Friday, March 22, 2013

The Power of Words--and Kindness

Note: This post was originally featured on the site, Reviews by Jessewave on March 21, 2013. 

A Call for Diplomacy, Courtesy, Kindness, Whatever …

A recent post in one of my publisher groups got me to thinking. Anything that gets me to Rick Green Orange (1)thinking is a dangerous thing because it usually leads to me doing something I shouldn’t. But, in this case, I think it’s probably worth following up on.

A writer posted on the m/m romance publisher group that she (with her two-initials first name) had recently received a note from a potential reader, who asked her if she was a male. She wondered how she should respond—and many other writers chimed in, with suggestions for everything from silence to snark to courteousness.

Ever the smart-ass, I surprised myself by coming down on the side of courteousness. This is what I wrote:

I think the e-mail is a little out of line and agree that it shouldn’t matter. But you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by making a polite and honest reply. You might even say you’d love to hear what he thought of your work and if he felt your gender actually made any difference. Handled politely (even though he wasn’t), you may be able to begin to turn this guy’s thinking around and bring a new reader into the fold. Snark, silence, or taking offense will not accomplish that. And my response may not either, but at least you’ve elevated yourself and perhaps opened the door to opening his mind.

I know this issue of gender and writing has popped up here on Jessewave over the years and my answer to whether women can write men and men can write women has always been—it depends on whether they tell a good story or not. As with writing any fiction, whether you have an outie or an innie doesn’t really matter as long as you can write characters that people care about and a world that can enfold you, wherein you and the author conspire together to create something brilliant.

But the whole issue of courtesy is what I wanted to natter on about a bit today. Frankly, I am lately seeing a lot of rudeness and inconsideration from authors, reviewers, and readers.

And it makes me sad. Makes me lament, as Rodney King once did, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Authors? The best example of rudeness I have seen lately was the dust-up over this year’s GayRomLit. Here we have a small group of people (organizers) working themselves silly to create a retreat that will be an enjoyable experience for those of us who love to read and be read and because of some ill-considered wording, they were suddenly vilified by many, many authors. Pity them for trying to do something nice for the m/m community, for wanting to foster a spirit of acceptance and growth. From some of the comments I heard being bandied about on the web, I expected to hear of Ethan’s Day lynching, or Heidi Cullinan’s tar and feathering, or maybe Damon Suede being flogged (although he might like that). Come on, folks, asking questions and raising issues is one thing, casting the organizers as elitist monsters is quite another. Level-headed discussion would have been so refreshing to see—on both sides of the fence. Now that the furor has died down, this whole brouhaha, in retrospect, looks nothing more like the proverbial tempest in a teapot. I am not saying authors should shut up and write, but that they should, as I hope they do when writing a piece of fiction, think before they speak. Authors, more than anyone else, should understand the power of words—to harm or to heal. Let’s try to remember to communicate with kindness and consideration. Really, it’ll get us so much further. Ask your mom.

Reviewers? Right here, on the Jessewave mainstage, was a recent article lamenting the drop in quality in m/m romance. While the reviewing staff made some valid points (really, who doesn’t want there to be more quality, more care taken to see that there’s quality, and simply all-around better books?), I thought the blanket impression given that m/m is suffering from a decline wasn’t as thoughtful as it could have been. For one, I agree that there may well be more bad books out there than there were a few years ago; the growth of the genre has created a hungry beast and sometimes hungry beasts eat anything. But I do not believe for a minute there’s been a decline. It’s just that the good stuff might be harder to sort out from the bad. It would be lovely if reviewers adopted as their primary task bringing forth the good stuff as a service to readers and well, politely ignoring the bad (which may or may not actually be bad; badness being subjective).

As a reviewer myself (theater and books), I eventually came to the conclusion that I did no one any favors by writing a mean-spirited snarky review damning some poor soul’s creative output, even if that output was utter garbage. It was still someone’s baby and I just don’t believe it’s right to lift your leg and piss on someone’s baby, no matter how ugly the poor child is. Walk on by, as Dionne Warwick once sang. But, you might argue, isn’t a reviewer’s role to warn readers away from the abysmal?

Not really. Oscar Wilde said it best: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Staying mum on a bad creation is not only a kindness to the creator, it also achieves the same purpose as a pan, maybe better than a pan.

And readers? Much of my plea for kindness goes out to you (I can’t help it; I am both a reader and an author). So before you leave that one-star for someone’s work on Goodreads or slam the creative output of an author because it was not what you expected (and that’s a lot different from being bad), think about what you’re doing and who you might hurt. In the end, when you slam someone’s creative output, you are taking a crap on something someone wrote, really, with only good intentions—to entertain you, to touch you, to make you laugh or cry. Walk on by. Or, if you must criticize, make sure it’s constructive and that you find something, no matter how miniscule, nice to say, along with your diatribe. Never leave a one-star with no words to back it up. That’s just cruel—and one-sentence slams are nearly as bad.

I guess in the end, I hope to get across the message that communication, like magic powers, can be used for good or evil. We always have a choice. How will you use your power?

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  1. Amen, my friend. I used to review books for a small magazine and it was always a such a hard thing when I read something I did not like. I never wanted to pee all over someone else's creation. It was their hard work and soul that brought it together and I had no right to tear it down.

    I think your answer to the gender inquiry is spot on. Sometimes there are people who just are rude, but you should never respond with rudeness.Unless the situation warrants like being called fat ass in line at Starbuck's. ;)

    1. What you said, Melissa, just demonstrates you were a reviewer with a brain AND a heart. Bravo!

  2. As an avid reader I have never appreciated snarky and / or nasty reviews. To me that kind of review says far more about the reviewer—nothing positive to be sure—than it does the story.

    As a reviewer, unfortunately not as much now as in the past, I never considered myself an arbiter of taste. I know what I like, but I am also fully cognizant that my taste isn't the same as everyone else. So, while a book might not get high marks from me, it's never about the author or even story, but my personal taste. And I haven't, and will never, trash an author or their book... ever!
    First, it's not my place. My opinion is just that, and there is always a way to put things that does not come across as mean-spirited or know-it-all or that I am the ultimate judge of what's worth reading. Those kind of reviews, to be honest, will send me out to buy the trashed book; chances are, and have often proven to be, that I will like it. And even if I don't? I'm more than happy to support the author; no one deserves to have their work, their heart and soul, turned in to mincemeat.