Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Negative Reviews (reprise)

This originally appeared over at Alice Ozma's blog in a slightly different form and with more pictures.

I have history posting with my real name on the internet. Blame my age and how I, like millions of people born before reality TV, who didn't know that the internet was supposed to be anonymous. Students have happily asked me about embarrassing posts from the late 1990s that I made on Radiohead websites using my real name. Those posts were full of frothy, college-aged-Evan music-rage, aimed at people who acted like Radiohead lyrics were talking about their life experiences and not Thom Yorke’s. (Seriously, how is “Fake Plastic Trees” about some teenage breakup?) But they were not posts I expected students to see years later.

<image of Thom Yorke removed, imagine him being sad> 
Thom Yorke has enough of his own pain.

Fast-forward to the Amazon.com age: I joined thousands of self-appointed experts, reviewing music, books, and movies to reveal to anyone with an internet connection my very important opinions regarding John Steinbeck’s novels, Godfather III, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor albums. I was saving people time and money and emotional frustration by writing about bad things and somehow increasing audiences by writing about good ones.
It didn’t help that I went to graduate school from 2003-2008 to get a Masters degree in Literature and then an MFA in Creative Writing. Graduate school trained me to believe I was good at judging literature, so that by the time I decided to become a writer I already had set ideas about writing based on the handful of books and writers that academics had deemed good. It’s not that academics are often wrong about what books are good. It’s just that our opinions are often dated. Put another way: the quality and importance of books published now cannot be determined now. I did not understand that books celebrated now might be forgotten in 100 years; and lots of the books that are celebrated 100 years after their publication were initially ignored (see: Herman Melville and Zora Neale Hurtson.)
So, while I learned much about literature during my period as a graduate student, I did not learn how to critique contemporary fiction (or movies, music, laundry detergent, etc). Five years in academia plus a predisposition to snobbery resulted in a number of harshly negative reviews for books on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Not the greatest tragedy of my life, but certainly a character flaw.
I eventually went too far.
Back in 2008 I posted a review for a book on Goodreads; the review actually got the attention of the book’s author. I said some unnecessarily rough things, spurred by my belief that I knew a good book because I was a double-expert! I had an MA in Literature and I was getting an MFA. Why shouldn’t I post a review questioning the awards given to this novel and its author? Why shouldn’t I question this author’s skills? Chances were high that millions of people were considering whether or not to read that very book! I had to warn them!
The author emailed me and, in a very polite way, suggested I was being unnecessarily harsh. (He was happy to see that I actually liked his second book a bit, joking that at least he was improving — the kind of self-deprecating humor I normally would appreciate).
At the time I joked with fellow MFAers about how sad it was for an author to write a reader. I thought it was desperate and weird for him to go out of the way to contact me. Others agreed; no one seemed to think I was wrong for ripping the guy and his book on the internet. Ripping things on the internet is my right; that’s the very purpose of the internet. Right?
As you can probably sense, this was a terrible way to live. Fortunately, a couple of published authors said some key things about reviews and being a writer that helped shake up my persona both online and in the real world. A weekly coffeeshop conversation with author Matthew Quick, which stretched over many months, helped me shed some (though certainly not all) of my natural and acquired snobbiness. It’s not that Quick would show up and lament the nature of internet reviews. Nor did he chastise me for my own transgressions (yes, I did tell him about my harsh review and the resultant email). But he did push me to consider reviews from the other perspective. The irony is that I used similar thinking when teaching literature. Books force us to consider other perspectives! I said this in class to students but failed to consider it when writing reviews.
In an email, author Rick Moody once told me that he “wouldn’t object to a ‘negative’ review if that review were substantive, and about a resistance to the material based on concrete ideas about how it might be improved” but that negative reviews without substance “are bad for everyone.” I agree with him, even though I have yet to feel the barb of a negative review (my first novel having yet to see the light of publication).
Consider: readers can be talked out of a novel by the opinion of one person who may or may not share that reader’s sensibilities. How are you supposed to know if a reviewer shares your perspective without reading the same books? Who wants to read only the books that a reviewer reads? That doesn’t even cover all the reviews found on Goodreads and Amazon — how can a reader trust the opinions of strangers without knowing the sensibilities of those strangers? My students tell me that they will often pay more attention to how many good or bad reviews something gets online in their effort to decide what to buy. If I followed this rule, I wouldn’t read Don DeLillo’s Underworld because it “only” has a 3.5 star rating on Amazon. (Underworld is one of my favorite novels. So is Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death; also a 3.5 star Amazon rating)
Negative reviews hurt authors, of course. We already endure the criticisms of our own ego both before and after dealing with the many rejections on the road to publication — and those rejections don’t to stop for authors who have successfully released multiple books. I’m not saying only positive reviews should get published, but Moody’s quote puts the importance on the depth and substance of the review. Valid negative responses can lead to interesting conversations for readers (mostly for readers who have read the novel in question).
 In our email conversation about online reviews, Moody went on to assert that “The bilious, cantankerous reviews are posturing and narcissism. I don’t read them, and I feel sorry for the people who write them.” I’m sure we’ve all seen reviews for books or movies that seem to explode from the very gall bladders of the reviewer. I cringe when I see “worst books of the decade” or “most overrated authors” lists because they reek of basic internet jackassary: get people to click on an article by flailing one’s arms and speaking in tongues. Plus, when people who claim to love books and claim to lament the decline of reading write negative things about their very own industry, what hope do any of us have?
What these two authors in particular taught me is crucial: writers are nourished by tiny morsels of praise and nearly choke on the torrent of negativity online. It’s the struggle of being a writer in the 21st century. Self-promotion requires an internet presence; readers require an outlet. The internet, as everyone knows, puts authors in direct contact with readers. Of course, readers have a direct line to the authors — a megaphone five feet from their face. When one person reaches out to thousands it’s considered a huge advance in direct marketing; when thousands can shout in the face of one person — even if they shout praise or say nothing at all — it’s akin to that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex DeLarge is reprogrammed by having his eyes kept open.
Most readers would probably suggest an easy solution: all writers should avoid reading negative reviews, especially the ones written with the goal of ruining the author’s week. I’m not sure it’s that easy. Is it possible to avoid reading blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses and reviews on Amazon or Goodreads? Hell no! Writers, as part of our profession, need to self-promote, and the internet is the main way that happens. Promoting yourself while also ignoring what others are writing about you on the same sites? It’s not reasonably possible. Plus, some reviews will find their way to your inbox or into conversations even if you manage to ignore them.
Friend: “I saw you got a few bad reviews on Amazon. How’s that feel?”
Writer: “Thanks for letting me know of their existence.” 
I didn’t relinquish my stance about reviews and my opinions overnight. But I eventually got to a point where I wrote to the author I'd trashed and apologized. I explained not only why I had written the review but also why I eventually took it down. I told him that I didn’t expect him to accept my apology. And I told him I hoped he was still writing. None of that should be read as a noble thing on my part. I should’ve never written the bad review in the first place. There was no need. So, to get to the point, I have stopped writing negative reviews. I've taken down my Goodreads reviews below 4 stars. If I don’t like a book or movie, I don’t post comments about it. As a writer, I need to spend time writing new stories and books. And if someone wants to trash them online, I’ll be sure to debate with myself whether it’s worth sending an email to the critic, ignoring them, or just getting better.