Again with the negative waves, Moriarty?

You know what gets my goat? Not haters, no. What gets me down are the happythink police who conflate negativity with abuse. Can’t be kind 24/7/365? They’ll tell me to stay apart and shut up. Might as well slap a big red “N” on my bodice and be done, but no. The judgmental assault on my chosen way of handling harsh reality–on my very identity–is all wrapped up in good intentions. 

Being told I’m unacceptable isn’t mean to be hurtful, I’m told. (And yes, I do get publicly lectured for raining on the positivity parade.) Demanding that others be positive at all times is only an emotional defense, it’s said. Insistence on constant happythink is an attempt to make the world better for everyone. 

Nuh-uh. Nope. That bullshit doesn’t fly. Defenses are self-oriented. Shine a light on inner darkness. Erect walls of happy. Paint rays of sunshine on them. Collect positives. Be positive. Those are all defensive measures.  Issuing directives to others about tone and presentation is all about suppression, dismissal and exercising social power. It’s offensive, not defensive. And yes, I mean offensive in all senses. 

 The dismissal of criticism with abuse scares me most. The emerging insistence that negatives must be presented with kindness to be considered valid/constructive/legitimate sets perilous precedents. Lumping true criticism in with destructive hostility gives trolls a shield to hide behind. (See also: “I’m just trying to be helpful.” “Fair and balanced.” “It’s just my opinion.”)

Abuse is not analytical. Criticism is. Solutions can’t be framed without undertanding the problem. The rest…that’s just style points. The definition of criticism as applied to art is “an analysis of merits and faults.” Any commentary failing that simple definition is an abusive attack dressed up in a criticism-costume.  Any commentary meeting it is criticism. A negative that leads to positive. It’s the manure every garden needs.

Here’s a less stinky analogy. Offering harsh analysis on a steely platter instead of a fluffy blanket does not make it an attack. Frank presentation of faults can be painful, but gentleness can be too. Ask anyone who’s suffered the attentions of a tentative nurse trying to find a vein. 

 It is not always constructive to mention merits. Sometimes, yes, even often, but expecting faults to be left unmentioned unless equal merits are pointed out isn’t reasonable. “If you have to say something bad, always say something good” is like saying, “If I want to discuss astronomy, I need to allow an astrologist on the panel too. For balance.” No. Merits do not always balance faults. One may far outnumber the other, and weak praise is damning. Ask Shakespeare. 

Demanding adept diplomacy as well as the effort of analysis makes people far less willing to offer criticism at all. And when that happens, art suffers. 

Here’s a related problem: insisting that only praise counts as constructive criticism. Dressing up negative analysis with puffy praise stickers doesn’t make it constructive. Context does. Constructive criticism is analysis offered while a work can be rebuilt. A critical review is aimed at the audience/market for a finished product. Period. That’s the only difference. Criticism type is defined by situation, not presentation.

If a review contains nothing but complaints, that’s as valid as one that holds nothing but praise. The only difference is in how the author feels about it. And constructive criticism that focuses with laser precision on faults is no different in function than a critique that dwells on only positives. (Again, please remember that this refers only to analytical commentary. Not things like, “This sucks.”) 

 I’ve saved the worst for last. I loathe the hoary chestnut, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.”  If there’s ever a vote for which statement best encapsulates all that is wrong with the modern world, this one gets my nomination. It equates a lack of praise with tacit disapproval. What a mess! It creates an emotional imbalance that requires hearing praise simply to stay centered, and that leads to an escalating need for praise. Knowing that silence means people might be holding back unkind things plants seeds of doubt as destructive as dragon’s teeth.

It’s a persistent little belief, too. So popular. So hard to eradicate. Took me years to get that one out of my system.  

Creativity lives in the still, quiet spaces of the soul as well as in the raging power of anger and pain, just as it resonates in joys and flights of spirit. Silence should feed fragile inspiration, not destroy it with doubt. 

If you can’t say anything nice, say it as nicely as possible, but say it, so the listener knows that silence is not hiding unspoken faults. Trust is built with painful truths, not false walls. When silence means tacit acceptance,  confidence builds slowly with every layer of sedimentary quiet. That’s golden.

For every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven. Even the bad stuff. That’s why I’ll keep on broadcasting my negative waves whenever the situation calls for them.

Why Do We Feed the Monsters?

I had a post planned. Then this thing happened. Followed by this thing. So I’m blogging about this instead. For those uninterested in link-clicking, here’s a radically generalized summary of the issue: an author violated the Prime Directive of authoring and reacted to a bad review. Hijinks ensued.

I won’t analyze in detail the events outlined in those articles. Better minds than mine have been tackling that task for the Internet equivalent of eternity. My concern is that an important point is being obscured by the writing community’s relentless focus on the author’s creepy freakout.

My point is this: it appears that what sent her down the rabbit hole was not the review itself. She was consumed by the revelation that the person responsible might not even exist. Think about that. Review platforms online allow people to set up fake identities and say whatever they want about whoever they want, wholly unopposed. No, wait. That’s too kind. Writing culture doesn’t simply allow that to happen, it is defending it. Am I the only one disturbed by this?

Writers, publishers and readers expect reviews to be reliable evaluations of a book’s merits. That’s a concept battered already by practices that create ratings inflation, but powerful shared mythologies don’t die easily.  It’s likely that buy-a-review scandals and the prevalence of positive review-swaps are to blame for the reverence with with writers and publishers alike treat the ideal of “objective” criticism. My fear now, watching this latest kerfuffle, is that reviewers are being elevated to such lofty heights that we’re defending them from attack with a fervor usually reserved for star football players accused of abuse.

Yeah, I went there. Victim-blaming is a vicious spectator sport. Everywhere I look online, I see people concentrating on the author, not the reviewer. Here’s a sampling of criticisms:

  • She shouldn’t have written about a polarizing topic if she wasn’t ready for people to dislike her portrayal of it.
  • She should’ve ignored the review. (and a cadre of reviewers who dogpiled onto the first and then hit every positive review of her book with critical comments.)
  • She should’ve ignored the person who tweeted mocking parodies of her every tweet.
  • She never should’ve responded to an inflammatory tweet message.

Now do some simple substitutions. She shouldn’t have gone down that alley. She shouldn’t have worn those clothes. She really shouldn’t have gone home with him.  Seriously, people. WTF? Yes, the author became an obsessive stalker, and that was wrong. WRONG. Shoutycaps wrong. That doesn’t make her critic innocent of all wrongdoing.

Look at that behavior. This was not a case of “a bad review.” This was an online assault campaign. I have yet to see one article or social media post concerned about that. Someone should be.

The author’s obsessive stalking also revealed that the reviewer’s online identity was faked. Take a moment, let that sink in. There is a label for people who create identities to go online and stroke their own egos  by viciously attacking vulnerable targets. They’re called trolls. There is no defense for defending them.

I’m not naming the review platform on which this happened for a reason: it’s irrelevant. They’re all infested with bullies. This is a Known Thing. No one wants to confront the problem. In writing culture, the bullies are sacrosanct, because no one is allowed to question the Power of Opinion. Maybe it’s time to do something about that. Maybe it’s time to stop blaming all authors for being sensitive and start considering the possibility that they could be victimized unfairly. It’s a thought.

Current advice to authors regarding bad reviews includes the following: don’t respond; don’t engage; you can’t win that fight; just walk away; it’s best to take your lumps and move on; it hurts, but you just have to take it. Doesn’t that sound like bad anti-bullying advice from 1970?  The reaction to people who do engage a critic in any way, as I demonstrated above, is worse.

Can’t we do better than this? There’s more than one kind of bad review, and there should be more than one proper way to respond. “Do not engage” and “There’s nothing you can do, just move on” are dangerous foundations on which to build a power structure. Currently, to my knowledge, no review platform even has an effective system for reporting abusive reviews. (Yes, they have reporting systems. Nothing happens. Not effective.)  They have historically been resistant to the idea of implementing punitive measures against any reviewer, under any circumstances other than fraud or other legal threats.

I think about that, being an author. I have no recourse against bullying unless matters escalate, threats are made and it becomes a police matter. My emotional investment, my financial stake, my professional reputation — all those can be destroyed with impunity, and if I protest in any way, I will be demonized by my own peers. What’s wrong with that picture? Everything.

There’s more than one way to feed a troll. Beating up on their victims is one of them.

Let’s stop this.