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Archive for October, 2014

Writer reality

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A couple weeks ago, The Guardian published an essay that got the reading and writing world buzzing. Author Kathleen Hale received a particularly negative semi-review of her novel No One Else Can Have You and she kind of lost her mind over it.

Hale scoured the Internet for information about the reviewer and eventually showed up at the reviewer’s home and then called her at work under false pretenses. Hale did not threaten the reviewer, nor did she actually harm her physically. But it’s still just slightly creepy.

In another case, self-published British author Richard Brittain, known for bullying behavior on Wattpad, traveled to Scotland to assault a woman who left a negative review of his book on Goodreads. He sneaked up behind her and bashed her in the back of the head with a wine bottle.

There exists a website called Stop the Goodreads Bullies that takes on a number of reviewers and bloggers who criticize literary (and I use that word loosely) works. The site has given out some of these reviewers’ addresses and daily habits, encouraging members and blog readers to track them down.

More benign, but in the same vein and more to the point I’m coming to, the latest trend is that people are not allowed to give honest reviews of books if the honest review is negative. The common criticisms of such critique are, “it’s subjective so you can’t judge it”; “I admire anyone who can finish writing a book”; “the author worked really hard on it and it’s like a baby.”

Let me take these on.

First, “it’s subjective.” Whether a particular reader enjoyed a particular piece certainly is subjective. However, there are some very specific elements that make a literary work good or bad. These include grammar, avoiding alliteration (unless it’s purposeful and works), avoiding redundancy, using words correctly, pace, plotting … There are many more, but I won’t list them all. Some current popular books lack one or all of these elements, yet people give them five-star reviews. Those five-star reviewers, whom I suspect wouldn’t know good writing if it climbed up their rear ends, attack anyone who disagrees with their assessments.

Personally, even if I didn’t enjoy a particular read, I will never give fewer than three stars if I recognize it’s well-written but just wasn’t my thing. If you go to my Goodreads page and see one or two stars, it was a BAD BOOK. That doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy it, but call it what it is!

There is a scene in Mel Brooks’ comedy History of the World Part I where the first artist paints on a cave wall and immediately after, the first critic arises. In other words. critiquing art has been round as long as there has been art. People make entire careers of it. They critique books, movies, television shows, visual art, dance and even each other. If you search through Goodreads, you will find thousands of one-star reviews of Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain … If those legends garner poor reviews, what makes someone like Hale think she won’t?

I long ago learned not to choose books to read based on Goodreads star ratings. I have utterly despised books that had average rating above four and loved books with much lower ratings.The average reader doesn’t know anything beyond, “I enjoyed that.” And the average reader probably isn’t nearly as critical as I am. I also question the quality of books the average reader is reading, based on the average quality of professionally published books in the last ten or so years.

For that matter, I just yesterday finished a novel I bought solely because it boasted a positive review from George RR Martin on the cover. (For those who don’t know, Martin wrote/is writing the A Song of Ice and Fire series that the HBO show Game of Thrones is based on.) The book? It sucked. It was dull, poorly-plotted. The character development was beyond bad. And that’s terribly frustrating.

But what is this trend of not being allowed to criticize something because someone worked hard and finished writing a book? Why do we admire a poor end product because someone “worked hard” on it? I admire writers who take the time and effort to perfect their craft. I admire writers who learn grammar and punctuation and who follow or break writing rules in a deliberate way that improves the product. I don’t admire someone who just slaps words onto paper and calls it a book and demands praise. I cannot support the popularization of terrible books.

To be clear, I am not criticizing subject matter or content. You like erotica? Great! But skip EL James and find something someone actually wrote WELL. Something with plot and character and, well, that’s written in a recognizable form of English. I’m not a fan of dystopian literature. It leaves me feeling very dark. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize that The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant novel. I’m not so sure about The Hunger Games, though. I only got through chapter six. It bored me and the writing, well, it wasn’t all that wonderful. I also suspect she stole a lot of the story and ideas from other authors.

Many who say we shouldn’t criticize call anyone who does “jealous.” Do I want to be a successful author? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I am jealous of others who already are. If that were true, I would hate JK Rowling, Stephen King, Amy Tan and many other talented, published, successful writers. I don’t. I only have a problem with books I think are not up to par, that don’t live up to the wonderful works those authors have put forth.

Read The Shining, then read 50 Shades of Grey and tell me again that EL James is a great writer.

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Twenty-one years ago I met a boy — well, two boys to be specific. They were best friends and I was with my best friends and after a very strange first night we all ended up becoming friends for a short time and one of them became my boyfriend for an even shorter time — so short that my own mother doesn’t even remember him. I’ve seen him exactly once since then, and that was nearly two decades ago, too.

And yet to this day, he has left an indelible mark upon my life. You see, I grew up in a place and time where country music was verboten. You just didn’t listen to it if you wanted to be thought of as some version of “cool.” I think we still said that back then. But this boy and his friend — with whom I spent a great deal of time — loved it. I don’t think they listened to anything else. I was in the boy’s bedroom the first time I heard John Anderson’s Straight Tequila Night, which is still one of my favorite songs. (Fast-forward another dozen years to the first months of dating my fiance and we went to see Anderson play at a little bar called The Barn in Sanford, Florida. I guess old Johnny is a pretty big musical deal in my life.)

Garth Brooks, Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, FL, Oct. 18, 2014. ©Renée M. Liss

Garth Brooks, Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, FL, Oct. 18, 2014. ©Renée M. Liss

So the country thing stuck. It isn’t the only music I listen to, but it grew on me. I find it fun but also it can be pretty poignant. After all these years, it finally came full-circle when a friend mentioned one night that the legendary Garth Brooks was going to be in Jacksonville, Florida, for one of his new world tour stops.

I have a couple of his CDs, and like most of America, I love his iconic Friends in Low Places. Even so, I never really thought myself a particularly huge Garth fan. Regardless, he’s Garth Brooks. He’s a legend. I had to see him. And I did — last Saturday night with my best friend of way-too-many-years (who was there when I met the boy and there when I met my fiance and has just always been there for just about everything that has ever mattered whenever possible) and my fiance. I couldn’t wish for two better companions for that night.

Despite my belief that Garth was no more to me than a casual interest, sitting in that arena listening to him play 26 years worth of his music, I realized just how much he had been a part of my life’s soundtrack. Every song held a memory — most good. I was nearly in tears by the end. I barely sat down at all through the entire concert. I have never enjoyed myself that much at another concert ever. Had Garth played every song he ever recorded, we would have been there all night and it still would have been too short.

Others had mentioned that this man puts on a great show, but I had no idea what that meant until I actually experienced it. Every person walked out of that concert with a smile. I don’t think anyone left disappointed.

Garth isn’t young. I’m not sure his exact age, but he’s been recording music since 1988 or 1989 — I was in middle school then and I’m pushing 40 now. Yet he spent hours on that stage, playing guitar, singing, running around, climbing props like he was 5 years old.

I hope I get another chance to see him one day and if you do, go. Just go. Even if you hate country music, even if you have to spend your last penny. Go.

An addendum: I have been listening to Brooks’ music for the last couple days on CDs and MP3 and I had to add that you haven’t experienced him if you haven’t heard him live. He’s 100 times better in person.

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