Reviewing & Critiquing: When Writers & Readers Go On a Road Trip.

My writing analogy for this week revolves around a lesson I learned and then re-learned on many a childhood vacation: riding in a car with an angry driver is a special kind of terrifying. It’s frightening and frustrating at once because passengers are powerless to affect the situation. (Ignore the Hollywood potential for grabbing the wheel or whatever. We’re aiming at an analogy.)

The driver can stop or go, run into a wall or off the road, yell and scream and do whatever she wants. Passengers can only sit there and hope things work out for the best. If they intervene, they risk becoming targets or victims.

Arguing with a reader’s opinion of a story is a lot like throwing a tantrum while driving. Wrong or right, the passenger/reviewer/critic may never want to ride with that writer again, and that’s a reasonable reaction to inherently unreasonable behavior.

If I don’t agree with a reader’s points, I can take those ideas and figuratively put them in a box with the horrid blouse Uncle Romulus gave me last Christmas. I can ignore them. I can take one idea or many to heart and make changes. I can reject them all as silly in the privacy of my own mind. I can ask for second and third opinions from sources I trust to be brutally honest and go from there.

Whatever I decide to do, the decision is mine. I’m the author. The power to change or not is mine alone. As the one holding that power, it’s my duty to accept observations with good grace and move on. Revving the engine, sighing and drumming fingers on the steering wheel, yelling at the passenger–a. k.a. questioning the reader’s understanding, explaining what the writing meant to say,  or outright insisting a reader is wrong for having a different take on my writing than I do–all those things are bad behaviors to be avoided.

Telling a reader she’s wrong, or even that she misinterpreted something, is punching down on the already-powerless.  It’s discourteous at best, and depending on language and hostility, it borders on emotional abuse. 

Reader-to-reader disagreement in a public critiquing environment is little better. We’re all passengers in the same car (so to speak) but dismissing the someone else’s interpretation is pretty high up on the hubris scale, right up there with “I shouldn’t have to take a turn sitting in the middle because I’m oldest” or “She elbowed me first.”

Phrases like “But I saw it the way the author says,” “I don’t think that’s right,”  and “I don’t see it that way,” are not things another reader needs to hear from me.  Nor does the writer, frankly, unless that point is offered as a separate private remark on request. 

Why not?  Isn’t my opinion valid? Yes, but only equally so, and opinion is not a democracy. Majority rule does not apply. Me agreeing or disagreeing proves nothing except that I feel the need to put someone else down.  No opinion deserves to get voted off the island. No one else’s life is improved by hearing my judgment of their opinion. 

I can think “oh, that’s baloney, I totally disagree” all I want, and I do. All the time. In. My. Head. But to keep the peace in the backseat, it’s better to shut up and watch the scenery. So to speak.

This metaphor explains why I seldom last long in most critique groups. Too many drivers can’t resist lecturing the passengers all the time, and too many other kids in the car talk over me and elbow me with their Very Important Opinions that Are Much More Right and Must Be Heard.

One or two trips, and I’m done.

So if you ever wonder why I don’t respond to questions about my critiques or reviews, that’s why. To mix my metaphors a bit, my readerly opinions are babies left on a writer’s dashboard. I abandon them to their fate. I’ll spend the rest of the ride with my fingers in my ears so I won’t know if anyone is yelling. It’s easier on my nerves.

And when I’m the driver/writer I will not question or respond because I so intensely dislike the way that feels from the receiving end.

Postscript: reviews online reviews present a different power dynamic, but erring on the side of silence is still safest for an author. And barring clear and obviously abusive reviews, I also think readers are better off voting our opinions though our own reviews than piling into existing disputes. But that’s me.

As always, your mileage may vary. And that’s okay too.   

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.