Saturday 22 March 2014

Angry Reviews and the Ethics of Criticism

Anyone who has ever browsed the user comments section of a website will be no stranger to the kind of emotionally-driven comments the internet can draw out of people, and most of us, truth be told, are probably responsible for a few of them ourselves.

I want to talk briefly today about book reviews, and the ways in which readers put forward their opinions online.
I should start off by clarifying the difference between book reviews and those of most other mass-media. Books tend to be intimately personal. A movie or TV show, a video game, even many pieces of music are often worked upon by multiple individuals, but the vast majority of books can be attributed to a single author. This is what makes book reviews so meaningful to many authors. A lot of us see the stories we write as a reflection or expression of ourselves, and when others either praise or denounce our work we often feel it very keenly.

This has been something of a hot topic recently with Anne Rice's petition to stop online bullying of authors, and while I believe Rice's idea is absolutely the wrong way to go about this, she does highlight an existing problem with the way readers and authors communicate.
So what is and isn't acceptable reviewer behaviour when it comes to giving your opinion on an artist's work? Well, first and foremost, there is nothing wrong with vocally expressing dislike for something. Every consumer should have the right to absolutely trample on a piece of fiction if they feel like it was a poorly written, dull, offensive, or otherwise unpleasant thing to read through. Those sorts of comments can hurt to hear as an author, but they have every right to be voiced. One of the most important parts of dealing with criticism is accepting these negative points and taking them into consideration when you move forward with future projects.
So objective, honest criticism is free from blame here. It's the cornerstone of how we judge and appraise media, and without it the arts would be much worse off.

But then we move into the area of emotionally charged reviews. Objective criticism is, by definition, free from personal bias, but book reviews are rarely this clear-cut. As a medium based around evoking emotion, reviews that completely eschew the reader's feelings are few and far between. But is it ever right for a reader to get angry at an author?
I think yes. There are certain cases where an irresponsible author who plays with the emotions of their reader in an unsatisfying or distressing way should absolutely be subject to the frustrations of their audience. If a book sells itself as a sweet, lighthearted romance, only to be punctuated by a brutal rape scene with no literary merit half way through, then the person responsible for writing it should understand how that kind of emotional trickery makes people feel.
Most of the cases in which I've been emotional in my book reviews have stemmed from situations like this, when an author takes an ongoing story in a direction that jars against what I've been taught to expect, leaving me feeling disillusioned and upset. Authors are essentially glorified puppet masters playing with the feelings of their readers, and they deserve to be told when the emotional response they're evoking is an unsatisfying one.

Emotionally charged reviews are a grey area, but I believe a healthy balance between emotion and objectivity is critical in a good review (both for the author of the piece and for other readers). The line is crossed, however, when emotionally charged critique devolves into insults and personal attacks on the author responsible.
These are the kind of reviews that are so problematic for us, and why some authors end up feeling "bullied" by their readers. There is rarely an excuse for spewing vitriol at an author just because you didn't like the story they told.

But it's pretty easy to tell the difference between an objective review and author-bashing, and I think most writers quickly wise up to the fact that they have to bring down the shutters once reviews devolve into personal attacks. However, That still leaves us with the grey area of emotionally charged reviews that are harshly critical of something an author may have poured their heart and soul into.

Just the other day I was browsing reviews of a book I'd recently read to see how my impressions compared to those of other readers. It wasn't a book that I particularly enjoyed, but it was far from terrible. It had a lot of flaws, but nothing about it was offensive or upsetting. At worst it could be called ineffective.
To my surprise I discovered that one of the top reviews was a lengthy essay that picked apart the novel's failings point by point, absolutely littered with profanity, incredibly snarky comments, and direct insults aimed at the way it was written. None of these, as far as I could tell, were directed at the author, but I certainly know that it would have upset me if it had been a review of one of my books.
The crying shame is that the review made many good points. It was incredibly one-sided, but most of the points made were valid, useful criticisms for both the author and other potential buyers. It was so incredibly bogged-down in snark and borderline spite, however, that it was impossible for me to read through all at once, and after just a few sentences I was already feeling awful for the author of the book. She might have written a flawed story, but there was no way she deserved to have it ripped apart in what came across as a jeering school-playground kind of a tone.

So what's the solution to this? Well, I don't agree that Anne Rice's idea to yank away the curtain of internet anonymity is going to do anything positive for the state of online book reviews, and any rules or regulations (beyond perhaps flagging posts containing direct personal attacks on authors) stray into the ballpark of censorship, which is a terrible road to go down when it comes to media criticism.

Honestly I think it's just one of those things that falls on the shoulders of us as the reading and writing community. It's not a problem we can fix with strict guidelines, bur rather working gradually towards changing attitudes. Fostering a more positive, polite, and respectful mindset in reviewing strikes me as the best way to go here. It's fine to blast a book for all of its shortcomings, but remember that it was written by a human being; a human being who probably has a lot more emotional investment in their book than you do. Don't be overly snarky. Don't be rude. Don't be a jerkbag. Be critical. Be emotional, but restrained. Be judgemental, but polite. Respect the fact that there's a real person on the receiving end of your comments, and do your best to help them (and the community at large) to improve rather than simply using them as a target for your frustrations.

Sometimes we all get worked up about the books we read, and that's often a good thing.
We could just try to be a bit nicer about it.

Friday 14 March 2014

Broken Moon Part 5 Published!

And a teensy bit earlier than usual, despite some delays! Fingers crossed that I can continue getting these chapters done in a timely fashion. I've worked out my writing schedule a little better recently, so it should be conducive to a slightly more busy release list!
As usual, Broken Moon Part 5 can be grabbed on Amazon and Smashwords, with other retailers to follow!

April is ready to commit to what she wants, but before she takes the plunge into a relationship that will change her life forever, there is one last story left for her lover to tell; the story of how he lost everything. As his tale of leadership, lust, longing, and violence emerges, April finally begins to understand who Cyan is, and what this discovery may mean for their future together.

But Cyan is not the only one with dark secrets to share.

At long last it's time for everything that happened in Wild Instincts to catch up with our hero, along with a few more revelations along the way!
Broken Moon is officially past the half way point now, and I'm continuing to have a blast with it. Lots of juicy drama and steamy romance still to come!

It's at this point that I often start thinking about what my next big project will be, and I have a couple of ideas in mind. Back when I first talked about Broken Moon I mentioned a second project that I wanted to work on concurrently, but that idea just didn't end up gaining any traction in the same way this one did.
I do have an idea for another erotic (likely BDSM-focused) novel brewing right now, and it'll continue in the same paranormal vein as my last two serials, but without focusing on werewolves this time. I don't think I'm done with the Wild Instincts world just yet, but I could probably use a break from it while I work on something else.

But first, it's time to press on with part six!

Saturday 1 March 2014

What Ruins a Story? (Part 1?)

This is one of those funny general topics that I've commented on a whole bunch of times in passing on this blog, but I've never actually taken a step back to talk about it as a whole. I thought about making this one big article on what I consider the best/worst characteristics of storytelling, but that's a huge amount to cover in just one sitting, so for now I'm going to focus on what tends to spoil a story just for me personally. This will be a largely subjective exercise, as I'm sure everyone else will value these points slightly differently, but here are some of the cardinal sins that ruin a good story for me.

First and foremost: inconsistent tone. This is something I commented on in detail when I talked about The Final Empire last year, and that book remains one of my prime examples of how fudging your tone can completely take readers out of a story. When I read books, I like to understand what I'm getting into. I don't mean that in an "I want everything to be predictable and boring" sense, but when you enter into a narrative you need to understand certain rules about how the story is going to work. You don't expect a pie-in-the-face gag half way through Schindler's List, and you don't expect disturbingly harrowing drama while watching a Disney movie. That's because those stories have consistent tones; they let you know what to expect, what to feel, and what frame of mind you need to be in to enjoy them. It's as much in the author's interest as the reader's to establish some grounding expectations about their work, and when those expectations start to conflict with story developments further down the line, you start running into big, big problems.
When you find yourself asking questions like "Wait, why did that happen?" or "How does that make any sense now?" then it's often telling of a divergence in tone or internal logic, often caused by a lazy writer throwing ideas out there without much consideration for their impact on the story. This for me is the worst way a story can be ruined, because it doesn't just disappoint the reader or leave them feeling upset; it kills their emotional investment in the narrative entirely.
I talked as well a year ago about my reaction to the ending of The Hunger Games, and how unsatisfied I was with the direction the author chose to go with that story. However, what happens at the end of Mockingjay is infinitely preferable to what turned me off The Final Empire. My reaction to Mockingjay was an emotional one. I had become invested in the characters and the story, and I cared about them enough that the ending made me even more emotional about how it played out, even if it was in an unsatisfying way. I think I mention in that previous post how I didn't think the ending was necessarily bad or poorly done, but that it simply wasn't appropriate for a series like The Hunger Games. If nothing else, that book at least left me with an emotional response when it finished.
The Final Empire turned me off in a very different way. Because the tone shifted so jarringly a few chapters in it caused all of my emotional investment in the story to evaporate. I put down that book and stopped reading because I just didn't care any more. It was some bizarre blend of silly, cheesy action mixed with the grim and gritty trappings of dark fantasy, a combination that did not mesh at all in my mind. I didn't understand the tone or what kind of mindset I had to approach the story with to enjoy it any more, and it ruined the book for me. While Mockingjay left me upset at the direction of the story, all The Final Empire managed was to make me frustrated with the author.

So! Moving on from my number one pet peeve, another thing that bothers me is when a story becomes tedious and predictable, usually be re-using the same tropes and conflicts over and over again. While I love a well-structured story that hits all the points of pacing like it's been planned out on a spreadsheet, what I don't like is when an author employs the exact same emotional tricks repeatedly and assumes they'll still have just as much impact as the first time around. This falls into the same ballpark of killing a story by means of killing the reader's interest in it. One particular book I've been reading recently is a well-polished, interesting, structurally sound novel that hits all of the right points on paper, but falls into the trap of retelling the same series of events over and over again with a slightly different coating of paint and no evolving emotional context to make them meaningful in the larger narrative.
Generally speaking, the hero and heroine run into a problem (almost always bad guys chasing them), panic, and are then helped out by supporting characters appearing out of the blue and assisting them for a handful of chapters, before disappearing and leaving the two protagonists to repeat the same process all over again like clockwork.
The pacing and writing is usually just fine, and these scenes were gripping the first couple of times around, but after a certain point they started to become tedious, because nothing was changing other than the superficial details. It's the same series of events over and over again, and it quickly becomes tiresome.
The reason I'm not the largest fan of the Game of Thrones series stems from a similar logic (although I should add the caveat that I don't consider those books to be bad at all, just not to my tastes). The way viewpoint characters were used to guide certain elements of the story, and the routinely dismal tone, eventually led me to a place where the "unpredictability" of the story became predictable and tedious, and my emotional investment gradually evaporated until I stopped reading part way through book three.

Phew, this post is already turning into a long one, so I think I'll wrap it up for now! Expect a Part 2 to come at some point, since there's still more stuff I can talk about when it comes to "what ruins a story". The two points mentioned above are definitely a couple of the biggies for me, not necessarily because they're the most damning, but because they're the ones that I usually find cropping up a lot in stories that are otherwise well-told and engaging. There's nothing worse than a story that looks pretty at first glance, only for the blemishes to become more and more apparent as you read on until it spoils the whole thing.