Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sucking It Up: The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Criticism

Note:  This is sort of a companion piece to an article I wrote for the Huffington Post about the bullies and stalkers in a group called Stop the Goodreads Bullies.  You might want to read that first here.

No writer enjoys getting a bad review. Writers who say bad reviews have no affect on them probably aren’t being entirely honest.

Most people are unaware of the amount of work that goes into writing a novel—even one you don’t like. The details you have to keep track of as your story unfolds, the story itself, the characters, their backgrounds, personalities and fates, the dialogue, language, voice, tone, pacing—it’s a big job. Once a writer has gone through all that work, it’s no fun to read a review that declares you’ve put all that work into a book that sucks.

But you know what? None of that matters.

In 1986, when I lived in the Los Angeles area, my late friend, publicist and writer Francis Feighan, took me to a Writers Guild screening of an upcoming Eddie Murphy movie called The Golden Child. I thought it was terrible, and I reached that conclusion very early on in the movie. Nothing that happened subsequently changed my mind. (All these years later, I still think it stinks on ice.)

As we left, Francis asked me what I thought of the movie, and I told him. He shook his head and clicked his tongue as we walked back to the car.

“What?” I said, wondering if I’d said something wrong.

“You have no idea how much work goes into making a movie.”

“But that was a bad movie. I really thought it sucked.”

“The same amount of blood and sweat and fear that went into the making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Casablanca, or Lawrence of Arabia went into The Golden Child. People think a movie they don’t like was slapped together quickly, or somehow not enough work and love went into it, and that’s simply not true. Filmmakers always work hard on a movie and they believe it’s going to be a good work. That’s why they work so hard!”

“I understand that,” I said, “but in the end...should that make any difference?”

“Oh, hell, no.  I just like pointing it out because most people don’t understand that about movies. You’re right. Doesn’t make any difference. The people who made The Golden Child did a lot of hard work, took a shot, and for you, they failed. For me, too. I thought it was a disaster. But somebody out there—several somebodies—will think it’s the best movie they ever saw.  For them, it worked.  Look how many fans a movie like Plan 9 from Outer Space has. Or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. These are criminally bad movies on every level. But a lot of people find them entertaining and love them. That’s the way it always is. With everything. You can never please everyone, but you’ll always please someone. Probably a lot of someones, even if you never know it. But the real reason creative people do what they do is not to please everybody but because they have to. Because they love it. Even if others don’t.”

Damn, I miss Francis. I learned a lot from him.

What he said about movies applies to books, as well. Yes, we writers pour our hearts and guts into our work. It’s a gargantuan task to write a novel. But then it’s finished and published...and our children go out into the world to fend for themselves. We hate to see them maligned or despised. But it happens.

Writer Steve Rasnic Tem, author of Deadfall Hotel, made a great point in the comments under my Huffington Post article.  He wrote, “If someone really feels bad about the negative review they've received on Goodreads, they should check out the detailed GR ratings for To Kill A Mockingbird—over 20,000 one star reviews. How could that many people who actually read give that magnificent novel only one star?”

Harper Lee’s novel is beloved. Many list it as their favorite book, an influential work they were fortunate enough to read early in life and that became a part of them. And yet on Goodreads, more than 20,000 people gave it only one star. There are complaints that it’s not subversive enough, that the kids are too good, the characters too thin, that it’s a story about conflict between good people and bad people rather than a conflict between races, and that it embraces and lauds the racism of its story’s time.

Orson Welles’s 1941 classic film Citizen Kane is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest American movie of all time. But when it was initially released, critics were unaware of the movie’s future reputation and not all of them were impressed.

Silent film director-tyrant Erich von Stroheim weighed in with a review that found nothing to praise.  He criticized the movie for being unoriginal, unrealistic, and confusing.  He even accused it of being too different.  He hated the fact that the movie begins with the end, then bounces around through time, then lands at the end again.  He wrote:

“To be truthful, during the first twenty minutes of viewing the film, I, who have been thirty years in this business of making films, did not know what it was all about. I may be dumb, but I have asked at least fifty people who in more or less articulate form described the same experience. I may be hyper-conservative or just plain old fashioned, but I believe in all sincerity that the form of telling the story of Citizen Kane is not the desired or successful form in which to tell a screen story. All of us have been accustomed to hear or to see a story start at the beginning. Welles's way of telling the story may have its place in a novel or on the stage, but I am convinced that in the cinema it is entirely out of place.”

Who the hell did this Welles upstart think he was, telling a story out of order? Nobody wants to see a movie like that! But in spite of Stroheim’s objections, it’s become a fairly common method of storytelling in cinema.  The tyrannical Austrian director once known as “the man you love to hate” was off the mark in that respect.

My point is that even great works are not universally loved. All of the books and movies and works of art that we now consider immortal have had—and will continue to have—their critics and detractors. No one is immune from them. Absolutely no one.

But was Erich Von Stroheim’s review of Citizen Kane wrong? It was his opinion. Nothing more. That’s all any review is—an opinion—and in any field, those are always in abundance.

We might not like bad reviews, but some of them hold treasures for writers. You won’t learn a damned thing from praise. It’s a wonderful thing to receive, but it doesn’t make you a better writer. The only thing that’ll do that is acknowledging our weaknesses, and then working to strengthen them. The only way we can do that is to become aware of them, and it’s very rare for a writer to see those weaknesses himself. A good negative review can help a writer do that.

There is such a thing as constructive criticism. A review that points out a book’s weaknesses can be a great learning experience for a writer, as long as it’s a writer who realizes that not all criticism is a personal attack, and that he or she can always improve as a writer.

These days, of course, the erudite professional critic no longer has a corner on criticism. The internet has left it open to anyone and everyone—just like publishing. Now, a person can read a book in the privacy of his own home, then go online and post a review to the world. But if anyone can post a review, that means there’s no telling how a reviewer might choose to convey his or her opinion. Just as there are those who will write a negative but respectful review, there are also those who will write whatever pops into their heads simply because they can.

If the reviewer doesn’t like a book, he might take it out on the author. He might choose to question the legality of the author’s parents’ marriage. He might wish the author’s children lifelong careers in the fast food service industry. He might suggest that the author engage in a variety of sex acts with a pet. He might even wish upon the author all manner of serious illnesses, like flesh-eating bacteria or butt cancer.

There’s no shortage of reviews like that online. And there’s no shortage of people who are willing to write them. I can spot one at a quick glance, and I do not read them. There’s no point. They are a waste of time. There is nothing constructive in them, nothing for the writer to learn. Reading them is like gouging the palm of your hand with a knife. They really aren’t book reviews so much as episodes of self-indulgent venom-spewing.

Don’t read them. Most importantly, never take them personally. The authors of such reviews don’t deserve that kind of attention. They deserve to be ignored.

Which brings me to writers who seem incapable of ignoring them. They’re out there. They walk among us. And just as the internet has opened the floodgates to immature reviewers who are more interested in acting out than reviewing a book, it also has opened the floodgates to people who think they’re writers, but have no idea what it means to be a writer.

Being a writer involves more than being able to write.

Until the digital explosion, getting published wasn’t easy. You had to submit your work to publishers, usually through an agent—which means you had to find an agent to represent you. That process could be quite humbling. It involved something we used to call “rejection.” And even when you weren’t rejected, your book still had to go through an editing process, which meant an editor would tell you what he or she thought was wrong with the book, or with your writing in certain areas, and how it might be improved.

By the time your book was published, you’d gone through an experience in which it had been rejected, accepted, and edited, and at some point in this process, you had made a significant discovery.

You are not William fucking Faulkner.

It should be noted that even William Faulkner wasn’t William fucking Faulkner. He received rejection letters from editors that included lines like, “My chief objection is that you don’t have any story to tell,” and, “Good god, I can’t publish this!”

That process has a tendency to toughen up a writer even before he’s published.

Today, anyone can write anything they want and publish it themselves. No screening process at all. No rejections, no editing, no rewriting, no carving a better book out of the one you’ve written, nothing to thicken the writer’s skin. Just write it and publish it. Then sit back and wait for the waves of love to pour in from the world. Right?


Many of these writers have had no experience with rejection and have never been told what’s wrong with their work. And you know what? Something is wrong with their work. Nobody turns out a perfect book at the first crack. Every writer, without exception, needs a good editor and some healthy criticism before he becomes published. It improves the work, and as the grownups used to tell us when we were kids, it builds character.

There are a lot of people out there today who are writing and publishing without the benefit of that experience. When they get a bad review—particularly of the variety that can be found on the internet, the kind that suggests the author climb into an operating woodchipper—their heads explode. They respond in kind.

This is always a colossally bad idea. There is no time when this is not a bad idea. Writers who do this make embarrassing spectacles of themselves. It’s unprofessional and not only will no good come of it, but bad things will come of it—like a bad reputation, for example.

These days, however, we seem to take things to extremes. That includes people who have no business writing. A group calling itself Stop the Goodreads Bullies is a perfect example of such behavior—and of people who have no business writing.

Stop the Goodreads Bullies goes so far as to see bad reviews as some kind of persecution. They’re so phenomenally untethered from reality that they have done some investigating and learned personal details about the authors of those reviews and posted that information online. You know, stuff like home addresses, places of employment, where the reviewer’s children go to school, and even where the reviewer likes to go out to eat. This has resulted in Goodreads reviewers being harassed and threatened.

This group has taken whiny narcissism to psychotic extremes. It has put the authors of these negative reviews into possible danger. Whoever makes up this group, they should not be writing. They should do something else entirely—like finding a good therapist. They also should thank their lucky stars that their insane fuckery hasn’t resulted in getting someone hurt or killed.

Members of this group have been bouncing from one comment thread to another, throwing tantrums and shrieking about “rights.” Their rights, the rights of reviewers, the rights of readers. They’ve been doing this because, in addition to being out-of-control babies who behave psychotically, they are hypocritical idiots. They claim the reviewers are “bullying” them, and that their free speech rights give them the right to bully them right back. To make their point, they pop up online in a variety of sock-puppet identities and tell everyone who disagrees with them to shut up. Repeatedly. In other words, the only free speech they care about is their own. They want everyone else’s revoked.

They’re crazier than a bag of wet cats. But they’re not alone when it comes to lashing out at critics. In 2009, writer Candace Sams responded angrily to readers on Amazon when they criticized her romance novel Electra Galaxy’s Mr. Interstellar Feller, going so far as threatening to report them to the FBI.

This behavior isn’t confined to new, inexperienced writers, either. In 2004, Anne Rice responded to readers on Amazon: “Your stupid, arrogant assumptions about me and what I am doing are slander.” In 2009, Alice Walker used her Twitter account to call a Boston Globe book critic a “moron.” These writers are not only enormously talented and respected but hugely successful. They're pros who should know better.

There is a long and colorful history of writers who lash out at critics. Some writers have become more known for that than their writing. And as far as I can tell, that’s not a good thing. No writer is immune from the desire to lash out, but it’s always a mistake. When I start feeling it, I get the hell off the computer, which provides countless opportunities to make an ass of oneself. Let's not forget that on the internet, most book reviewers are hobbyists, readers who go online to discuss the books they've read.

Whether you respond to a bad review in a comment thread or by deliberately sabotaging the personal life of the reviewer, you’re in the wrong. The two differ only in extremes—the result is the same. You will be seen by readers and other writers as unprofessional, a person who wants to write but never receive criticism, whether it’s reasonable criticism or some online monkey flinging its own poo. Raging about bad reviews is like raging against the weather. It doesn't change anything and it makes you look silly.

The only people who get positive reviews all the time are dictators in police states, and that’s only because criticism could result in the critic’s face getting shot off.

If you write, you will get bad reviews. And there’s not a goddamned thing you can do about it. The sooner you embrace that, the happier you will be. If you have the self-discipline to accomplish the task of writing a book, then you should be able to whip up the self-discipline to resist the urge to lash out at critics.

If you can’t draw a straight line, don’t become an architect. If you hate driving, don’t become a trucker. If animals make you nervous, don’t become a veterinarian. And if you can’t take criticism without throwing a tantrum, do us all a favor and stay away from writing, because you’re not going to like it. Not even a little.

If you’re going to write, don’t do it for praise. Do it because you have to do it, because you love it so much that you can’t not write. Take my word for it, being able to do something you love, something that’s a part of you, and actually make a little money from it is tremendously rewarding.

If all you want is praise, go get a country and become a dictator.  You’ll probably enjoy it a lot more.