For all of you who don't know, Goodreads is a website where readers can review books. There is apparently a lot of debate about how "free market" this online marketplace of ideas should be, because some of the reviews can be pretty nasty. (And usually ... hilarious. Let's be honest, mean is always funnier.)
This puts a lot of panties in a twist, from readers who object to giving anything less than 3 stars out of 5 (then what is the point of the other two stars?) and writers who object to the scathing tone the Internet enables. And some nasty business went down over there last week.
Here's the thing.
If people can't be honest about what they don't like as well as what they do, then the purpose of a "review" is defeated. I don't want to log on to Rottentomatoes and find out that every film critic gave a movie a minimum of 3 out of 5 stars, and all those who thought it deserved none, 1, or 2 just remained silent.
I don't think people should just be nice for no reason, whether you're doing it because you have a vague but incorrect understanding of karma, an inability to stick by your true opinions, or just don't want to be viewed as a "mean" person (by strangers on the internet).
If you think a book is boring, tell me.
If you think it had a flawed premise, I want to know.
If you think it promotes rape culture, for the love of pancakes, don't let me buy it.
And if you think it was legitimately the cat's pajamas, tell me that, too.
Because really, and I am seriously asking, what is the point of self-censoring? To protect the feelings of strangers? To earn yourself a credit with the universe in hopes that you, too, will be published someday? Or is it just some socially ingrained resistance to honesty--YOUR HAIR LOOKS SO CUTE!*
Frankly, I think a lot of authors are just too damn sensitive. You know what is a baby? A baby. You know what is not a baby? Something you wrote. If you're still confused about this distinction, print out your manuscript, put it in a onesie, pop it in a stroller and see what kind of looks you get from people on the street.
I love writing, I love reading, but I'm fairly sure the social hierarchy goes
baby > pet > book
We don't run into burning buildings for books, folks. We just hope the guys at the Apple Store can restore a fried harddrive and move on with life.
I'm not saying that it's uncomfortable to put yourself out there for public criticism -- it is. I am also not saying that people don't have a right to be defensive about their passions -- they do. But I think it's time to put on our big girl and big boy panties and gain some perspective.
Do you know what people said about Charles Dickens?
"Not much of Dickens will live, because it has so little correspondence to life. He was the incarnation of cockneydom, a caricaturist who aped the moralist; he should have kept to short stories. If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in them."
And JK Rowling?
"How to read Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do."
And Nathaniel Hawthorne:
"I believe I dislike The House of Seven Gables because in the first chapters the prose is so fatuously intense: the striving for effect that makes it the ancestor of all horror-novel writing. But maybe it got better."
And it's not limited to critics taking on writers. Sometimes writers take on other writers. What did George Bernard Shaw have to say about Shakespeare, for example?
"With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare."
Mark Twain on Jane Austen:
"Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone."
But don't worry, Mr. Clemens will get his comeuppance thanks to William Faulkner:
"A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth-rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven surefire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy."
Literary criticism is first and foremost subjective. Not everyone will love what you write, and not everyone will love the writing of someone who is far better than you.
But if you had the right to write it, I don't see how you can argue that someone else doesn't have the right to post a criticism of it on the Internet.
* Never trust a girl who says your hair looks cute after a trip to the salon. WE ALL SAY THAT.