I am a Melbourne based writer, primarily of speculative fiction. I find the writing process fascinating; the links below include examples of my work, fiction and non fiction, but also another story. How has a chapter evolved? How have places and the fictions of others informed and inspired my own. How do I research, develop ideas and turn them into narrative? Each page offers a different insight into the work and the story behind the work.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The merciless hatchet of the sociopathic reviewer

Nearly ten years ago I was sitting in a literary agent's lounge room, in his house in a picture post card pretty village in the Oxfordshire countryside. I had just given him the typescript of a novel he was interested in. He was going over some of the basic aspects of the business of publishing and what would be involved if he decided to market the novel to publishers. Among the topics he covered was the possibility that people might write what might seem, or might actually be some quite hurtful things about the work in reviews.
What I prepared for that? he asked me.
Had I answered honestly, I would have said no, but that is not what you say when in a situation like this, which doesn't happen every second Tuesday. You just nod furiously and file away such potential pitfalls in the 'deal with it when and if it becomes a problem' file.
Since that time I have spoken to other writers about what it is like to get very negative or hatchet job reviews and it does not seem to be something many find a casual and unaffecting experience. Most writers seem to feel a fascination, not just about how their work will be received and if it will be received well, but about what people discover and experience when they read the work. Ego most certainly has a considerable amount to do with it, but one thing people sometimes forget is that a writer can only ever experience their own work in the way a reader does vicariously.  They can never be entirely detached and they cannot know the genuine joy of surprise and immersion some readers may encounter in the reading.  
This is of course not something exclusive to those who produce written works; musicians, filmmakers, curators and even owners of various types of business all have to deal with the one thing they can never control, no matter how well they craft something - what different people will make of what they have done, and certainly not what they will say and write about it.
This might not be such an issue if reviews were all fair. Unfortunately, while there are many good reviewers who will be equivocal about most of what they  encounter, a significant proportion of reviewers adopt a position of authority. It is quite possible that rather than admit they don't like something, they are not the intended audience or they just don't really get it, they will shoulder the creator with the responsibility for the entirely their negative experience. There are times when they can be quite vicious about it.
Exceptions allowed for, where there can be a case of genuinely shoddy work or circumstances beyond their control, pretty much all creators put enormous effort and often entire periods of their lives into their work and it may not come off, or they may just not be able to see what was necessary for it to work the way they intended, or they may not have had producers or editors who could address this. And rare is something so atrocious it has no redeeming features or no possible audience.
Reviewers surely know this, and despite the fact that the creator may be a professional and money must be parted with to gain access to the work, the reviewers typically aren't among those having to open their wallets.
Why do people publically attack the hard effort of others with such vitriol, I sometimes wonder? Is it a function of being in a position of power. Is it an envy of others' capacity to create when they  themselves lack such ability?  Well it certainly doesn't have to be the latter I suspect. This kind of behaviour is not necessarily limited to preachers rather than practioners. Some time back I sat and watched an emerging writer talk utterly dismissively about more than one work I found many positive aspects too. This wasn't in a broadcast setting, but certainly there was a finality of there being good and bad and nothing in between.
And I have to admit I have done it myself occasionally, usually as a result of a foul mood. I can even recall doing it when reacting to a film that had affected me deeply, for some reason did not want to admit having been vulnerable to it, and so rubbished it instead.
I suspect the root of this behaviour is not necessarily anything specifically to do with reviewers. You can come across this sort of thing in day to day life after all, when encountering those who react dismissively to the tastes or pleasures of others. An example that always stuck in my mind was a fellow I knew  many years ago who called the American singer songwriter Tori Amos "Tori Anus". I happened to enjoy Amos' work and was also quite aware of her talent and skill, which should surely have been apparent to any thinking person who might not necessarily enjoy the music. I remember trying to discuss this with him, but I was unable to get him to see or admit to the possibility that what she did deserved anything beyond a four letter word verdict.
I like quite a lot of cheesy pop music, so I come across quite a lot of this sort of thing when I reveal my tastes. It just never seems to occur to some people that someone is experiencing joy when they listen to music like this, or that it might invoke meaningful memories or that on its own terms it still might be quite sophisticated. Nor does it occur to these doomsayers that even the cheesiest output in a creative or other field is still bloody hard work to put together and get right to best of one's ability.
Naturally I don't have definitive answers, nor do I have the time to explore this subject more deeply here and it is undoubtedly a case of a number of factors on different levels in different situations, some personal and some wider in nature. There may also be factors such as the increasing lack of depth in reviews, which are often these day short and also hastily done to provide a steady stream of timely content.
However, what I have come to suspect about this phenomenon is that it is primarily about a lack of imagination and at times, if not a form of mild sociopathy, certainly a lack of capacity for empathy.  To comment intelligently and fairly on something surely you have to be able to understand to some degree what someone was trying to achieve, and you have to be able to appreciate how well it works on its own terms however alien they might be to those you favour. You also have to be able to conceive of how a range of audiences might receive the work.
In the final analysis perhaps what is needed most of all is a kind of receptive creativity and some folks have a lot more of this than others.

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