On reviews and meanness and writers and readers

I’ve been thinking about a sentiment I hear over and over again as I scan the blogosphere, and in face to face conversations with other writers, too.

It’s hard to write a book, writers (and some readers) say. People shouldn’t be so mean about it. If you can’t find something nice to say, you just shouldn’t say anything at all.

I grew up with various versions of the “if you can’t find something nice to say” rule. As far as I can tell, it was meant for people. No one ever suggested I shouldn’t say mean things about a restaurant meal I hated (not uncommon–I was an incredibly picky eater as a child), or that particularly awful shade of institutional green used to paint the school walls, or that particularly frustrating book I happened to be reading.

It never even occurred to me there was a person behind the meal or the paint — or the book, either — whose feelings might be hurt if I voiced my thoughts. I wasn’t talking to — or about — a person at all.

In much the same way a reader — whether they’re a professional reviewer or a casual blogger or someone somewhere in between — who’s writing a negative review isn’t tearing into a person (unless their review actually contains a direct personal attack) — they’re tearing into a book.

I do try to mostly focus on the positive when I talk about other writers’ books. Even when I decide to talk about something that didn’t quite work for me, I try to do so with at least a certain amount of restraint. That’s because I’m a writer, talking to and about other writers. Possibly would-be chefs hesitate more than I would to post about that horrid meal they had in last night, too, because they know they’re critiquing a meal cooked by one of their peers. (Possibly not–every field has its own standards of professional conduct, after all.)

But readers are under no obligation to think about the writer when they read. If anything, readers have an active right to not think about the writer. This isn’t about being mean or not being mean, because being mean is a people thing. This is about every reader having the right to engage with a story whatever way her or she chooses. Engaging with stories is one of the things stories are for.

When I’m deep into a story, whether I’m loving it or hating it, the writer isn’t there — only the story is. How could any of us read freely otherwise? Knowing the writer was looking over my shoulder would have stopped me cold as a teen reader especially — did I really want Madeleine L’Engle knowing I was lusting after Calvin O’Keefe, or identifying with Meg Murray so strong I sometimes imagined I was her as I walked to school? No, I didn’t — I wanted to interact with the story, not its writer.

And when a book didn’t work for me, and I wanted to throw it across the room and rant to all my friends — I didn’t want the writer watching me then, either. I wanted to be left alone to gripe about the story.

The writer’s feelings aren’t the reader’s problem, nor should they be. I think the fact that readers now interact with stories — and each other — online and so in public doesn’t really change this. Not for readers, anyway — for writers things do change, because we can see that interaction happening — but that’s our problem, and it’s up to us to find ways to make our peace with it. If a particular comment cuts particularly deep, maybe it’s best to find another writer to talk to about it — to make connections to others with whom you can whine about and laugh about and gain perspective on this whole crazy-making business we’re in.

But unless they invite you in, leave the readers out of it. Readers have a right to engage with stories, whether they love them or hate them. The best thing writers can do, I think, is to not get in the way of that.

What are we writing for, after all, if not to allow that interaction — that escape into story, and that arguing with story, too — to happen?

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