Good Manners May Kill Good Writing

 You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you.  And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.  ~Arthur Polotnik

Manners make the world go round.

Imagine how many fewer world crises there would be if the people in power would simply remember their manners. Imagine a political race where opponents focus on applicable content and not resort to abysmal mud-slinging. They are the poster children for bad manners and we lose opportunities to listen to any real debate on real issues. (This happens worldwide and not just here in the United States, so don’t think I’m singling out our race to the big vote in November.)

Merriam Webster defines manners as “social conduct or rules of conduct as shown in the prevalent customs”. Manners are no longer only applied to real life situations but to our virtual world as well. Being writers we live an awfully big part of our lives in this world. Prevalent customs are still being formed as these new neighborhoods and villages continue to evolve. There are distinct differences between this world and the one of brick and mortar. I was surprised to have some of these distinctions pointed out to me this week and the possible backlash it may have on writers.

A blog that I like to follow, The Passive Voice, offered a rebuttal to another article written by Jacob Silverman entitled “Against Enthusiasm”. Mr. Silverman has taken the stance that honest criticism in the literary world is a dying thing and we are not any better for its demise. Passive guy vehemently argues that point. Being the polite, mild mannered person that I believe myself to be, I was quite surprised at being able to see both sides, but leaning towards Jacob Silverman.

Mr. Silverman believes that we are in the middle of an epidemic of niceness in this new online book culture. He cites an example of an author who has her first book coming out soon, but already has a loyal following on Twitter running into the thousands. The author is funny, delightful and engaging in this arena of social media. Because of that, she is retweeted, liked, and plus 1ed. (I don’t even know how to write plus oned!) A well known literary website follows her and has already picked her book for their monthly book club without ever having read a single word!

So far I’m congratulating the author on being a brilliant and personable marketer, then I come to his point. What if you are a reviewer or critic and you are part of this vast web of writers and fans? Are you willing to honestly critique the author’s work after watching her life unfold for the last year or so? What if you had been the recipient of some of her attention? What if she had praised you or had mentioned you with affection in a tweet? How honest will you be? He goes on to state that if you spend any time on Twitter or wading through blogs, you will drown in the “relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing all books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.” Mr. Silverman believes that it is shallow, untrue, and will create an atmosphere where writers are more admired for their personal biographies or how they manage social media rather than standing on their own merits of being a good writer.

 

This made me stop and think.

 

He goes on to say that social media, which seems to be built largely on those retweets, likes, favorites etc., is akin to being a part of a worldwide slumber party. Anyone who doesn’t want to be on board the sugar train may be marked as unlikable or worse (gasp) unfollowable. So why is that positivity so bad? I like to be complemented. I like that my writing world is a warm fuzzy place to be. When I get published, I’d like my friends to toot my horn just like I’ve done for them. I don’t think anyone reading this blog would say differently. However, the constant applause makes it harder to hear any kind of dissent. While painful to hear, it is that voce of dissent that pushes us to be better and to make for a more “vibrant, useful literary culture”.

Passive Guy completely disagrees with this view point that was also shared by Dwight Garner in the Times. PG pulled a quote, “What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics- perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” Passive Guy believes this sounds like the strap wielding father who tells the kids they’re being beaten for their own good. He goes on to point out that this is the absolute menace of criticism- that it represents a hierarchy that lords over the unruly artists.

 

I understand and agree with his viewpoint as well.

 

As with most issues in life, the loudest voices are often those on both sides of the extreme. I believe cutting someone’s work to the bone is not necessary. I also think living in a world where only sweet fairies give kisses isn’t reality either. I think good, honest, constructive criticism is necessary (although painful, I’m the first to admit). This is what pushes us to dig deeper and write better because we all want to be praised. We all want people to find value in our work.

If we only have positive feedback, I would suggest two things. One- much of what you hear if a lie or a colored truth. Two- we believe the compliments and become complacent. What do you think?

 

 

22 Responses to Good Manners May Kill Good Writing

  1. I agree that it can be a dilemma. There is a place in the writing world for critics. I don’t necessarily think other writers/actors/movie directors need to take that roll. How many times have you read a book or seen a movie or TV show that got panned, but you loved it. The converse is also true. I think as artists, we can give honest reviews of works we like, but I don’t think we should be criticizing those we don’t.

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  2. My mother always told me that if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all. While I agree with that for the most part, I don’t think that helps us hone our skills and continue to improve. If we only review works that we like- what about those that have some really good qualities but miss the boat on others. How will that author improve if everyone only says good things or nothing at all? It is painful and downright uncomfortable to be negatively reviewed, but will that make you more determined to make it better?

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  3. Having received both high praise and savage criticism with my own writing, I agree there has to be a balance. A few years back, I lost a friend who asked me to read her non-fiction manuscript, and my response was, “It’s good, but it needs some work,” which it did. Her stance was, she had written the book, therefore it was without flaw, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. Never heard from the author again. With my own work, a writer friend came back with a lengthy email (printed out, it was two single spaced pages) of notes, some of which stung, but the comments led to me digging down and re-working what became ‘Spider’s Tango’, recently published in THRILLER 3.

    It’s important to encourage (and never discourage) the writer but, if asked, point out some flaws that need work. It runs about 50/50; half the writers who ask me to read their work listen to my suggestions and either take them or re-work them to suit themselves (the best way), the other half ignore my suggestions with a righteous indignation. I warn those who ask, I am the first and most vocal proponent of “It’s YOUR story, tell it YOUR way,” but don’t get mad if you ask my opinion. I’m not criticizing you or your writing, I am giving you my opinion on THIS particular work.

    Having said all of that, keep in mind this is the critic’s OPINION, nothing more or less. Professional critics are not omnipotent gods with powers and abilities far above normal humans; I’d hesitate to begin to list the books and movies that have become personal favorites of mine, yet were eviscerated by the Critics. Conversely, I would also hesitate to try and count the number of Big Books or Major Movies of the moment, adored and worshiped by the Critics, that left me feeling, “Meh.”

    Having a work chosen as Book of the Month without reading a single word? As a writer, I want to say, “Good for you!” As a cynic, I think to myself Life really is not all that different from high school….

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  4. Wow- excellent answer!

    Having been a recipient of your critiques, I can’t imagine someone getting so bent out of shape over your suggestions. Your advice is usually spot on and always points out something that I completely overlooked.
    I believe one of the points of the article is that if we sugar coat everything out there, we then have a sticky cup of sweet syrup but it goes with nothing of substance. Whether I agree or not, I want a pancake, something solid, to sink my teeth into.
    As far as your last comment on high school- couldn’t agree with you more!

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  5. jeff7salter says:

    I have mixed feelings, Stacey.
    Much of what William Simon comments (above) rings true with me.
    I’d much rather have an honest critique (WITH helpful suggestions) … than a dismissive review which either glows with superlatives or relies solely on generalities.
    When I’m doing the critique, I try to establish out front that I intend to be honest and ask for confirmation that the other writer actually wants that kind of feedback. They usually say ‘yes’ but, I fear, don’t always mean it..

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  6. Can I just say, “Ditto!”? I’m right there with you. Thanks for stopping by today, Jeff.

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  7. Suzan Harden says:

    Unfortunately, Will makes an excellent point. The Internet, as a whole, has turned into high school, complete with cliques and bullies.

    To me, Jacob Silverman’s “epidemic of niceness” is the backlash against the trolls flinging f-words and calling each other and everyone else d-bags.

    So combine Will’s high school and Jacob’s epidemic, you get this weird Pleasantville attitude where we mustn’t question anything or we’ll get the electronic version of shunned.

    Do I want honest critcism of my work? Deep down, I have to say, “Yes.” But there’s a big difference between someone telling me the ending to my story is too predictable, and someone else saying, “This sucks! I want my money back.”

    (Though truthfully, if that second person hadn’t been anonymous, I would’ve refunded his money.)

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  8. Hi Suzan! Will does make excellent points in his comment.
    The key here is to find the happy middle ground where the criticism is constructive and not destructive. There is a HUGE difference between “This sucks.” and “You’re ending is too predictable.” One is simple and bordering on moronic and the other is an honest evaluation. It may not be true, but I guarantee it will make you go back and re-read your ending to see if there’s some grain of truth in the evaluation.

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  9. randalhoule says:

    Reblogged this on Wink/Nudge and commented:
    I’ve long held that the critique is a dying art form, especially as social media becomes less forum and more “atta-boy” platform. I used to post regularly on a writer’s social network site, and several writers (most who are much more accomplished than I) posted their thoughts, as well as well thought out corrections. This made me a better writer. I’m sure glad they spoke up when they did. That of course was on a writer’s site where we all shared similar goals.

    However, I have read books by writers that I network with and I cannot imagine putting a comment publicly. But how do you not? What is the solution? Is it “polite” to simply say nothing at all when the work actually stinks? Shouldn’t a bad review be the cost to the author for wasting your valuable time? (LOL)

    When asked directly, I offer my best and most thorough critique, but in private. Review something in a public forum? Unless I really hated the work, I think I would take my grandmother’s advice and simply say nothing at all.

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  10. Thanks for the re-blog! I’m glad you found some useful information here. I love your insights that you shared with us because I find myself flip flopping on this issue.

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  11. Yvonne B. says:

    I am a reader (why does that sound like I’m part of some 12 step program?) and I also review on a couple different sites as well as my own blog. I would like to think I have improved and found a balance doing reviews.

    I have read books I like (why pick them elsewise?) and ones I didn’t like, but all of them have served their purpose in helping me hone what I do like, what I don’t, and what will never see the inside of my house again. That is, of course, my opinion and my taste and everyone has their own opinion.

    What I try to do in my reviews (and I am not altogether successful and have something slip past me, but I try for at least a 90-95% success rate) is this: If I like a book, I will say what it is about the book that I like. If I do not like something, I will, again, say what it is about the book that I do not like. I also try to step back and think “Will everyone have the same reaction?” and will say something to the effect of “While I liked/didn’t like this or that, another reader may not like it/have no problem with it”. If reviewing a book I don’t much care for, I still try to find something (even if it is a minor character that was killed in the first few pages) that I do like and point that out.

    When I find myself waffling between two ratings for a book, it is only then that I look up the author (if unfamiliar to me), take a look at their site, FB page and their blog to see how it is set up and how they interact with folks. What I have found that, for me, author comportment and interaction is important. It doesn’t have to be a rigid, Ms. Manners type of thing, but if the author is friendly, respectful of commenters (like what I have seen on here – both posts and comments), then, yes, I am more inclined to give a higher rating than I would otherwise. A reverse author attitude leans me toward a lower rating.

    I usually don’t follow the trends, but when I see/hear that an author I like has made it onto the bestseller lists, I am glad.

    Apologies for becoming so long-winded.

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  12. Hi Yvonne- I want to thank you for taking the time to present such a thoughtful answer! I also want to thank you for being such a thoughtful reviewer- you are the picture of what I think reviewers should be like. We need objective critiques of what people like and dislike in our books. I believe that is what makes us strive for the next level of writing.
    What you do is offer honest opinion without trying to destroy the creator.

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  13. stanalei15 says:

    Not everyone who competes should “win” a trophy. If they did, what would happen to the pursuit of excellence?

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  14. You are so correct! This is exactly my point and what I worry about. Thanks for chiming in.

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  15. Laurie says:

    There is a tremendous difference between constructive (and therefore helpful) criticism and belittlement. Unfortunately about half of the “critics” out there seem to enjoy disparaging other writers works. I’m not sure if it’s because of the anonymity of the internet (even using your own name is somewhat anonymous if you live in Phoenix and the author lives in Philadelphia and the two of you have never met), a feeling of entitlement (“everyone is entitled to MY opinion”), jealousy of the author putting themselves out there into a public forum, or a combination. The other half of the critics seem to be either good friends of the writer or afraid of what the author might say in retaliation to the critique. Remember that dust-up about a year ago when Jacqueline Howett basically had a meltdown concerning a critique she requested?

    I know I personally haven’t written many public critiques, mainly because I don’t always feel certain of my own expertise for criticism. I’m an avid reader, yes, I love certain styles of writing, yes, but since I’m not published nor am I a publishing industry type, do I really have the right to criticize someone else? Or perhaps I’m just a lazy chicken.

    Regardless, the literary world definitely needs more constructive criticism – maybe what we ought to demand from critics is suggestions without curses and disparagement and definitely no sweet fairy kisses of undeserved compliments.

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  16. Hi Laurie and Will- Thanks for adding your thoughts to this article! You bring to light both sides of the coin- the critiquer and the author. We do need constructive criticism to help maintain good quality writing. (IMO)
    William just added a whole new twist to this issue with his link. Call me naive, but I had no idea their were such services. Forget manners being an issue, isn’t this some kind of form of fraud?? Let’s forget the main reasons honest critiques are good. It steers us to things that people truly like and it’s an avenue of feedback that hopefully will make us better at what we do! My mind is now officially blown.

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  17. Suzan Harden says:

    That’s just it, Stacey. An honest evaluation lets me know exactly what I need to fix in my story.

    And I definitely don’t agree with paid reviews. Why would a reader trust me if I did that?

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  18. Agreed Suzan. Writing this blog has been such a learning point for me. I’m baffled by the paid reviews, but I still wholeheartedly believe we need reviewers (honest and fair) to help us always strive to be better. The moment I think I don’t need any unbiased eyes on my work is the day I become a fool.

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  19. Bethany says:

    I agree with the whole constructive criticism. I use the “sandwich method”: something positive then constructive criticism, then something positive. That way the author knows what IS working as well as what is NOT and some ideas on how to make it better.

    Writing is so subjective, though. To use the old saying: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” So even if I didn’t like one author, I might come across someone else who really likes the author. So sometimes it’s a matter of taste.

    In my blog reviews I ALWAYS look for something positive to say. That’s because I don’t know who will like it and who won’t. Something I don’t like might be another reader/author’s FAVORITE thing of all time, so I try to play on what worked for me, and leave the rest up to other readers to decide what they like or don’t like. I don’t get paid for my blog reviews, but I don’t review any author that I don’t like SOMETHING about their work.

    Critiquing or being a judge for a contest is a different animal for me. Those people want to know what works and what doesn’t, so I try to find both and balance it out to help the author write better. If I can’t do that for the author, I won’t critique it. After all, I think it’s important for an author to know their strengths and weaknesses so they can keep their strengths up and tighten up their weaknesses. Just like exercising a muscle.

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  20. Thanks for chiming in, Bethany. It sounds like you have a great system working for you! I truly like the “sandwich” idea- everything goes down better with some good stuff enveloping it. Thanks for all of your hard work reviewing different authors.

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  21. […] few weeks ago, Stacey did an excellent post on reviews and good manners—the niceness epidemic and the disappearance of hard-line critics. […]

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