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.

1 comment:

  1. Some people are mean.

    Yes, of course you know that, but sadly, I think that fact is what this all boils down to. Reviews by their very nature are emotional. Almost all of them. When I see a five star review I think, "Really? It rivals Shakespeare?" If the scale is 1 to 5, and The Bard's greatest comedy or tragedy gets that 5th star, I have a hard time accepting that someone's self published novella about being raped and impregnated by a swamp monster is really *just* as good. The stars, and all the gushing test that follows, is about the reader's emotional response--something in the book rubbed them just the right way.

    Other people will have the opposite reaction and lament that they have to give even one star in order to write their review because, to them, the book is just THAT bad. But usually, those people only attack the book. If they happen to be rude people, their reviews are likely to be rude and even hurtful.

    The best thing readers can do, if it happens to be on a site like Amazon that allows you to click and say that something was *not* helpful, is do so. Let them know that their behavior isn't appreciated. The best thing the authors can do is get it through their heads that most of it isn't about them. The 5 star gushing is lovely and they should take in the warmth for a few minutes, but it's no more valid than the 1 star. They need to take what they can to improve their writing, and let the rest roll off their back. (Or at least appear to in public.)