Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When Authors Attack

Should authors review another author's work? The question has been floating around for a while now, with no definitive consensus. As an author who originally opened my platform as a candid book reviewer, the issue haunts me on a regular basis. Should I write objective reviews for friends and acquaintances? Am I going to regret that snarky metaphor I used for describing how much mental anguish a particular plot point caused me? Will the next fellow author I meet secretly hate me because I happened to give one of their books a 3-star review? {The method to my personal book reviewing madness - LINK}

        In the end, I try not to sweat it. Why? Because a.) I make a careful point to be impartial and constructive with my reviews, while trying to avoid any personal battering of the author. b.) I fully embrace Edmund Wilson's poignant observation: “No two persons ever read the same book.” And c.) My opinions don't carry all that much weight. I don't say that as a result of my emaciated sense of self-worth--but rather in recognition of where I'm currently at in my career.

One day, when I (hopefully) have multiple published books under my belt, I'll have to reassess how I choose to throw around my theoretical authority. (Get it? Author-ity? Okay...this is probably why I'm still hanging out in pre-published land. >.> ) I think the point I'm meandering toward can be summed up with the old Spiderman adage: "With great power comes great responsibility."

For the last year or so I've been especially aware of how successful/long-established authors conduct themselves. And while some have impressed me with their humility and/or intrigued me with their attempts at a reclusive existence...I've also come across plenty of examples of authors who seem to have fallen into the trap of believing their own hype.         

Fact: Everybody's a critic. Some are just louder and more influential in that capacity.

Just last fall, RJ Ellory, the bestselling British crime writer, was called out for using pseudonyms to post flattering online reviews about his “magnificent genius,” while simultaneously criticizing his literary rivals. This sort of practice has been dubbed by some as 'sock puppeting,' and seems to be universally regarded as a tacky and underhanded means of self-promotion. I haven't seen anyone hesitate to condemn this as a classic 'author behaving badly' move.

More socially acceptable, however, is the tendency for popular/successful authors to participate in the verbal backhanding of another author. Now, being a member of the RWA, I may be a bit spoiled. In our guild there is a tremendous emphasis on cooperation and mutual support, along with the audacious idea that there's "room for all of us" in the wide world of publication. Authors are far more likely to cross-promote each other's work than they are to ever regard each other as competition (at least publicly). And so it really cracks my binding when I hear about authors attacking other authors.

Allow me to present a few examples:

*Nicholas Sparks, already known for fits of exorbitant self-esteem, recently took aim at a fellow author's work:

Cormac McCarthy? “Horrible,” Sparks says, looking at Blood Meridian. “This is probably the most pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic cowboy vs. Indians story ever written.”

It might just be my contrary nature, but I suddenly have the desire to read Blood Meridian...along with a nagging conviction to drop any and all of Sparks' books from my to-read list. >.>

* In one of her interviews, J.K. Rowling seemed to feel the need to both criticize and provide her own psychic interpretation of the intentions of a classic author (C.S. Lewis), who happens to be too dead to defend his works or otherwise complain:

"There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex," Rowling says. "I have a big problem with that."

But this isn't anything new. Author Phillip Pullman has launched numerous attacks on the long-deceased Lewis, that may or may not amount to expressions of professional jealousy. Pullman and Rowlings at least cater famously well to a very similar genre (Fantasy) and target audience age range (middle grade). But then there's the instance in which the indisputable master of adult horror fiction, Stephen King, decided to take a swipe at another highly successful author...

* “Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. … The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.” ― Stephen King

(And readers are eating up the pointed negativity. This is currently the 7th most popular quote by King, as listed on Goodreads.)

That one got my hackles up. And not because I'm some raging fan of the Twilight Saga (I liked them in their own right, hate on me if you so choose), but because I remember reading her books and identifying with her writing voice. What's more, I remember finding in her works the hope that someone like me might be able to one day attain publication.

Lets' just say, Mr. King deeply annoyed me that day. I still can't look at his picture without getting a little lipcurl-of-disdain. 

To be clear, I'm not knocking free speech. Pop-culture defining authors certainly have as much right to their viewpoints as anyone else. But I'm wondering at what point the judgments and opinions we all feel so entitled to may be crossing the line into lateral bullying. And I'm asserting now, ahead of time, that I don't want to be the kind of author who toes (or leaps headlong) over that line. Not even in the name of publicity.

So to all who know me personally, consider this an invitation to hold me accountable. If my authorial confidence ever looks to be running away with my rudimentary instincts for courtesy and respect, you have permission to ego-check me.

And to those of you who may be on the fence as to how you'd personally prefer to handle the evaluation of other people's work, I would submit to you The Golden Rule of a good critic: “Do not criticize what you have no taste for without great caution.”


P.S. I'm stepping down off my soapbox now.

Looking back through history, I actually found it to be commonplace for big-name authors to take petty swipes at each other. Mark Twain once famously said of 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."

Okay, that was at least funny...and also implied the veiled compliment that he had read her work repeatedly. (Leave it to Twain to be entertaining, uncouth, and ingenious all in the same sentence.)  If you've hung with me this far, you might appreciate this article from the examiner: The 50 best author vs. author put-downs of all time - LINK

Now tell me what you think about authors sniping other authors? And can anyone come up with another profession where this sort of smack-talking peer review goes on as openly, aside from the following:

-Late Night Comedians