A Lesson in Courtesy, and I Didn’t Even Have to Participate

Rich Text Article first published as A Lesson in Courtesy, and I Didn’t Even Have to Participate on Blogcritics.

What a dust up in the blogosphere this week! We’ve seen these train wrecks before, but never on the scale of this.

For those of you who wants the Cliff Notes version, Big Al reviews books available on Kindle. Many books available on Kindle are self-pubs, or e-pubs. I imagine in the world of self-pubs, there are good books and bad books, just as there are in print form. His review of Jacqueline Howlett’s The Greek Seaman, caused the author to appear on his comment thread. She spewed expletives, and while 1. this is the Internet, and 2. I have no sound on my computer, I could literally hear her screeching.

We’ve seen this before: authors getting worked up and ornery over reviews. While I understand the burning need to defend oneself and the work of art (i.e. baby) they have created, starting an online flame war is not likely to win many friends and influence people. At least, not toward the positive.

It took an hour for me to read the comments, many of which were entertaining. I did not comment. What else is there to say?

Like Big Al, I sometimes write book reviews and I sometimes receive free copies of books from publishing houses. Unlike Big Al, my mantra is, if I can’t write a gushingly positive review, I’ll write no review at all. Not that Big Al’s review of Ms. Howlett’s work was all that scathing. A review is a subjective thing, as are books. There are books I’ve read and wondered “How the hell did this get on the New York Times bestseller list?” There are others that I tweet and review and push on my friends and employees, because those books are great and seem to get no press at all.

Big Al pointed out the flaws in Ms. Howlett’s books, and he did so without malice. It seemed a rather tame review. Even in subsequent comments, he maintained a level of professionalism he should be congratulated for.

On the other hand… Jacqueline Howlett has caused an Internet splash and held more than fifteen minutes of fame, but nothing good will come from it. If she ever approaches an agent or publishing house, the first thing the respondent will do is Google her. (Don’t you? I do all the time.) Nothing is ever erased from the Internet, no matter how you back-pedal or delete. Unless she changes her name, this eruption of bad behavior will likely follow her for the rest of her life.

Let this be a lesson in courtesy, for writers and everyone else in the world. Some people might like what you do, might like who you are, might agree with your political leanings or your choice of rap star versus Justin Bieber. They might prefer the way their mother cooks roast beef and not Arby’s, they may feel loyalty to American cars over foreign brands, or they may want to live in the woods with the bears instead of in the city.

Artists are entitled (sometimes compelled) to create. Once you put it out there, it’s there for the world to see. It had better be perfect (which is why I haven’t e-pubbed anything – yet). Once released, you lose your right to be indignant over subsequent comments.

Authors should keep in mind these things when it comes to critique and reviews:

1. It’s not personal. Not unless your mother or your ex-husband is the reviewer and you can prove it’s personal, let it go.

2. Grow a thick skin, because if you’re on the Internet, you’re going to need it. Not everyone loves you, not online, not in Real Life.

3. Keep your mouth shut. Someone likes your work. And even if no one on the planet likes your work, YOU do. If you don’t have faith in your work, you might as well go back to your day job.

4. If you find a burning urge to debate your opinion, do so privately. Public displays are great for us rubber-neckers, but not so good for you.

5. For God’s sake, DO NOT use the *F* word in comment threads, particularly if you’re a writer. A sprinkling here and there in a manuscript is one thing, but a writer should be able to come up with a more genteel metaphor. As in the Real World, overuse of the word does not make you look cool – it makes you look crass, uneducated, and rough.

Finally, consider your critique to be an aid to making the next piece better. Big Al brought up some very valid points regarding grammar, spelling, and purple prose that would likely help Ms. Howlett with her next project.

If she listens.


3 Responses

  1. Joanne, instead of specifically discussing Jacqueline Howett’s posts on BigAl’s Books and Pals, I’d like to address the larger issue raised in your blog. For authors who have put their work out there for the world to see, you write, “Once released, you lose your right to be indignant over subsequent comments.”

    Respectfully, I disagree. As the author of a self-published book, Stereotypes in Black Music: The African-American Crossover Compromise (2010), I emphatically reject your imperious repeal of my right to protest public attacks on my work.

    When it comes to critiques and reviews, you advise authors, “Keep your mouth shut.” Joanne, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to writers. The advice that you and many others consider wise is not necessarily appropriate for me.

    I especially bristle when you admonish us, “For God’s sake, DO NOT use the *F* word in comment threads, particularly if you’re a writer. … a writer should be able to come up with a more genteel metaphor.”

    Joanne, some writers would rather be blunt than genteel, rude instead of polite, raucous not restrained. Some of us even think that a writer’s job is to offend people, not comfort them.

    You are of course in good company here at Blogcritics, where management has lately taken an increasingly tough stance against those of us who dare to offend, either as writers or as commenters. For a fuller explanation, please click on my hyperlinked name attached to this post.

  2. Alan, thank you for your comments, and as you noted, I have approved them in their entirety. You have a right to your own opinion, and have outlined many valid points. HOWEVER, there are two trains of thought on the ‘indie’ publishing movement. One likens it to the indie music or art movement, but it’s not so cut and dried. The other thinks it’s vanity at its worst.

    For one thing, I believe (and I could be wrong) that anything self-pubbed is held to a higher standard. If you’re not a brilliant-freaking-genius like Amanda Hocking, you run the risk of having every flaw and typo pointed out.

    For another thing, if an author DOES want to try to make it in the paper publishing world, you have to consider the fact that stepping on toes does not get you anywhere. In addition – and I’m sorry to say this – you must consider politics as an issue that will come between you and a publishing contract. Yes, there are some agents, editors and houses that weigh your political leanings and judge accordingly, which is the reason why I have consciously limited my contributions to BC Politics.

    I was advised early on that I should choose a path and stick to it. Do I want to be known as a colorful personality on an opinion web site? Or do I want to have my novels published? Do I want to inflame and incite? Or do I want to learn the craft of writing and make it better?

    (By the way, I see nothing wrong with inflaming and inciting, the use of expletives, etc., if that’s what you want to accomplish. I’m not so lily-white that an *F* word offends me.)

    Flaming an article is not an unknown phenomenon in the Internet, where a lot of us are cloaked in anonymity. As you know, trolls are abundant and they are cowards. I have chosen to use my real name, which is why I am more careful. If you can’t weather the sting of nameless, faceless people you might as well resort to the trolls.

    Finally, I wrote this article as a cautionary tale. Common courtesy works online as it does off. It’s my opinion and nothing else.

    It might not be “fair” but that’s life and life is not fair.

  3. Where’s Rodney King when you need him? “Can’t we all just get a blog?”

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