Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Writer Bashing

I've attended several writing conferences, funtions, subscribed to writing newsletters and listserves and here is my burning question:

Is it okay, feng-shui, protocol or whatever to bash on other authors?

Here are my assumptions, which I think are pretty reasonable:
1.  Writers are people.  Tough people, sure, but we still have feelings and emotions, just like any other professionals.
2.  Writing is a profession.  Authors should and can be professional about their competition.  Even NBA, NFL, etc. athletes will talk about how they'll dominate, but when they're interviewed, they are very careful not to say anything mean or derrogatory about any one person in particular.
3.  Most writing has flaws.  When I read a book, I find myself editing as I go along.  Kind of spoils the experience in some ways.  However, I often also find delight in the characters, the descriptions, the situations and (personally) the romance.

Based on these assumptions, I find it unprofessional to bash on other authors.

Yes, I get wildly jealous sometimes of other authors (that means anyone who is published since I'm not yet).  And yes, I find value in critiquing others' writing--learning from their strengths and weaknesses.

As a community, we do a great job of teaching, encouraging and reaching out to each other.  Why not also set an example and resolve to say and write positive things about other authors?

Have you experienced writer bashing?  Leave us a comment and let us know your opinion.


Sachiko said...

This has been discussed and condemned (note my use of the passive....erm, I think I was the basher ATM, *shame*) at Ilona Andrews' blog, where she put it succinctly: Don't pee in the sandbox.

We're all either published or going-to-be-published; let's be nice.

Now, one of my problems with this is that, like you said, writers are people too. As people, we have opinions on things, including books.

But how do we exercise our right to our individual, stinky opinions without having anything but unquestioning love for other books, without it being attributed to jealousy-driven writer bashing?

I'm dealing with this myself. There are some books out there that have raised a huge cultural ruckus and I have opinions about it as a *person*.

But that does get tangled up with my writing when--I'm sure I'm not the only one this has happened to--people find out I write and say with googly eyes,

"Oh, you should write something just like (book grown women are obsessed with)!"

or, worse, "I bet you wish you'd written (book grown women are obsessed with)!"

I feel there are fundamental philosophical differences at play, about our assumptions of what makes a book "good", and what is "success" and the pressure many of us feel to conform to one kind of storytelling method or success that some of us (me included) don't agree with. The more culture-saturating and popular the story in question is, the greater the pressure and effects on the rest of us, and the more people, including me, are likely to react.

Usually I try to keep my mouth shut about it. Please, take a moment to appreciate the monumental effort shutting up costs me. :D

Paul West said...

Sachiko, you are soooo funny. I love you're writing.

As for me, I find when I mention I've written a novel and am in the middle of a second one, most people are in awe, and wish they could do it too. Then, I get other comments from people who think since I haven't published anything yet, that my "hobby" is a huge waste of my time. Can't I find something more important to do?

Scott said...

I have mixed feelings on this.

As writers (professionals, crafts people, whatever), a part of what we're required to do to improve our abilities is to read and analyse other works. That means finding what works and doesn't work for us (it's largely subjective, of course--what doesn't work for me might seem nearly perfect to you). Sharing criticism of other works is a long-standing literary tradition.

It's only natural that books that are more popular will receive more criticism. More peopel read them, and so more people react to them. The same thing happens with other popular art forms, like movies. The inner workings of literary pieces are, maybe, more visible than other forms of art and entertainment, so the criticism can be more pointed.

What's more, most writers have been trained (formally or informally) in the mechanics of writing, so we're sensitive to mechanical flaws, especially those we've been criticized for ourselves. We see successful writers breaking the "rules" and wonder how they get away with it when we can't. We don't necessarily see what the writer does well because we're blinded by glaring violations of what we've been told are rules that, if we break them, we won't get published.

Critical reading and sharing our thoughts are essential for writers. The problem, of course, is that every book we don't like is likely somebody else's favorite.

Criticism is not necessarily bashing. Criticism should always be allowed. If somebody criticizes something you love, it's not a personal attack on you or your taste, if the criticism is properly expressed. Obviously, if the critic says "This book sucks, the writer has no ability at all, and anybody who likes this book is an idiot," then the person is a poor critic, and has crossed the line from criticism of the work and moved into personal attack. These kinds of critics can and probably should be ignored because their criticism is meaningless.

I think it's false to assume that all criticism of a popular book by a less successful writer is due to jealousy. I also think it's dangerous to suppress negative criticism.

When I was younger, I remember taking it personally if somebody put down an author or band or movie that I really liked. I don't take it that way anymore. Different people like different stuff. Our likes and dislikes are based on a lot of personal factors that no two people share.

If you don't like something I like, that's fine. If I don't like something you like, that's fine too. It's probably my loss. But I'm not going to stop reading critically and clarifying my position in my own mind by organizing my thoughts in a written critique. If I criticize a work, it's not "bashing." It's my own personal reaction to a work.

Let's face it. Poorly written stories sometimes tap into something or tell a story in a way that makes them wildly popular. There's more to good story telling than just writing mechanics. If somebody tells a story that appeals to millions, even if the actual writing itself is weak, that writer is obviously doing something right. That doesn't mean they're above criticism, though.

Bottom line for me is, if I can't handle criticism of somebody else's work, how will I ever be able to the inevitable criticism that I hope I will someday earn? I'd love to be in a position where some of you "bash" me.

Tiffany Dominguez said...

Thank you for your comments! Here is my one sentence summary reaction:

We can be professional about our opinions.

I have another blog where I post reviews on YA books. Mostly, I try and point out the strengths of the author and what I liked. But if I think some parts of the book are weaker, I will also mention this, but again, in a professional way, where I state my criticism in a positive manner.

I agree with Scott that books that elicit strong reactions are working, whether they be positive or negative.

My conclusion, therefore is this:

As a writer, we need to potray a professional image, with our blogging, our presence at conferences and our comments about other writers. Comments like, "her books suck" are not appropriate, nor is naming an author as an example of poor writing. Comments like, "this author has great characterization" (without mentioning said author's weaknesses for tags) are appropriate.

You may someday meet these people. It's okay to have opinions--we all do. But let's keep our negative thoughts to ourselves and support the authors we enjoy.

Sachiko said...

I agree we need to be professional. There are lots of ways for me to professionally disagree with or dislike an author's work.

But--and I ask this respectfully--why do I need to be so worried about offending other authors? Especially ones wildly successful by publishing standards.

Is it because agents or publishers won't want to work with me if I'm negative?

Is it because disgruntled fans will slap a KICK ME sign on my back at the next Writer's Workshop?

Is it because it's just plain not nice?

I think I can be professional about my opinions, but I have to wonder--who really cares what *I* think?

Especially if, as many wonderful authors do, that author has plenty of fans, publishing success, and money. Do they also require the adoration of other writers? If so, why?

I'm not going to go out of my way to trash someone. In fact, I try to go out of my way to not trash people, generally, unless I am honestly answering a direct question (and it's amazing how many direct questions one can recieve about things like this, especially when one tries to avoid it!)

Is there some other reason I should fear to speak my mind, besides the admonition of "Be nice"? A professional one, maybe?

Tiffany Dominguez said...

At the WIFYR conference a few weeks ago, Sara Zarr answered this question, in a way. She said that she used to have a blog where she published critical things about other people in the publishing industry. But as soon as her book went under contract with an agent, she deleted the blog and started a new one. She said that agents and publishers WILL google you if they are considering your manuscript. And I'm sure if you are a writer/agent/publisher basher, that will play into their decision.

So, I think it's about establishing your reputation. You may not think people care what you say, but if you plan on sticking with writing, you will get published, and then people WILL care.

But also yes, I think it's plain not nice if you use hurtful criticism when speaking or writing about another author.

Even Sara Zarr, I believe, told us that many authors read their goodreads reviews. And I've had authors email me about comments I've made on goodreads about their books.

Scott said...

I also agree that it is very important to be professional when operating within writing circles, like at conferences and in blog posts and comments. And courtesy and manners are always appropriate, and are in short supply, especially on the web. That doesn't mean we have to be pollyannas.

Thoughtful criticism can show you in a professional light. The thing to remember is that the book you are criticizing is almost certainly somebody's favorite, so be honest but tread lightly. Never attack the author or the readers. If you feel that way, save it for conversations with friends.

A negative review is not bashing if it is professionally presented, but you can always be sure some fan somewhere will think it is. People who love a book will hold it as close as their politics or religion, and will react to criticism in much the same way in each case.

One thing's for sure: there's too much bashing and meanness in the world. Think critically and act nicely and you'll make a better, more professional, impression.

Great topic, Tiffany.

Sachiko said...

Amen. Great topic and great advice. :D