Sunday, January 8, 2012

Advice for the 21st Century Virtual Critic

Last week, the Interwebs were aflame in a massive troll fight between some Young Adult authors and the people who read them--which can include thirteen year old girls, but doesn't always. The Book Pushers gave an amazingly succinct blow by blow recap of the entire kerfluffle as it played out across the social media platforms like a Jerry Springer stripper fight that meanders backstage and out across the audience before coming to rest in one of the chairs, held apart at arm's length by Steve.

What it basically boiled down to is this: a reader said some fairly insulting things about an author and his work. Other authors jumped in, saying to leave off the personal attacks, and oh yeah, yer mother, and it spiraled out of control from there.  But it touched upon something that I've had a serious problem with for some time now: there's no filter for the Internet. By that I mean that when some Mountain Dew-addled seventeen year old clicks through on a link to a movie trailer for a pop culture property they have no prior knowledge of, and right underneath the trailer is a blank space, fairly begging for a comment, there's nothing to prevent them, either internally or externally from typing "this sucks" and then going on their merry way. Nothing. When have seventeen year old kids ever had to be thoughtful and articulate?

But some of them have seen the value, or maybe just the cache, in being some kind of online presence or personality. And since everyone in cyberspace wants to participate in a global conversation, these Cyber-Pundits have popped up on places like You Tube, the Internet Movie Database, and Amazon. They are even called "reviewers" by some sites, and this may have lulled many of them into thinking that they are a critical voice that actually matters.

For every thoughtful, articulate, and cogent reviewer on Amazon, there are twenty sub-literate Howler monkeys with a grasp of English that can only be called Byzantine and not an iota of taste in their mouth, much less in their heads.

It's gotten so that I cannot even participate in these conversations anymore, if they ever were conversations in the first place. A conversation implies a give and take, back and forth. Website comment boxes are more like, "Step up to this line, and try to shout so that your voice is heard on the other side of the lake." As someone who has written reviews, and as someone who has been reviewed, I'm not trying to pick a new fight here. What I am saying is this: in a medium comprised entirely of words (emoticons have never counted), what you say and how you say it is everything. Period.

In other words, if you're just a reader who likes to say "It sucked" when you come across a book that didn't hold your interest with every sentence on the page, that's fine, I can't stop you. Just make it clear to me that you're that person, and not trying to influence other people with your post. Don't act like your screed is anything other than your subjective, biased, and scarcely nuanced opinion.  It's not a review. It's certainly not a review I can use, nor can anyone else--unless they feel like starting a little online slap-fight.

See, what makes a good reviewer good is his or her ability to write about a book, even one they didn't personally care for, in such a way that it doesn't scorch the Earth beneath it. Reviewers, like essayists, reporters, and even fiction writers, should have a viewpoint. That's how you not only connect with the people who want to know what you think (because they share your viewpoint) but you also make yourself useful to people who don't share your viewpoint by bringing up relevant criteria that can be used to make an informed opinion.

Example: Marc Savlov is a writer for the Austin Chronicle, and he's made it very clear throughout his decade and a half of movie reviews that he is a closet geek. He likes that stuff, but he's a little embarrassed to admit it. And so, he tends to be harder on X-Men movies than other people. Most genre movies, for that matter. So, when I read a Savlov review, I know I can automatically add one star to anything he writes about with lasers or dinosaurs or superheroes in it and that'll line up with my own tastes. Roger Ebert is another great example of someone whose tastes are out there, for everyone to see, and so you just know how to adjust whatever Ebert is saying to how you like your movies.

These guys have something else going for them: they are deeply knowledgeable. They don't talk about Blade Runner being the best film noir movie ever made because they've seen Out of the Past. When "new" film noir movies come out, Ebert weighs all of the other film noir movies against the new one and can talk about what worked and what didn't. And I trust him, because I've seen the books he's written.

If you're online, and you're not even using your real name, then guess what? You have to establish your credibility if you want to be a reviewer. It's okay to like weird movies, and it's even okay to champion new stuff as greater and better than everything before it. But you need to understand that classics are called classics because they are inarguably classics. I'm sorry if you haven't seen Raiders of the Lost Ark because it's like, 30 years old and stuff. But it's one of the most influential movies of the 20th century. If you haven't seen it, and can't spot the obvious swipes in some crummy action film, then guess what? You're not a credible reviewer, and anything else you say from that moment forward is suspect. In a nutshell, if you're going to wax intellectual, you'd better know your shit.

Finally, it is possible to say you hate a book without saying it sucks. It's actually pretty easy to do. All you have to do is add the phrase, "In my opinion," before you pronounce judgement, and then back up what you didn't like about the book--specifically. Was the language too garbled? Was the dialogue unbelievable? Was the plot contrived? Did it feel too much like "X" book or series? See, that's a valid thing to bring up. Some authors in fact make a point of trying to do their "Tolkien riff." If I'm a Tolkien fan, and I'm tired of re-reading The Hobbit, then your comments might actually help me, even as they are establishing your bona fides on your critical yardstick. But you shouldn't presume that the author is a terrible person, nor that the people that like their books are sub-literate chuckleheads. If you have that strong a reaction to a book, then clearly you were not the target audience. Moreover, how on Earth did you even think to pick up such a thing in the first place? You probably read an online review.

When I was a book seller (for years and years) I was called upon to give my opinion about books on a daily basis. Now, this can be tricky. If I tell someone about a book that I hated, that I think sucked, and I say it's the greatest thing ever, then that's a lie. And if they buy that book based on my lie, and hate the book, then guess what? I've lost all of my credibility.

Over the years, I learned the value of tact. It's perfectly okay to say to someone asking about, say, Henry Miller, that "I'm not the best person to ask for a recommendation. I don't personally care for him. I think he's a little too gimmicky." If they asked for more, I'd tell them what made Miller's writing more of a blog trick than actual prose. But I'd always end with, "But that's just me. Other folks here love Miller and can tell you why he's great." I'm not putting down anyone who likes Miller. I'm just explaining why I don't. See how that works? Let me say this out loud, so there can be no misunderstanding: if you're not capable of doing that every time you hit a movie, or book, or record that you don't like, then you're not going to be an effective critic. You're just going to be another nameless, faceless voice in an already crowded Internet yelling "IT SUCKS" from the other side of the lake.

Take a moment to decide if you're a reviewer, or if you're just a reader. If you want to be a reviewer, then you've got to be brilliant. Or gifted. Or both. But if you just want to be a reader, and just want to be able to say what you think, without all of that other stuff getting in the way, then make the effort to say what you mean and mean what you say. Use your words. You're a reader. You of all people should know the value of written communication.

For those of you who actually aspire to honing a critical reputation of some kind, well congratulations. You just became writers. And with that comes all of the things that every other writer on the planet needs to know. All of the rules. All of the perils and pitfalls. You are now just as accountable for the things you write (for little or no money) as the rest of us writers working for little or no money. Again, let me stress: choose your words carefully.

At least, that's what I think.
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