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Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Big Author is watching you

Every few days, I go online and search blog posts to see what people say about me.

My friends don't think I should, and they're probably right. It's reassuring if someone praises my book, faintly irritating if someone doesn't like it for stupid reasons (not being enough like other stuff they've read being the top gripe, I find), and really worrying if people knock it and sound like they have some judgement. Though blog posts being what they are, the latter tend to be just vague enough that I can't tell what I did to displease the reader - they generally say they didn't like this or that, but not what they didn't like or why they didn't like it. Ugh. Any day now, one of my loved ones is going to ban me from reading them, I think, and then I'll have to decide whether to listen or not.

The reason I do it, primarily, is to liven up a quiet life. When you work alone, at home, and no one sees your work until it's finished, you're in a feedback vaccuum. Aside from sitting down and writing every day, nothing happens to you. You simply don't know how your career is going. No boss to say 'Well done' or 'Do that again and you're fired', no colleagues, no clients. Under those circumstances, it's very tempting to get onto Google and shout 'Anybody out there?' to see if an echo comes back. Writing is an uneventful career, and an internet comment about you is an event. Events are a scarce commodity, and it's hard to stop looking out for them.

Probably not every author does this, but I suspect a lot of them do.

This is something that getting published throws into sharp relief. As a reader, books are something you consume. If you don't like a book, you just say so. And in the days before I sold my first novel, I would have had few reservations posting a bad review of a book I didn't like. Free speech, right? Right, but also it simply wouldn't have occurred to me that the writer might actually read the review I'd posted.

Some people, of course, insist that if you get published you just have to put up with that, and of course, they're right technically. Personally, though, I never feel very warm towards people who insist on the right to be as negative and aggressive as they please. Consider this: if you had bad things to say about a book, and you knew the author was listening, would you moderate your remarks? Not necessarily lie, but say, for instance, 'This didn't work for me' rather than 'This was lousy'? If not, why not?

It's a policy I've been pursuing on this website. While I reserve the right to have and express my own opinion, I'm trying to keep from slagging off specific writers. If there's a trend or tendency that I don't like, I'll write about it in general terms rather than naming names. I'm not a professional reviewer, and it's not my job to point the finger and announce who I think is awful. And if it's not my job, why do it? It's bad business, attacking other writers, for one thing, and for another, you never know when someone might be Googling for themselves.

It can, of course, be useful to read criticisms. Just occasionally, someone's pointed out a mistake, and after the initial embarrassment (because writing a book that doesn't work on someone is like opening the door wearing nothing but your frillies, striking a seductive pose, and having the person you're trying to seduce say 'Man, you need to lose some weight there') you can think, Right, I won't make that mistake again.

Conversely, there's the privacy illusion. Posting something on the Net is probably the most public thing you'll ever do: everyone who has a computer or access to one can read it. But when you do it, you yourself are in private: you're in your house, with nobody watching you. If you're posting on your blog or livejournal, you're addressing a specific audience, to wit, the people who usually read it. Because of this, I suspect a lot of people just don't realise authors will very possibly read what's said about them - after all, they're probably not regulars.

There are, however, such things as search engines. And by referring to the author's book or name, you've flagged up your site. My hope is that if people grasped that, they might think twice before saying things like 'This book made me want to find the author and hit her with a stick.'

I'm not saying anyone should stop expressing themselves, but I would like to introduce a thought that might not have occurred to the not-yet-published out there. If you post a review about an author, they might very well read it. If you're fine with that, fine - but do remember that it might happen.

I think a lot of internet 'reviewers' make their comments based on the assumption that published authors are all disgustingly rich, blissfully happy and used to getting everything their own way - and so they ought to be able to take a bit of flack.

This is bollocks, of course, but it's a misconception that's unlikely to go away.

My advice (for what it's worth) would be 'stop Googling yourself'. That way madness lies...
You may well be right. I remember reading on another author's blog someone posting a comment to the effect that negative remarks were good for authors because they served to remind them that they were, like the rest of us, only human.

Which is very strange. Authors know they're human. If they want to check, they can go peer in the bathroom mirror. Authors, in fact, know far better than their readers that they're human, because they're the ones who see themselves having breakfast, paying bills and tripping over their own feet.

The people who are more likely to want reminding that authors are only human are the readers, who don't meet them and may blow them up to mythic proportions in their own minds. What's a bit creepy about the remark I read is that the person who made it seemed to have this fantasy of oversized author, and then to have projected it, thinking that it was the fantasy of writers about themselves, not the fantasy of the readers about writers.

Not very comfortable. What's more uncomfortable still is a reader deciding that it's their job to cut an author down to size. Frankly, if you want to be reminded that you're human, the people who do it best are your friends and family, not strangers. A self-appointed deflater, who doesn't actually know whether you need deflating or not, is a rather threatening creature.
I do believe negative comments are part of the writing life. I suppose we buffer ourselves at the beginning with all the rejections we rack up...they're a way to learn how to deal with the fact that someone doesn't think we're good enough. I'm trying to remember who said it, but a comment was made that there will always be someone somewhere who will be eager to tell you how bad of a writer you are, no matter how many bestsellers you've written, movie deals you've landed, etc. My question to myself, and I guess to other writers, is this: Will there ever be a critique, however scathing, or a lambasting of your story and skill that will ever convince you to stop writing? Or will each verbal blast become even more motivation to write better than ever?

I'm sure negative comments motivate some writers, but it concerns me that this has somehow morphed into the idea that if they don't, you're not a 'real' writer. From there, it's only a short step to the idea that negative comments are good for writers, cos they toughen them up. Bit like sneering at fat people is meant to inspire them to lose weight, so it's a good thing. Bullying with a moral purpose!

Am I innocent in this? Erm, no. I have been known to say bad words about a certain well-known genre-pretending-not-to-be-genre novel. Bad sqrl.

Btw, nice things were being said about Benighted in the comments trail over at Paperback Writer. Just in case you haven't googled that far yet :D.
Heck, nothing's going to stop me trying. I certainly don't expect criticism to stop; you can't please everyone, after all. But it's not motivating either. It's discouraging. It means you have to invest emotional energy in bouncing back from that discouragement that you might otherwise use for other purposes.

In terms of helping you write better, it depends entirely on whether you respect the critic's opinions or not. If you do, you have to suck it up and try to learn; if not, it's just tiresome.

And again, if a reader decides without evidence that a writer would be best motivated by a kick in the pants, they're being sort of creepy. There are people I'd like to see change their ways, but if I strap on my boots and deliver a running kick without a clear invitation, then I've just kicked a stranger for reasons known only to myself. I am being a Crazy Woman.

Thank you BuffySquirrel! You see, nice comments are good. In a shameless piece of self-promotion, I'm putting the website here so we can all see it:
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