Wednesday, August 22, 2012

If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed—Writers Be Kind to One Another in Your Public Comments

by Sophie Perinot

It is perfectly acceptable for an author not to like another writer’s work. Writers, especially good ones, are generally prolific readers and—because we are “in the biz”—it’s not surprising that we have strong opinions as to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to plot or prose. While wearing our “readers hats” we may even have cause to comment on or review books written by others (most of us are members of Goodreads at the very least). And, I would argue, it is perfectly acceptable for a writer to express his/her disappointment with a book in a review, comments to friends, and/or even an email to the author of the novel.

What is not acceptable is gratuitous cruelty or, worse still, attacking the person not the book.

A blog post by fellow debut author Nancy Bilyeau got me thinking about this subject. In a piece for English Historical Fiction Authors, Nancy discussed the rise and fall of an author few of us have heard of—William Harrison Ainsworth. While there was plenty of interesting information in Nancy’s piece (about the man, his work, and how he shaped popular images of The Tower of London), what will stick with me is this:

“One writer said of him in 1870: ‘Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored.’ Ainsworth was still alive when this sentiment was published, and in reduced circumstances.” (emphasis added)

I do not know who “one writer” was but that is just as well because if I did I would be sorely tempted to dig him up and give him a stern talking to. I cannot imagine ANYTHING less appropriate or professional than wishing another writer—another human being—did not exist purely on the grounds of his prose (Nancy’s article makes clear Mr. Ainsworth was an upstanding fellow). Did “one writer” give a moment’s thought to how his fellow author might feel stumbling over such comment in the morning paper or overhearing it at a gathering of writers?

We all know this sort of behavior is, sadly, not a thing of the past. I can think of several recent examples from the blogosphere. I will not list them (or link to them), however, because to do so would be to repeat hurtful words spoken about living authors. Suffice it to say the modern examples are chilling—just as you’d expect from a culture that prides itself on speaking its mind and then some.

Civility and professional courtesy—that’s what we need. Without them we might as well be politicians. First off we need to remember we are not required to share every writerly thought or opinion that comes into our heads. But, to the extent we choose to offer criticisms of other writers work we can choose to:

  • Be polite and constructive. For example, “the novel’s pacing lagged in the mid-section” not “the pace was so slow I aged ten years in the last five chapters. I can only recommend this book to insomniacs.”

  • SCRUPULOUSLY focus our comments on the book not the writer. For example, “I found the alternating first-person perspectives confusing,” not “that Sophie Perinot doesn’t have the talent to write two viewpoints successfully. In fact I am not sure she could even pull off one.”

  • Make certain we are judging the book against the author’s goals (what she set out to do) rather than what we would have written or would rather read. For example, “the author cast the book as a thriller but I was never in suspense” not “the book is a thriller but I wish more time had been spent on the romantic plotline because I love romances.”

A great way to test whether our comments are appropriate before making them public is to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of them. No matter how deserved your comment was Mr. Edgar Allen Poe, couldn’t you have thought of kinder phrase than “turgid prose” when describing Mr. Ainsworth’s writing (another example from Nancy’s piece)?

If empathy and human kindness (our better angels) won’t sway us away from personal attacks and virulently worded critiques, then self-interest should. When you read Mr. Poe’s comment above were you disappointed in him? I was (thinking of driving to Baltimore and giving him a stern talking to). If such comments make readers think less of the writer who penned them how is that good for sales? Besides, the world of writing is a small world. Someday the author you savaged may be asked what he thinks of including you on a panel at a writers conference, or he may be asked to recommend a next novel for a book club. I am betting you get neither the seat nor the recommendation. So before you prick a fellow writer with personal attacks or cutting remarks about his novel, remember there will be blood and not all of it may be the other guy’s.

Sophie Perinot is author of THE SISTER QUEENS (NAL/2012). For those in the Mid-Atlantic region Sophie will be a Presenting Author at the Baltimore Book Festival this September. If you are looking for her in the virtual world she both blogs and tweets.


Storyella said...

Always remembering the Golden Rule applies to all facets of life, doesn't it? Tactful truth is appreciated.

Jemi Fraser said...

Excellent post, Sophie! I laughed at the politician line :) I bet the examples you gave will help out a lot of people!

Genevieve Graham said...

So, so true, Sophie.

An addendum to this is for authors to accept criticism without fighting back. When I read negative feedback, I have to remind myself that the reader has obviously forgotten that the author exists as a living, breathing, sensitive human being, and manners are therefore unimportant. It'd be so easy for the author to reply to the comments, argue, throw it back at them, but all that does is make matters worse.

Sophie Perinot said...

Genevieve -- too true. And if someone is willing to say you are a waste of space on the planet (ala Mr. Ainsworth's experience) then there isn't really much you can say in return anyway is there.

Jean Oram said...

I agree that there is a much better way to share criticism--whether you are an author/writer or not. Some of the stuff that people are writing about each other out there is horrible. Man oh man.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I never understand the nastiness - then once in a while I might find myself thinking something not-so-great, and realize that we're all human. Just some folks don't use a filter and that's the problem. I think if we remember to do unto they say...we'd all be better off. Thanks for the great reminder, Sophie.

Rick Pieters said...

Hear, hear! We, most of us, grew up with the Biblical maxim against judging, lest we be judged. But when we critique or even comment on another's work, be it novel or blog post, we are making judgments, so remembering that other maxim about doing unto others is SO important. I just don't get, or maybe don't want to know (unless as a character's motivation), what drives people to be mean and cruel. Thanks for stating this again. (Now, about Mr. Poe...)

Susan Spann said...

So true, Sophie. Even in the digital sphere - and especially here, where it's so easy for an author (or anyone else) to see and judge us by our words - it's important to remember that courtesy and politeness are more important than a clever turn of phrase. (Particularly since those clever turns so often come back to roost when it's our turn to have our work exposed to view.)

Or, in the immortal words of Thumper the Rabbit: "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all." (Or, at least, say it in a way that isn't insulting.)

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I always try to be kind. I have heard and read some very nasty things online and in discussion groups.

E.B. Black said...

Thanks for this post. I've been worrying lately that I needed to either lie or stop posting reviews ever. I don't think I am insulting in my reviews, but I also don't like to lie. And I didn't want to make anyone mad if I posted anything negative in my review of their book.

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