A Call for Diplomacy, Courtesy, Kindness, Whatever … by Rick R. Reed

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?

Rick R.Reed’s contact information

Visit Rick’s website at http://www.rickrreed.com
or follow his blog at http://rickrreedreality.blogspot.com/.
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Author

I am never sleepless in Seattle, because there’s always another book to read or another book to write.

71 comments

  • I’m late to the party (as usual) but just wanted to say thanks for your post, Rick. Thinking is a good thing. 🙂

    I always hold my breath when I have a new review out (whether from a reader or someone on a review site), even though my skin’s already pretty thick from writing in other genres. Some of my favorites have been 2 or 3 star reviews with a bit on the “why” (which I did listen to and learn from).

  • Thank you for bringing up such a difficult subject, Rick, and discussing good manners with such charm! I was just about to return an email to the person at work who forgot to send an expense check this month, for the second month. Your point is that good manners matter, and have consequences we may not understand, (rock, pond, ripple). The gift that writers have, and the gift we should spread across the world like blackberry jam on warm toast, is empathy. Before we send a snarky email or flip a middle finger at the car that cut us off (I have been guilty of both today, I’m afraid, as well as some bad words) we could bring the empathy we save up for writing to the rest of our lives, and the people who sometimes wander across our paths ( just when our paths turn into our warpaths!). Empathy, kindness, good manners. Be Melanie, not Scarlett! Hugs, Rick. You’re a good guy!

  • Hi Sirius
    I’m only addressing the toaster/tv =book comment. I never thought of equating those. I think I’m unbiased because I’m not an author. I see them all as products to buy and that we expect quality from all products. The similarity for me ends there. My hubby’s company has benchmarks where a 98% accuracy rate, while not ideal, is acceptable. Can you imagine a 2% error rate on a 50k word book? That’s 1000 errors! It can take months to write a first draft and get the book on the shelf with a myriad of steps in between. It doesn’t take months for toaster even starting with R & D. If a consumer hates that toaster, neither the designer nor the assembly person in Asia is going to hear about it – just the customer service lackey. And the toaster company, part of some multinational billion dollar company is not going to mourn the loss of your $30.00 toaster money that you’re now going to take to toaster company #2. Not so the writer, who I picture like a dear in the headlights standing vulnerable while people take pot shots at the missed edits, the crappy cover they didn’t choose, all because the writer’s name is on the cover. I can live without my TV or toaster much easier than my books. I just wanted to say that I like to think that art as a commodity is more precious than the commodity of nuts & bolts.

    • Sorry my phone died at edit time. It’s “deer” in the headlights. Missed edits , crappy cover (beyond the story and the writing)…

  • I agree with you Rick that there’s sometimes a lack of civility when we write online because we’re all so anonymous. I also understand what you mean about courteous reviews. I’ve seen people on Goodreads give 1 star reviews before the book’s even published. Then later they write a review stating they knew the author’s style of writing was horrible and was expecting their newest book to be horrible, and surprise, surprise they found it horrible. I find it weird that these people actually stalk authors & books they know they’re going to hate.

    I try to be thoughtful & honest with my reviews. If I don’t like a book I’ll write a review on the reasons why. But I want to read those reviews from the people who dislike a book. I tend to look at the lower ratings review before purchasing just to see what’s the worse things being said about it.

    As for the quality of m/m romance books going down, it’s hard for me to judge. I’m choosy in my books and usually wait for quite a few reviews from reliable sources before purchasing so I’m satisfied most of the time with the quality of the books. I purchase current and also books that’s been out for a while. I do feel like Rick, that it’s more a glut of new writers & books rather than a cut in quality. But I can see how a review site that has to actually read all those new titles written by unknown writers would feel like they’re overwhelmed with the bad stuff.

    • Hi Mary, I understand where you are coming from but I disagree. The examples I brought are just the ones that being brought up often. What about dress designer, jewelry maker? To me those are also art. What about imagining restaurant chef telling the critic to write about the food she/he considered awful carefully because it may hurt chef’s feelings? I, as I am sure many others, cannot imagine my life without books, but if I am forced to make a choice to survive, I am pretty sure I will choose food (or water, or whatever other necessities).

      I guess to me art is a hard work, which surely requires creative talent, but so many professions to me require talent – mathematician, doctor, dancer, restaurant chef, anything that person can do with their hands IMO also requires talent. But since we are paying money for all of that, all those products and services, I do not see why in the case of the books and their creators, I should choose my words more carefully if the authors feel that critiquing their book is the same as critiquing them. I never try and never want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I also do not want to censor myself when I talk about the book, not the author. That’s my personal opinion.

      Note, I am not talking about something like “You author is a terrible person because you wrote about such and such”. This to me is surely off limits.

  • I told a friend yesterday that I hated when people decide whether or not to read a book based on a bad review. As I’ve always believed, 100 of us can read the same book but all 100 of us read something different. The one star review that slammed the book was not even accurate…and it made me really upset to see all the comments saying “thank you for warning me”, “I will remove this book from my to-read list”, etc… The fact that I gave the book 5 stars myself made me so sad that others gave up on something great based on someone elses narrow view.

  • Great article, Rick 🙂

    I love getting constructive reviews with my low star ratings. If not a constructive review, then at least a good explanation. It helps both myself and readers to see if the book overall sucked or if there was some element of the book that just didn’t sit well with the reader and ruined the whole experience for him/her. Other possible readers can then assess if they mind that element or not.

    As for authors within the same “genre” (and authors in general), they should work together and not tear each other apart. No one gains from working against one another. Yes, it’s disappointing that there were only x-many spots available – spots that sold out in less than 6 minutes – but it was no reason to go out on a witch hunt. I felt very, very bad for the organizers (people I’ve come to care about!). They’ve been nothing but nice and encouraging. I wasn’t online when it hit the fan, so I didn’t see the whole mess until after things had settled a bit. I just hope Ethan, Damon and the rest will be okay about organizing next year, though it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t feel up to it after what happened this year.

    Bad vs. good books: There have been a LOT of new M/M authors over the past few years. I’m one of them. Most new authors hope that their debut will be a masterpiece, and since authors aren’t the best judges of their own works they often believe that their work is ready for publication, out of sheer inexperience, when it may not be (here’s where publishers step in). Most don’t write a debut masterpiece (unless you’re T.J. Klune) and they realize this after a number of feedback and reviews. So, like all artists, they’ll have to improve by polishing and honing their craft and the only way to do that is to read, learn, and write, write, write. I realize that it’s frustrating to spend money on a book that didn’t live up to expectation (it’s happened to me on many, many occasions), but with time, most authors will improve while those who aren’t selling because of continuous lack of quality will drop out, so even though their works may not be five star today, their future works might be.

    I may be an optimist, but I believe that things get better 😉

  • Hi Rick! Thanks so much for the article. I’ve thought about this myself quite a bit. Every so often I will get a threatening letter from a reader who wants me to do something or other. Mostly they want me to force Ginn Hale to write a sequel to Wicked Gentlemen or somehow change how the Kindle ereader functions. But there are lots of different demands. Basically they say something like, “Do this or I won’t ever buy one of your books again,” or “Do this or I will go on Goodreads and give one star reviews to everything you do.”

    I still can’t quite wrap my head around how threatening me is supposed to be motivational. But let’s say that it was. The fact remains that most of the demands are impossible to comply with. I have no input on the design of the Kindle. And neither I nor any editor can really force any author to do anything and expect to have a good product at the end. (I know… I’ve tried, alas…)

    I’ve tried to figure out the rationale behind these weird threats but have never managed to form a theory. It’s all part of the general rudeness that you describe, I think. Somehow the barrier meant to separate the mean little thoughts that one keeps to one’s self from public statements we make to be enshrined for all eternity online has thinned and perforated. Or maybe it’s just that we don’t have to look each other in the eye when we say crappy stuff anymore. 🙂

  • I’ve gotten the impression from some of you that my blog advocates never posting a bad review. That was not my intention at all. Bad reviews have their place–mainly as a warning to the buying public, with the secondary value as a possible learning experience for an author (if he/she can approach without defensiveness and with an open mind, which I know is not always easy). What I was saying is that bad reviews, in my opinion, should have support–textual examples to back up criticism, so that readers can see that the criticism is warranted. This is where I think common courtesy can come in. Even a very negative review can be kind and well-intentioned.

    I also never meant to imply that reviews were for authors. They’re not. They’re for readers, especially on forums like Goodreads.

    So, I was not advocating not writing bad reviews. I was advocating kindness and thoughtfulness, which does not equate to “coddling” or “pulling punches.”

    • I am always in favor of kindness and I usually do not like snarking at all, and I am always trying to support my criticism, so in that I do not disagree :).

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