered ranks of famously conventional law-abiding folk that constitute the writing fraternity, those regimented pros who make the ancient order of chartered accountants look like wild anarchists on an acid trip. For shame. Weep. Were we only to bind the corpses of the world’s literary giants with copper wire the energy crisis would be finished, so fast must they be spinning in their graves at the thought of an unprofessional writer.


So here’s the thing. I’m not a rebel without a cause. I’m not saying look at me I’m craaaaazy, how cool is that. But I’m also not going to be dictated to about what I can and can’t say and where I can and can’t say it by the internet police, however self-appointed they may be and however shiny the badge they made. If I want to respond to a negative review - and 99% of the time I don’t – then I will.






17 comments:

  1. There are a couple of aspects to the situation that are worth thinking about.

    First of all, the moment an author comments on a reviewer's site, the author has just made it obvious that he spends a lot of the day searching the Internet to see what people think about him.

    Yes, writers do this, but it's not something readers like to think about their favorite authors doing. We like to think they're above all that, that they don't really need to know what Joe Reader thinks, because they have too many readers to keep count of them all. Or because they're busy writing another book or, I dunno, out there sucking the marrow out of life. Or reading books. Or playing with their kids. Something, anything else besides spending an hour of their lives fretting over what *I* think.

    The other thing to consider is the power differential. Authors may not feel powerful, but to someone whose primary leisure activity is reading, authors are an Authority, a Voice From On High. As someone who once had a powerful person decide to quote my 8-hit-a-day blog for the purposes of mocking me in front of his thousands of followers, I know well the feeling of, "Dude, you just brought a machine gun to a plastic knife fight." When a published author swoops onto a review site to "defend" him- or herself from that reviewer's opinion or misinterpretation, it's like having your boss swoop into the break room while you vent about work with your mates.

    The presence of the author effectively kills the readers' chance to form opinions, to freely misinterpret, to express their frustrations about whatever is bothering them about life in general with the book as a shoehorned example thereof. The presence of the author makes it about the author, and not about the feelings of the reader. The reader spent hours of her life reading your book, and it affected her however it affected her, and she doesn't need The Authorities swooping in to tell her that her feelings are wrong.

    Sometimes I feel that once authors pass a certain threshold of success, they forget what it is to be a reader. Every person who interacts with a book has a completely different experience; that book combines with the reader's life history and hot buttons in a unique way and becomes something new, something it will never be for anyone else. And I believe that readers have the right to share that experience with other readers, without being called on the carpet by the author.

    Responding to reviews does absolutely no good. The ill will it creates vastly outweighs any chance the author might have of changing the review-reader's mind about whatever the reviewer said. And furthermore, people aren't as swayed by reviews as authors seem to worry they are. The reviews that matter to a reader are the ones you never see, the ones their best friend or mother or sister gives them over IM five minutes after finishing the book.

    Authors can't control reader opinion, and these sorts of comments look like an attempt to try. They just leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

    Maybe I'll change my mind when my own book is sitting on a shelf somewhere. But right now, I'm still more a reader than a writer, and that's how I feel about it.

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    1. Booksmugglers have more followers and traffic than all but the very bestselling authors and yet they throw a complete wobbler if any author dare comment, and their posse follow through on Goodreads.

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  2. I was going to say that, but you said it much better than I ever could have.

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  3. That's interesting because of course we authors consider ourselves readers also, and not authorities at all - we argue amongst ourselves regarding plot, character, and everything else, and sometimes perhaps make the mistake of thinking reviewers are interested in the same debate.

    Personally I do not search for reviews, but my friends send me the links anyway.

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  4. Nice points Mazarkis. I think too many people forget that writers are readers. This ongoing attitude amazes me. Glad for this paragraph:

    I’m not saying look at me I’m craaaaazy, how cool is that. But I’m also not going to be dictated to about what I can and can’t say and where I can and can’t say it by the internet police, however self-appointed they may be and however shiny the badge they made. If I want to respond to a negative review - and 99% of the time I don’t – then I will.

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  5. I didn't actually write the above - I only reposted it.

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  6. Never mind, you were referring to my comment, not the blog! More coffee, coming up.

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  7. Following Mishell's logic, no person with training or experience can participate in print with the untrained. Nonsense, and un-Constitutional nonsense to boot. The highly refined sensitivity to power differentials is necessary in situations that present the risk of exploitation; however, freedom of speech permits us to SWAY

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    1. I'm not talking about the law here, just etiquette. It's not illegal for your boss to walk in and stop you venting about a rough day at work, either.

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  8. "Were we only to bind the corpses of the world’s literary giants with copper wire the energy crisis would be finished, so fast must they be spinning in their graves at the thought of an unprofessional writer."

    Hell I'm just trying to calculate the cross sectional area of copper wound spinning dead authors and trying to estimate the emf generated at different speeds of rotation making due allowance for latitudes and orientations of internment and the local Earth's magnetic field strength.

    I finally see the importance of knowing where all the bodies are buried!

    And the rest of you think that commenting on negative reviews is the height of insanity. Welcome to my world!

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  9. Where the reviewer has obviously taken the time to produce a balanced, thoughtful, well-reasoned explanation why the book didn't work for them, I'll thank them for their time, but generally I let negative reviews go unremarked. It's just one person's opinion, and the subsequent sh!t-storm that will ensue is not worth the stress. Plus it would make me look bad.

    Once the book's written, it has to stand on its own two feet (metaphorically speaking). It's *done*. I can't change it, or make something clearer if I was too subtle, or dial it back if it was too in-your-face. Neither can I tell a reviewer how they're supposed to read it. I was free to write what I wanted; the reviewers are free to tell me I didn't do a very good job of it if that's what they think

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    1. My opinions are not set in stone. I don't mind author's responding to my reviews. I am fallible as a reader and will never turn down chance to look at something in a new way.

      What all this has done is made me realize I need to update my own review policy to be clear that all comments are welcome on both positive and negative reviews.

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  10. The problem is Authors not understanding that some posts are chats and thoughts vs reviews. If an author was setting at lunch and heard two readers discussing his books negatively would he walk over and interrupt their meal to defend his book? I don't think so.

    Bloggers have a right to comment on a series they have invested time and money in. If that involves frustration and negative comments on certain aspects of the book that's their right and an author would do well to stay out of them. I've had authors compliment me on positive reviews and its been a pleasure to have them. I think the situation with the booksmugglers post was an error on the authors part because he had an emotional response to his work being analyzed and decided to "educate" the author of the post on her own feelings. Not cool and frankly a turn off for me in regards to ever reading his books.

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    1. This is a stupid thing to say. Sorry to be blunt but it is. Just plain stupid. Nobody would interrupt the conversation you describe, author or not. It's a private conversation. If you put something on the internet in a blog, with a comments section inviting comment (just like this one), then you are INVITING COMMENTS. If you don't want them... turn the comments off. If you want to censor the comments... enable moderation. But don't for Christsake invite comments then have a hissy fit when someone comments and somehow breaks your invisible rules that you didn't declare. Because that is stupid.

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    2. Turning that around a little, if bloggers have the right to comment on something they invested time and money in, then why doesn't that apply to authors, who invested time and money in writing their book and publicizing it? To assume that it's fine for reviewers to publically voice an opinion but not fine for authors to do the same sounds an awful lot like you're saying you just don't want to hear said author's opinion. Unless -- and I'm extrapolating from further things you said here -- it's a positive comment on your work, which is a positive comment on their work. If it's negative commentary on their work, you don't want to hear negative commentary on yours. It works both ways. Or at least it should.

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  11. From where I stand, an author's just as welcome to have an opinion as someone who isn't an author, and just as welcome to post a comment about said opinion, and so long as we all can stay respectful and not dissolve the exchange into a poo-flinging incident, that's cool by me. And it only seems fair. Readers can comment on reader blogs. Readers can comment on author blogs. But authors commenting on reader blogs are in the wrong?

    From what I was seeing on Twitter yesterday, the general feel of things seems to be that many authors avoid commenting on reviews because it's so easy for things to spin out of control. And saidly, this whole incident does nothing to change that belief. It's pretty sad, though, that so many people feel that it's such a bad idea to speak up on anything on a reader's blog because someone might take offense. It's gone from keeping away the chance for an altercation to stifling potential discussion of differing opinions and viewpoints, and hell, isn't that one of the big things in SFF? Looking at things from a different perspective, playing with ideas, getting into discussions about "what if" and "maybe?"

    I can only speak for myself here, but I'd love it if authors dropped by and gave their opinions on what I write. Not because of any ensuing ego-stroking that may ensue, but because intent and interpretation don't always mesh, and I'd love to know what the author had in mind if something didn't convey itself properly to me, or I disagreed with, or misunderstood, or just didn't like. I love to know the behind-the-scenes stuff, I love the learning that comes from discussion, and I love seeing the different viewpoints that crop up when that discussion happens. But again, that's just me, and I can completely see why many authors don't want to deal with that potential headache.

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  12. Please let's not use words like "stupid." Speaking of ways to end a discussion, that's certainly one.

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