Good Reviews are Better Than Kind Reviews

Are you afraid to leave a bad review for stories by authors you know? Most people are. When a reader knows an author personally, (or has a professional relationship with one) there’s a commendable desire to protect that bond. What friend would want to hurt someone’s chances of success? What professional would want to be disrespectful? No one wants to be rude, nasty, or mean. Better to avoid hurting feelings or worse, setting the stage for retaliatory action. As the saying goes, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Right?

Wrong. When it comes to leaving reviews of published works, the saying is wrong. Reviews are too important a part of the reader-writer relationship to be reduced to platitudes.

If you’ve read a published work — especially one by an unknown author– and you have a strong opinion about it, then I would say you not only have a right to review it, you have a duty to do so. A duty to fellow readers.

(Note: this is an example of rhetorical hyperbole. If you don’t want to write reviews, don’t. If you are uncomfortable expressing negativity, don’t. If you don’t finish a book, don’t review it. If you don’t like an author personally, don’t review their books… you get the picture, right?)

I’m only asking that you don’t misinterpret a review’s prime purpose. The focus on good versus bad obscures the point of reviewing and conflates it with another important interaction between reader and writer: critiquing.

Reviewing  isn’t about being kind or handing out warm fuzzies or being mean or rude.  Anything an author has published is up for public consumption. Reviewing is a public service. Critiquing is something else again. (Another post, someday.)

The reviewer’s role is this: to inform a prospective reader about the work. That’s all. Only one person’s needs should be considered: the reader’s. Not the writer, not even the reviewer. A review by its very nature is an opinion piece, but the essence should be objective evaluation, not a quality judgment.

I’ve been professionally recommending books for 19 years. I’ve sold plenty of books I loathe with a clear conscience for just as long.  My opinion counts, but I have no right to pass sentence on a book’s True Worth. What I hate, others may adore. A reviewer’s role is to inform.

An example: I despise Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule.  If I rated it, however, the star rating would be 3. A review would go into great detail about what I dislike. (And now I feel the urge to head over to Goodreads…no. Must. Resist. Temptation.) Anyway, my evaluation of the book’s appeal to certain readers, based on certain preferences, is 5 stars. My personal opinion is zero stars. In a review, I can explain all that. Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I sold a book after saying, “I hate this one, but if you liked XY&Z, you should give it a look…”

Tastes differ. Tolerances differ. Interests differ. Your review can be a litany of complaints, and end up  intriguing a prospective reader.  Your most-hated flavor is someone else’s favorite. Your idea of an insomnia cure is someone else’s idea of a perfect read. As long as any vitriol is wiped off before posting, you should be honest about any perceived negatives of plot, character etc. Be honest about mechanical and structural problems as well. You don’t have to dwell on them. A reader can judge the details by a glance through the free online sample or riffle through the first ten pages. Just don’t pretend they aren’t there, or expect your credibility to plummet.

What about the writer’s feelings? Hm. That’s a toughie. If you’re concerned about how a friend will respond to a review, then run it past them instead of posting it. If objections, protests, or tears flow, then call it a private critique, (another important act of selfless service on the part of readers!) offer warm fuzzies, and of course honor the friend’s wishes regarding its publication.

Still. The point to keep in mind is that a reader’s real responsibility is to other readers. First and only. Lying to the Emperor about his state of undress helps no one, least of all the Emperor (or Empress)

A side note: don’t obsess about stars. A star rating is nothing more than an artificially-colored, flavorless cherry on the rich fudge sundae of a real review. Make your points about a story in detail, using all your words. A writer who is a reader is a reviewer in the making.

Let’s wrap up this soapbox screed on a cheerful note. Bad ratings/reviews do not hurt a book’s chances nearly as much as no response at all. Obscurity is the real enemy. Bad reviews (or middle-of-the-road ones)  do not deter readers, but too many good ones can. When a title with more than 5 reviews has none under 4 stars, it raises my suspicions about the reviewer’s motives. Even the classics get panned. War & Peace has its detractors. So does Twilight. I could go on.  I won’t. That’s enough of that.

For now.

Confessions and a Quandry

Almost a month has passed since WisCon, but I still can’t write a review. Those four days were too full, too intense and too personal to reduce to a travelogue. I’m not ready to frame the experience in the forms and structure of an objective analysis.

That said, and to preface my point, I would summarize WisCon like this: a small convention full of big ideas. It has deep roots in the traditions of prose science-fiction fandom, but it has grown and stretched to great heights since its founding in the 70’s. The atmosphere was intimate, but every circle in the intricate overlapping Venn diagram of modern SFF/graphic novel/manga/TV/Movie fandom was well represented.

Representation was a recurring theme, in fact. Representation, inclusion, diversity, privilege & power, acceptance, alliance, breaking barriers, giving voice to the voiceless, questioning authority, and challenging the status quo. Those concepts are the shining stars of WisCon. They sparkled.

That brings me to the point I want to explore: my deep discomfort with social justice topics. (If anyone actually read this blog, I would worry about the sticky swamp I’m wading into, but most of my pageviews come from referral bots, so I think I’m covered.)

 I am a bad ally. In an army of progressive warriors, I am a sniveling coward. There. I’ve said it. My experiences at WisCon reinforced this shame even while it inspired me to stretch and improve myself.

When I read essays about or listen to discussions of oppression and discrimination,  I end up feeling frustrated and guilty more than anything else.The negativity arises from a deep divide between my visceral defensive reactions and my intellectual agreement. The outrage of the dispossessed and discounted is justified, and it enrages me to learn of it. Personal accounts of mistreatment and violence horrify me, and they stoke my determination to make the world a better place for everyone in it.

But.

I don’t get a voice. I’m hardly oppressed at all. (cue audio clip from Monty Python & The Holy Grail)  The burden of my ancestors’ advantages outweighs my personal history, and my cultural privilege is written all over my white skin and on my marriage certificate. I can never have the same exclusionary experiences as those who have been erased and silenced by society, so I can never truly understand.  I don’t get to stand on the stage when the oppressed are speaking. I can only contribute to the cause with my support from the sidelines.

I agree with those statements, without reservation, without hesitation. It’s true. I know it. I accept it with every working cell of my forebrain.

But. Oh but.

Emotions rise from a darker, deeper, less logical part of the mind, and that part of me writhes in pain when my race, my class, my relationship choice–my very existence–is demonstrated to be the root of so many evils, when I am lumped into The Problem Population due to attributes that I cannot change.

 No one is deliberately invalidating my life, my pains, my wounds. These are not personal attacks. It isn’t about me.  (See the above paragraph regarding who gets to speak.)  I know all this, but knowing and feeling are not the same. Damage can be inflicted without intent. Broad sweeping assaults can hit more than the expected target.

I see myself reflected in the crimes of others. The anguish and guilt I feel is as reflexive as the lurch of panic when I see flashing lights in my rearview mirror. Even when I know I’m not speeding, I get that rush of fear. Even when I  try my best to be inclusive–and to learn from my failures– but I end up second-guessing my every word and action, and I am paralyzed by fear of being revealed as just another bigoted, insensitive, disgusting object of loathing.

Worse: I know in my heart of hearts that however hard I try, I am doomed to fail in my efforts.

If I were to express this pain, if I were to say, “Please, am I really so bad? Are all people like me awful?”  then I would be told to check my privilege, as if my slip was showing or my fly was open. I would be dismissed as a derailer. I’m not so daring, but others have been, and the responses terrify me.

 It isn’t about you, defensive souls are told. Don’t take it personally. Don’t expect a cookie for being decent. It’s not your turn to speak. You are part of the power structure. When you talk about your feelings, it’s turning the discussion about us into one about you. Sit down and shut up.

You know,  I’ve heard all that before, from men who didn’t like hearing from a mouthy female. Odd, that silencing sounds like same regardless of whether its done by the oppressed or the oppressive. I can nod my head and accept that all those points make perfect sense–not to mention the karmic aspect of balancing centuries of abuse against these few, modern attempts at balance–but it still hurts.
 (I know, I know. Whiny, privileged crybaby. Suck it up. Blah, blah, blah.) 
People who face a universe of injustice have a right to anger, and more than a right to call out bigotry at every turn.  I want to hear that anger expressed, and I want to do everything I can to right the terrible wrongs I see and hear about every day. I want those things. When I hear a call to action, I want to raise my hand and shout, “Yes!” And I do.  I stand, and I clap, and I feel inspired.
When the moment passes, though, when the bloody doubts start to seep up again, what I mostly do is huddle silent in the shadows and and hang my head, because I am hurting and too shamed to even speak of it.
Thus do allies become bystanders. Thus does bitterness breed silence.  
I started writing a speculative fiction piece with plot elements that evoke comparison to the Holocaust.  It’s some of the strongest writing I’ve ever done, from a craft perspective, but my muse decided that the narrator needed to be an old black woman. (Black? African-American? There’s the first bear trap, right there.  I’m sure I’ll be insulting someone either way. Which is right? Who do I even ask? Whose judgment do I trust?  Arrrrgggghh.) 
I started it, but I’m not black. I’m not a grandmother,  and now doubt has me stalled. I don’t know that I can ever finish. Should I even be trying, or is it arrogance? How do I evaluate its authenticity without raising the subject of how few people I know who could evaluate those aspects?  I have no way to ask if it reads as racist or ignorant without being an ignorant racist. You know, “I need a black friend to look over this.” Really?  Arrrrrrrgggghhh. Again.
Here are the first two paragraphs: 
The proud ones died first. They died in the exam rooms, when they refused to disrobe, they died on the train platform behind the intake offices, because they ignored the orders of their captors. They died standing in line in the hot sun as they waited for their ride to oblivion, when they begged for water and mercy. Pride was a sin, and they paid for it with their lives.

Ruth was humble, when the government thugs came for her. They came with their uniforms, and their legal papers, and their red, sweaty faces. She bowed her head and opened the door. She hugged her grandchildren, she kissed her daughter’s salt-wet cheek, and she packed the one bag the law allowed her to bring. The thugs drank sweet iced tea while they waited, while they mocked her dusty bare floors, her crooked shelves, and her small cheap treasures. When they grew impatient with the farewells, they pulled Ruth from her daughter’s arms and called her an old nigger bitch.
 This picture sums up how I feel right now. Thoughts, anyone?

Growing and Other Pains

 
Disclaimer: The next few posts–and I’m likely to post often over the next few weeks–will be packed with navel-gazing, thoughtful introspection, or whatever description you choose to use for self-absorbed musings. This blog is my forum for exploring how I intersect with reality, and I’ve been exploring a lot of new realities lately. I am rambling off into Me-land now, rather than objectively reporting on the world around me, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

I checked a lot of firsts off the life list in the past week. First solo convention visit; first time at a con started by members of the written science-fiction community rather than comics or gaming; first con based on an academic/social justice foundation, rather than a feed-the-fanbase framework … heck, it was my first solo road trip in 3 years, and the first solo trip unrelated to business for 27 years.

I survived, I learned, I wrote a lot of notes. I remembered a lot of cold truths about myself that have been buried under the debris of the familiar environment for a long time now. Did I have a good time? That’s what friends and acquaintances have been asking. It was exhilarating, it was quietly terrifying, and it was tremendously uncomfortable. I have not yet even begun to process most of the emotions and ideas I experienced and absorbed. It was incredible, and I want to go back. But a good time? Hells, no.

 ‘Good time’  does not encompass the intensity. The phrase is too weak to hold the emotional weight of stepping so far outside my comfort zone that I couldn’t even see the boundary.  I forced myself to make conversation with strangers even though I was certain that every word out of my mouth offended or annoyed them, and I attended events whose topics and presenters confirmed my belief that I am the idiotic coward I’ve always known myself to be. I sat in corners and was silently ignored by everyone around me, and I made no good impression on anyone. I left the event resonating with the truth that I am a wholesale failure of a human being.

I’m okay with that part. Success starts with failures.  Growing hurts. I was prepared for the discomfort and and I am working my way through my reactions. I want to grow and improve myself and the world around me, and throwing myself into that painful growth zone is the only way to make that happen. It’s why I want to go back again next year.

The bad part? I forget, in my rawness, that most of the people asking me if I enjoyed myself–or who phrase the query as a comment, based on my social media posts–have zero interest in the answer. People are polite. I forget that a lot, since I am not. Polite, that is. Not by temperament. By training, yes. I’m well-educated in the art of social interaction, but it was all learned by rote, as an adult, and I regularly fail to apply those lessons when I’m emotionally engaged. I forget to answer that complicated question, ‘did you have a good time’ with the simple sound bite of “Sure, it was great.”

That’s a non-growing pain, and I don’t know how to address it. I don’t want to lose what I have. I love my life, and my friends, and my routines. There’s comfort in the familiar. There’s pleasure. There’s warm acceptance. Good times and good conversations bring me a lot of contentment.

The problem is that I want joy. I want passion and fire and disagreement and growth. I want discussions and analysis and thoughtful commentary too. I”m not going to get that unless I go out and look for it. It isn’t in my familiar, in my comfortable, in my everyday.  My familiar, my everyday, my comfort circle…it’s built on kindness and polite interest, and it’s bleeding me dry.

I overanalyze. I know it. It’s a fundamental aspect of my personality.  I analyze every single damned word out of my own mouth, and I often read subtext more clearly than the words people say to me. That’s what happens when you learn socialization as an intellectual task instead of a life skill. Socrates was the first nickname I was ever given. It wasn’t a compliment.  It was based on the quote: “The unexamined life is not worth living” and it was meant as a put-down: stop thinking so much. Just enjoy life. As if the two were incompatible. They aren’t. The more I look, the more joy I find.

Alas, analysis is producing some uncomfortable results, lately. Moving forward, it seems my options for social support are going to be ‘be less but comfortable,’ or ‘be elsewhere.’ When I stretch my wings where I am now, they get stepped on. Every time I turn around, someone’s plucking out feathers to keep me grounded.

That isn’t a growing pain. It’s a destructive one. I am tolerating direct put-downs practically every single time I open my fucking mouth, as if I would make bullshit statements I couldn’t back or express opinions I hadn’t deeply thought through already—as if I just say shit for no reason and need public correction like a child. As if my knowledge and experiences are worthless. More and more often lately I’ve been backing down silently rather start pulling up facts on a cell phone and starting a fight. That wouldn’t be polite. That wouldn’t be friendly. That wouldn’t be acceptable. I hate that my defensive reflex is to get dismissive in turn. That’s only an ego band-aid, and the wounds go to the bone.

Open confrontation is always my first-choice resolution for conflict, but I have zero tolerance for absolutes. The flat statement, “Oh, no, that’s wrong” will throw me every time, and when those words are followed by, ‘and I’m not talking about it,” then I am just…boggled. The first rule is question everything, but the second is contradict no one. Discuss, disagree, oppose, yes all of that, but above all, respect. The ultimate in disrespect is to declare someone wrong and then cut off discussion.

Why am I tolerating disrespect? Why am I letting myself be battered and belittled? Why go along with a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality? Mainly because no one in my social group is comfortable with confrontation. “I’m not talking about that” is an acceptable change of subject, and it should be. Disliking conflict is a valid, real emotional response, and one often rooted in abuse. I respect it, and I understand the urge to keep the social surface smooth and the emotional keel nice and level.

 I do understand those things, but that leaves me no less bewildered and bruised when that non-confrontational discomfort parades in front of me all dressed up in confrontational clothes and hits me with confrontational statements.

I’m tolerating personal, emotional damage because overall, and in general, I’m comfortable with my circle. Shared interests and shared experiences build strong bonds.  I respect the experiences of everyone I make the effort to connect with socially, and I find different perspectives fascinating, and I don’t want to lose all that. I don’t want to lose them.

I want to grow, but God, it hurts.

Four things I learned while finding an image for this post:
1. There are a many statues of Socrates the philosopher.
2. There was also a famous soccer player named Socrates. (Google it!)
3. I like quotations more than I like pictures of statues. (Unless the statues are gargoyles.)
4. Socrates was not a gargoyle.