Anonymous Musings: Fans Shouldn’t Criticize Writers? How come?

An author who would like to remain anonymous asked me:

As a romance outsider, I’ve always been surprised by the attitude that romance fans shouldn’t criticize romance writers.  And it reminds me of the attitude a lot of minority people have—that there’s enough criticism from outside so you don’t openly criticize your own.

It’s an attitude I don’t quite agree with since it seems to show support for corruption and mediocrity.  [Criticism is] actually showing solidarity against the biases of the majority.

But it reflects the mentality of those who are in the minority of a larger group.  And the difference is that romance readers and writers are the single largest block of readers and writers.  So why do these fans hold onto this attitude?  I think it’s because most romance fans are women and women and our society treats our opinions as inconsequential, not as worthwhile as a man’s opinions.

Anyway, just a thought.  If I were in the majority of a group, I’d be exercizing my power quite capriciously and arbitrarily.  But that’s me.

First, I have to say, before anyone levels the accusation, no, I didn’t write this and attempt to deflect attention by posting it attributed to an anonymous source. I never remember to use the word “capriciously,” even though it is a GREAT word.

Second, I have to also say, yeah, what is up with that? I lot of the ire I see directed at Candy and at me is based on the idea that as fans, we hurt the genre by criticizing it in any way. And that by calling our site “Smart Bitches” we’re denigrating women – and if you do think that, please take a look at the concept of reappropriation of pejorative lexicon – so we’re both anti-women and anti-romance. And thus we hurt the genre, and should be Banned from the Internet.

But anonymous’ ability to connect to a question of majority/minority cultural habit is curious: romance readers are among the most powerful consumer groups in a book buying sense, so why is it a bad thing to criticize the genre from the perspective of a consumer? I haven’t the faintest idea, though I suspect it has a great deal to do with the culturally-enforced group habits of women, which further muddles the question of “are romance readers a minority inside a majority, lurking in a crunchy taco shell?” There is a definite pressure to be nice within groups of women, even as the biting behind one’s back is even more, dare I say, savage than what could be said to one’s face.

So what do you think? Why is there a backlash against romance criticism, ours or anyone’s?

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  1. 1
    rooruu says:

    Surely criticism and discussion are about oxygen for the genre?  Isn’t silence/Coventry worse?  And why should it be assumed that any genre is immune from critical analysis or discussion?  Why should women always be nice about things?  And surely the sizeable sales figures of romance mean that it deserves critical attention?

    My favourite film reviewers are those who deal with films on their merits.  They don’t expect a popcorn weekender, or a meringue movie, to be Immortal, but they do expect it to respect its audience (whoever its audience may be).  Romance doesn’t have to be Nobel prize-winning, but decent criticism, among other things, does analyse it on its merits.

    spamkiller: surface51, chortle.

  2. 2

    I don’t know why for sure, but I have several theories. In no particular order, they are:

    - Attacking the hive is bad. Always bad, for whatever reason. Even if there’s a bee in there not doing her damn job, or stealing other bees’ honey, no one should attack The Hive. Period.

    - Members of the online romance community “turning on” the genre are viewed as traitors, giving ammo to the detractors, no matter if the concerns or issues raised are legitimate or not.

    - Don’t show division in the ranks so as not to reveal our squishy insides.

    Remember the movie (and the real story behind it) The Insider? How the dude who spoke up against what he felt was The Bad Stuff became the object of threats, of attacks aimed at discrediting him as a scientist? I can’t help but feel that, in a sense, the same is being done to the Smart Bitches and/or others who voice their concerns.

    Frankly, I don’t see the problem with airing out our dirty laundry once in a while. How do you learn when everything is always nice and fluffy bunnies? How do you know you have a huge piece of broccoli in your teeth if everyone is nice and polite and lets you walk around with it instead of pointing and saying “Eeeww!”

    Criticism is hurting that which you love?! Come on.

  3. 3
    Nora Roberts says:

    I wonder why people don’t see the difference between criticism and attack.

    Sally Author stumbles through mine fields of adjectives, setting off a massive explosion of adverbs that leave her story buried and gasping under the tangled pile of modifiers.

    As opposed to: Sally Author’s books suck, and so does she. Everyone who reads her books sucks, too. Sally Author should stop writing so there’d be more room on the shelves for writers I like.

  4. 4
    Cat Marsters says:

    Hey, my general opinion is that if you enjoyed my book you should tell me, and if you didn’t you should program your satnav to drive you off a cliff.  But that might just be me.

    Srsly, I’ve no problem with honest criticism (well, that’s a lie, it makes me bawl like an infant), but I can’t bear it when a fan gets personal against an author, because she damn well knows the author can’t defend herself without fear of being flashmobbed.  Now, with extra abuse!

    But here’s the thing: it’s not the authors, so much as the fans, who promote this.  In an orgy of fangirl squeeing, you stick your neck out and dare to criticise, the rest of the fans will come round to your house and kill your poodle.

    Plus, criticising an author does decrease the likelihood of her inviting you over for tea and dedicating a book to you.  Just sayin’.

  5. 5

    But I don’t *want* to have tea at an author’s. I don’t *want* to be friends with an author whose work I enjoy. I want to read her books. It’s all about the books, not what she might do (or not do) as a result of what I or anyone else said.

    I might take immense pleasure in reading a certain author’s work, but that doesn’t mean I’m a fan of her. Just her books in general, or a particular book. There’s always been a line for me. Maybe I could be friends with an author whom I admired. But there’s always the risk that, just like mixing money with family and friends, something could happen to sour both.

  6. 6
    Jackie says:

    I know many authors (both romance and non-romance authors) who have critique partners because we don’t want to have people tell us blindly how wonderful our work is: we want people to truly read it and give us meaningful feedback. That desire for honest feedback—for true criticism—doesn’t fade when we become published authors. (For blind adoration, I turn to my mom. She loves my writing, period. And I love my mom.)

    Sure, I get all warm and tingly when people tell me they loved my books. I get even happier when they tell me why.

    And yeah, getting a negative review, whether in print or online, stings. But if it explains why the story didn’t work for the reviewer, then it’s very helpful. I want to keep growing as an author. I can’t do that if all the feedback I get is “I laughed, I cried, it was better than CATS.”

    As other commenters have said, there is a world of difference between a critique (snarky or not) and an outright attack against the author. I appreciate all meaningful feedback of my work, even when the reviewers clearly didn’t like it. I have yet to come across a reviewer (snarky or now) who was blatantly rude to me as a person.

  7. 7
    Jackie says:

    sigh

    now = not

    I need coffee

  8. 8
    Teddy Pig says:

    Oh hell yes!

    But about this tea thing… I am available next Wednesday.

  9. 9

    It’s really just a variation on the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” mantra we were all raised by.

    As a private school teacher, I was instructed that for every criticsm I had of a student, I needed to level it with THREE (the school was specific) positive comments on their grade reports.

    So this is why I live in a Pollyanna world and only say good things—-but only if I mean them. There’s lots of stuff I think is crap, but it’s not my duty to warn the world. That’s yours. ;)

  10. 10
    Emma says:

    I think this problem is bigger than romance.  Some people consider it a downright sin to criticize any author like if they are so form of God. 

    Take a look at the HP fans.  As much as I liked her books, some of J K Rowling fans are scary and she isn’t perfect.  When anyone gives her a bad review, a bad grade or throw hard criticism her way, the fans are sure to go absolutely crazy.  Accusations of jealousy and mediocrity, among others things are sure to fly back to the individual. Vitriol of the worst kind follows anyone who dare give this woman a bad review.

    Authors aren’t Gods.  An author that can’t handle criticism is in the wrong business.  Now, I’m totally against personal attacks and ridiculing anyone, but a little of criticism never hurt anyone.  On the contrary I think criticism is the only way to help you grow.  Nobody likes hearing bad things about themselves, but if you want to be better then the only way to go is hearing some hard criticism about your work.

  11. 11
    Dak says:

    Nathalie and Cat,

    You both raise some interesting points here, and ones I’ve been mulling over for some time now.

    It seems that in the Romance genre, the line between author and fan easily gets blurred.  In fact, it seems to be encouraged; romance authors put themselves out there personally, apart from their work, to connect with the readers on a more intimate level.

    On the one hand this is good as it can really encourage reader loyalty and help the author’s sales.  And when things are good, it’s all sweetness and light.

    On the other hand, things can get rather overly personal, which can lead to all manner of nastiness.

    Seriously, the WaPo wants to photograph romance writers in their bedrooms fer chrissakes, to promote the Romance Writer as Glam Love Goddess image. This IMO, is a rather overly personal approach that helps blur that line between fan/author.

    Can you imagine them doing the same thing to, say, Dennis Lehane?  “Hey, Dennis.  Wassup?  Can we come take some pictures of your gun cache, perhaps get a shot of your drug paraphernalia and where you bury your victims?  Thx.”  Uh, no.

    So readers then closely associate themselves with the author (and perhaps even that author’s lifestyle), and when that author’s work gets criticized, the reader, ipso facto, is criticized.  Then the readers must defend the author (and by extension themselves) from the terrible, horrible mean girls who say nasty things just to be mean and now those bitches have just gone too far and … ad infinitum. 

    My gawd, sorry for the unholy and incoherent ramble.

  12. 12
    Jackie says:

    “Authors aren’t Gods.”

    But if someone asks if you’re a god, you say “yes.”

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist a little Ghostbusters as I wait for my coffee to brew.)

    :)

  13. 13
    Jules Jones says:

    Nora’s got a lovely pair of examples there. The problem is that a lot of people see the first, and read it as the second. For many people, criticism of something they enjoy is felt as criticism of them for enjoying it.

    Eventually it gets to the point where being neutral about something, or even liking it but not as much as someone else does, is seen as criticism of that person for liking it more than you do. Saying “For example, I liked this story because it’s about Y, whereas I didn’t get much out of that story about X even though I can see it’s better written, because X doesn’t hit my drool buttons”, in a fanfic forum discussion about the difference between objective quality and the story just hitting your personal on or off buttons, can result in “See! You people who hate X, you’ll seize *any* excuse to slam X and his fans.”

    And yes, that’s a real example of something that happened to me, if heavily censored. And the thing is, I don’t hate X. I like the character, and I can see why other people find the character sexy. I just don’t find that particular combination of looks and age a turn-on myself. People have different tastes in eye candy.

    It seems to be over-identification with the thing being fanned, or with the group that fans it. The group bonding mechanism gone into overdrive. And it’s exacerbated by the Cult of Nice, which says that Nice Girls must not say anything bad about anyone ever; at least not openly, as passive-aggressive nastiness is apparently perfectly fine.

    This behaviour annoys me, as you may have noticed over the last fortnight.

    Spaminator: hope22. Um. Yes.

  14. 14

    TeddyPig, next Wednesday sounds fine. You’re actually on my list of “wish the gene pool would make more of those”.

    And I know, Dak, as much as, say, R.A. Salvatore has devoted fans (yes, I am a D&D geek), can you see newspeople asking him about swordfights and the fine art of assassination?

    I cringe every time someone mentions a romance author being asked for their input around Valentine’s Day. La Nora, she must get that a LOT.

  15. 15

    I’ve found some of the recent “Why aren’t you playing nice?” blogs to be puzzling.  As a writer, I value a good, honest critique.  I hope I will learn something from it and become a better writer. 

    As others have pointed out, there’s a world of difference between saying “You suck and your dog is smelly!” and “I would have enjoyed this book more if the author had not written the villain as a cardboard cutout from central casting, and here’s an example…”

  16. 16
    snarkhunter says:

    Take a look at the HP fans.  As much as I liked her books, some of J K Rowling fans are scary and she isn’t perfect.

    Not to derail the thread here, but OMG IAWTC. (Hee. Acronym overload!) However, I think HP fen are an interesting example in this case, b/c in terms of dissention in the ranks…well, HP has had the ugliest ‘shipper wars I have *ever* seen, and I’ve been in fandom for 11 years. In the end, it usually comes down to personal attacks on Rowling—including attacks on her wealth, her intelligence, the fact that she was a single mother, etc.—followed by wildly misogynistic statements about the female characters and their author. And don’t even get me started on some of the Snape fen.

    In short, crazy fans is an understatement. Scary, scary fans who, if you run into them at one of the symposia, you’d be better off to hide from than to speak to, is probably more accurate.

    But the reaction to Harry Potter critics varies. Because while legitimate criticism (someone who says that Rowling could use an editor to tame her adverbs, for example) does get a certain amount of flaming, I think HP fen are also reacting to a similar disdain from the larger intellectual literary community as romance readers face. I have never forgiven Joel Stein of the LA Times for his idiotic “grown-ups shouldn’t read Harry Potter. I read 30 pages of the first book and it was lame” article, for example. And don’t ask me about William Safire or Harold Bloom or any of that Old White Guy mafia, unless you want to see my ears steam (and see me result to personal attacks on Bloom).

    Some adult HP fen (the worst breed) tend to get really up in arms about that, and then every kind of HP criticism, no matter how legitimate, winds up feeling like those same denigrating comments. “This is a CHILDREN’s book. You are an IDIOT if you enjoy it.”

    So…what does this have to do with romance? I think romance readers feel much the same way. And the infighting…well, actually, the more I think about it, it seems that HP is probably the best example. Because the infighting tends to get very misogynistic, as well, and the personal attacks are just as catty.

    Now all we need is people marrying fictional characters on the astral plane, and we’ll be right up there with the HP fen.

  17. 17
    MplsGirl says:

    My mom always told me “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” but this particular lesson I choose to apply or not depending on the circumstances. Criticism (even negative feedback?) helps us improve.

    I think we see this problem of non-criticism or critical comments as taboo beyond the romance category. Newspaper book reviewer editors have been known to say they have so little space that they choose not to print negative reviews of books. This seems to miss the point, which that is a thoughtful, critical discussion of a book doesn’t necessarily turn off a reader—what one person dislikes another may like a lot. If the critiquer (is that a word?) offers substantive commments about why they like or dislike it, then the reader can make a decision of whether to pick up the book (and maybe an author can choose a different path in their next book. Or not.).

    Part of the problem, IMO, is that people say “I like it” or “I don’t like it” and don’t ever offer the why behind their opinions. It’s the why that’s interesting. At least to me.

    And back to the “if you don’t have anything nice . . .” lesson. I choose to interpret that as, don’t be mean, petty,  or vicious.

    Guess the coffee kicked-in; hope that was coherent.

  18. 18
    Angelina says:

    “Authors aren’t Gods.”

    “But if someone asks if you’re a god, you say “yes.”

    LOL – my morning coffee is now all over my files.

    My word: firm69 – Holy shit, on a Monday?

  19. 19
    MaggieDR says:

    “If you haven’t got anything nice to say…

    then come and sit next to me”

    I *think* Alice Roosevelt Longfellow said that.

    This site is one of the healthiest things to happen to the romance genre.

  20. 20
    Robinjn says:

    Frankly, I think this attitude reflects our current society as a whole and is far beyond romances. I do think women are expected to always be nice and not do anything so horribly crass as criticize anything for fear (as my mother told me once) “people won’t like you, dear.”

    However, I also think our society is extremely intolerant of any criticism. The supreme example for me being that anyone who questions some of our current administration’s actions is told “This is America. if you don’t like it, leave.” I certainly don’t want to make this any sort of political discussion but I find it horrifying that some people are saying that intelligent discourse and disagreement are unamerican. The ability to disagree publicly and loudly with the government is a what the Constitution is all about.

    I also think these days our society is so overly concerned that everyone feels included and everyone wins. To the point where when we hold 4H dog shows, all the kids get blue ribbons regardless of whether or not they ever worked with their dogs. It teaches kids that they get something for nothing. It also teaches the kids that do put in the work that it doesn’t matter.

    So it’s no surprise to me that any sort of criticism of anyone’s work should be treated with horror. How *dare* you point out faults in an author’s work. That’s mean. They should all be honored the same and nobody should ever criticize, and if you don’t like it, you should just not read it but for Lord’s sake keep your mouth shut because it’s not nice to take money out of their hands even if their work is awful.

  21. 21

    I agree with Nathalie on the intermixing of author and fan. I love meeting my inspirations, but I don’t have to be friends with them. I am friendly with one or two, who, under major duress I can email and ask a question, but I prefer the books, not the author. To me, it boils down to a working relationship. I work to produce a product that (hopefully) they want.

    As for fans knowing me, I am out there, but I don’t hunt them down to have a fan. I’m sure it’s appreciated too. LOL I will say, I enjoy interacting with readers, because they give me insights that might be missed otherwise.

    I hope this even makes sense—no caffiene yet.

    spaminator-months22-exactly the difference between me and my DH. Kewl!

  22. 22

    As my southern aunt recently told my toddler cousin, “I want to see a nice face and hear nice things.”

    Women in this country—on this planet—are constantly made to feel inferior.

  23. 23
    Barb Ferrer says:

    “If you haven’t got anything nice to say…

    then come and sit next to me”

    I *think* Alice Roosevelt Longfellow said that.

    I believe she even had it stitched on a throw pillow that sat on her couch. *g*

    Alice is a new biography that was just released in October.  It’s on the teetering TBR pile.

    Honestly, I think a great deal of this comes down to two things: the “Nice Girl” syndrome that has been far more eloquently alluded to further upthread and the growing inability for people to engage in debate where a disagreement doesn’t automatically mean “You’re a brainless idiot and I hate you.”

    Logic and reason have sadly gone by the wayside, especially behind the relatively anonymous veil of the internet.

  24. 24
    Julianna says:

    I agree with many of the above comments re. “niceness”, and defensiveness re. criticism.  Which is funny, because surely the only thing worse than being a consumer of trashy womens’ emo-porn is being an undiscriminating consumer of trashy womens’ emo-porn. 
    If readers of romance are so self-conscious about it, then they should welcome people setting standards within the genre and saying that it’s possible to be an intelligent, critical reader of romance.  It’s not a girls’ club, it’s a profession, and has professional standards.

  25. 25
    Teddy Pig says:

    Logic and reason have sadly gone by the wayside

    Oh hell, I think our current administration took it out behind the woodshed and shot it.

    I love a good on topic debate and even the occasional well placed “You suck bitch!” and “Who’s your daddy now?”.

    But I find people do not spend a great deal of time on the practice of analyzing their likes and dislikes and proving or at least researching their own view points. Even analyzing the bias of the sources they get their information from.

    That’s been going on for a long time though based on social clique, tradition, religion, politics or even how they were taught. So I find it hard to blame the Internet.

    It seems to be only those who have been honestly effected or harmed or had their loved ones effected or harmed by this type of behavior that finally recognize it.

    Then you end up with the opposite problem of people in a type of radical backlash.

  26. 26
    Elena Greene says:

    I agree with much that has been said already, but would like to point out that for authors, reading reviews, even the good ones, *can* be harmful to the writing.  Letting readers and reviewers into my head while I’m writing early drafts shuts me down cold.

    Laura Kinsale wrote eloquently about this a while ago on this site. It’s my favorite SBTB post.  Here’s the link.

    But the answer isn’t in making all reviews “nice” or getting rid of criticism.  The answer is to not visit review sites while at a vulnerable stage of writing.

    It gets harder when searching for good review quotes to promote a new book.  You risk finding the ones that make you cry and want to give up on the next one.  But every job has its tough parts.  Professionals find their ways of dealing with them.

  27. 27
    Teddy Pig says:

    I myself am all about the “radical backlash”.

    Harder please, a little to the left.

  28. 28
    Jane O says:

    There are, I think, two different things under discussion here. One is book reviews, which are essentially internal to the “romance community.” As we all know, romance novels are not reviewed in The New York Times or the New Yorker, but only on websites or in publications visited only by readers of romance. It would be hard to produce a convincing argument that bad reviews are impermissible. If all reviews are good, they are utterly useless.
    This does not mean that authors should come under personal attack. In fact, I find the less I know about the author the better. (I found it far easier to enjoy Philip Larkins poetry when I knew less about him.) As long as reviewers confine themselves to rational analysis of the quality of the book under discussion, I don’t see that anyone has cause for complaint.
    But the plagiarism issue has pitchforked us all into a whole new arena, the one in which romance writers and readers are generally treated with sneers and contempt. Rather than withdrawing and demonizing those who brought the issue into the open, should we not be grateful for the opportunity to show that our genre is as worthy of respect as any other, and we too have standards that we expect to be upheld?

  29. 29
    Julie Leto says:

    Hey, if anyone wants to criticize me, go ahead.  You won’t be the first or the last.

    Do I have to like it?  Of course not.  Might I take offense?  Sure.  I’m human.  It’s the natural order of things.  But such is life.

    As for Harry Potter fandom…and I’m in that group…it’s important to remember that a lot of the fans are KIDS.  They react as children do, with a lot of nana-nana-boo-boo.  Whatever.  I personally love the way Rowling writes.  To me, her use of adverbs, for instance, keeps the storytelling simplified and in keeping with her intended audience.  Plus I get a laugh whenever Sirius says something seriously.

    Look, no one LIKES criticism.  Well, I like it from my critique partner and my editor, because at the stage they are criticizing, I can usually do something about it.  It’s hard to hear after-the-fact because if the author feels they should have made a change and they now cannot, it’s frustrating.  I got a review from Dear Author last summer that brought up a really good point—somethig my CP, my editor and I missed.  (Actually, I thought I’d addressed the situation in revisions, but clearly I missed it.)  So I didn’t mind the criticism.  I didn’t exactly love it, either, but there you go.

    I guess I take a pretty zen approach and most authors should try to do the same.  We put ourselves out there—or at least, we put our words out there.  Not everyone is going to think we’re brilliant.  Whatever.

  30. 30
    Robinjn says:

    And as a gentle counterpoint to Laura Kinsale’s eloquent post, Lilith Saintcrow has had several posts on her site about criticism, including this one:

    http://www.lilithsaintcrow.net/journal/index.php/2008/01/16/i-can-has-dungeon-pleez/

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