Good by Whose Standards? Exploring the Gap between Critics and Consumers

Hope you had a happy Easter! ****WARNING: If you wish to avoid reading anything about what critics have said about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, stop reading right now. You have been warned.****

By now you’ve heard that one of the most anticipated movies of 2016—Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice—opened to dismal reviews. It earned a stunning 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. (By comparison Zootopia earned a 99%.)

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I was surprised at that score. But what interested me more than the reviews I’ve seen was the reaction of fans in regard to the critics who viewed the film with such disfavor. Even director Zach Snyder and some of the cast reacted to the criticism.

The New York Times addressed the gap between fans and critics in an article by Jonah Bromwich that you can find here. Bromwich proclaims

Critics who have panned the film have been met with fury online, with angry fans sneering at their reviews, their writing and even their motives.

512px-Thumbs_down_font_awesome.svgThis is not the first time fans and critics have failed to see eye to eye. Undoubtedly, it won’t be the last. While Bromwich’s article mentioned that a critical thumb’s down won’t deter diehard fans (case in point: a teen I know saw the movie and loved it), a steady onslaught of critical reviews can sometimes take a toll. As of the writing of this post, the box office take for the movie had not yet been posted. So who knows? Perhaps the fans will have the last word if the film rakes in a ton of money. (Wired.com has what I think is a fair take on Batman v. Superman and the critical drubbing it received. You can find that here.)

Reactions to any artistic endeavor can be subjective. But when so many people pan a project, thus inspiring another group to pan them for panning said project, I can’t help wondering who decides which elements make a project “good” or “excellent.” Is beauty truly in the eyes of the beholder (the consumer) or in the eyes of the gatekeepers (critics, agents, movie studio executives, publishers—whoever)? Is the gap between consumers and gatekeepers widening?

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Many people have written books on what makes a piece of writing “good.” I’m sure you’ve seen some of those. You’re probably thinking of Strunk & White right about now, or Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. I think of Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft (a personal favorite). As for films, you have only to look at the lists of the “best” films of all time and books like Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies to see what many have regarded as “good” films.

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If I’m serious about seeing a film, most of the time there is no critic alive who will deter me from seeing it. In fact, I try to avoid reading reviews until I’ve seen the film. But I’m not always successful in avoiding them; consequently, negative reviews sometimes sway me. With books, however, I often check the reviews (including verbal praise from friends) beforehand. I’ve been burned too many times in the past not to.

I have opinions, yes, about what I consider “good.” Sometimes I judge by the way a book or film made me feel as I read it or viewed it. Many of the books and films I’ve loved over the years haven’t had all of the bells and whistles of a critically acclaimed, National Book award finalist or Academy Award nominee. Yet I found something endearing about them. On the other hand, I’ve loved some extremely well written books (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, for instance) and films.

All the Light We Cannot See

The jury’s still out on whether or not I’ll see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have to chalk some of my reticence up to my inability to escape some of the negative press. How about you? Have you ever been swayed against seeing a film or reading a book because of a negative review? Do you, like some fans, believe that critics don’t understand what the average person likes? Why or why not?

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Batman v. Superman poster from thegg.net. Book covers from Goodreads. Peeps from Pinterest.com. Thumb’s down image from commons.wikimedia.org. Gap image from clipartpanda.com.

Constructive or Destructive?

Charles Yallowitz kindly tagged me for the first post challenge. (You can read his first post by clicking on the preceding words.) But since I was too lazy to think about who to tag or even to search through the files for my post, I’m going with this post instead. Thanks anyway, Charles.

A few days ago, my sister-in-law and I watched one of those reality shows—Four Weddings (which always makes me think of the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral). On this show, four brides-to-be agree to attend the wedding of each of her fellow brides and critique it based on a point system. The highest scoring bride gains a dream honeymoon.

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Well, you can see the conflict already. Since each bride vies for the honeymoon package, of course she’ll sabotage the others by voting down perfectly reasonable choices. And though you’ll hear comments like, “Oh, I LOVED that she had a bacon bar at her reception! LOVED her gown—soooooo beautiful,” when asked to vote on the overall experience (with 10 as the maximum), the critiquing bride-to-be will say, “I gave her a 5 out of 10, because she had an outdoor wedding, and I hate the outdoors.”

I got angry while watching the episode, because the person who scored everyone else the lowest and was generally the most caustic won the honeymoon. Guess her tactical maneuvering paid off.

Ugh. This show gave me flashbacks to some of my undergraduate writing workshops where we were supposed to critique each other’s work. The professor was the editor-in-chief of the campus literary magazine. Some students inclined toward toadyism were blistering in their critiques. “Insipid,” “dull,” “terrible dialogue”—you name it, I’ve heard it. Thanks to that experience, when I graduated, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to write again. Amazingly, I continued, but not right away.

So you can imagine my trepidation upon entering a graduate school writing program. I don’t claim to be a masochist. But I can understand someone thinking I have that tendency, since workshops are par for the course in the program.

Recently, three people called my attention to this Buzzfeed article: http://www.buzzfeed.com/shannonreed/jane-austen-receives-feedback-from-tim-a-guy-in-her-mfa-work#.ae0XKlORe

Though humorous, this post encapsulates my belief about workshops when I signed up for the program. I dreaded getting this kind of feedback when I attended my first workshop. To my relief, however, rules were given about the constructive criticism expected. One of the rules made a huge impression on me (and I’m paraphrasing it here): “The goal is to help the person to be excited about diving back into the piece after it is critiqued.”

To foster this, everyone had to comment on what was good about the piece before any comments of a constructively critical nature could be made. This was a nice way to build up an author. Perhaps that’s why many of the published debut books I’ve seen from graduates of the program were books started during the program. Now, that says something about the power of words to build someone up instead of words to tear someone down.

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Yes, there’s value to constructive criticism. Posting caustic comments, however, has become a sport on Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, and other places. Many people are angry for various reasons, and seem to delight in tearing someone else down with their words. Words that blister say more about the speaker than they do about the person targeted. If we have to rip someone apart to get ahead or gain attention, what do we really gain in the long run?

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Bridal bouquet from home.adelphi.edu. Thin skin meme from memecenter.com. Mother Teresa quote from sawdustcityllc.com.

Trash or Treasure?

I’ve got some book winners to announce in just a bit. But first, let me tell you about my Saturday. You’re stuck hearing about it, so you might as well nod your head as if you really wanted to hear about it—or at least part of it. Anyway, I attended an ugly Christmas sweater party at my pastor’s house. It was an eye-opening experience. I wore this little number.

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My phone remained in my purse, however, so I can’t supply photos of the other sweaters. Perhaps that’s for the best. Some industrious individuals threaded Christmas lights through their sweaters in the hope of gaining one of three prizes. The guy who won the “most authentically ugly” prize had pinned Christmas potholders (one with teddy bears in Santa hats) to a sweater. Pretty much everyone voted for him. No one else stood a chance. The winner of the “most crafty” sweater was a person wearing a tree skirt and a sweater with tiny Christmas lights sewn into it. Again, a landslide victory. The third prize was a “Scrooge” prize for the person who refused to wear a Christmas sweater! (Wish I’d thought of that!)

I hadn’t thought to “soup up” my sweater with Christmas lights, believing that it could stand on its own merit. After all, it had gained me several “You’ve come to the right place in that” nods at the party. Yet someone had given me the sweater, which once belonged to her mother-in-law. It’s not the kind of sweater I usually wear, except to events like this. Consequently, it resides at the back of my closet until the next party rolls around.

When I arrived home, intending to take a photo of the sweater to show my sister-in-law, I took a closer look at it. It’s very neatly stitched—not a thread out of place. Granted, it has snowmen and birdhouses. But the snowmen are smiling at least. Perhaps it isn’t quite so bad. Still, I can’t help thinking of this old adage:

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And of course, this one:

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The flipside—ugliness—is likewise subjective.

Someone put love and attention into designing that sweater. Someone else liked it enough to buy it. One woman’s treasure . . .

As I thought about the sweater and my response to it, I thought about the characters in my novel. Will someone else besides me treasure them? Or will they be roundly dismissed and labeled as “ugly” or “ludicrous” by others as cavalierly as I judged that sweater?

It gives you something to think about, doesn’t it? If you’ve spent time on Goodreads, you know how subjective and cruel some reviewers can be. Some take pleasure in being vicious, under the mistaken belief that they’ll be perceived as smarter than the author. But a person who really is smarter doesn’t have to put someone else down to prove that.

Someone wise once told me that worrying about what someone may or may not think is a waste of time. A better use of my time is to spend it in a more enjoyable way: continuing to create stories I love about characters I love. That’s the only outcome I can control.

You’ve been patient long enough, so let’s move on to the winners of A Gift of Shadows by Stephanie Stamm and Curse of the Dark Wind by Charles Yallowitz. (See interviews here and here.)

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Thanks to the random number generator, which has earned my love . . .

The winner of a paperback of A Gift of Shadows is . . .

Sue Archer!

The winner of an e-book of A Gift of Shadows is . . .

Celine!

The winner of another e-book of A Gift of Shadows is . . .

Laura Sibson!

The winner of an e-book of Curse of the Dark Wind is . . .

Andra Watkins!

Winners please comment to confirm below. Celine, please provide an email address. E-book winners, please specify which format you need. Thanks again for commenting!

Everything but the Kitchen Sink?

stainless_steel_kitchen_sink_1815If you read the Paranormalcy young adult trilogy—and judging by its bestseller status, at least one or two of you did—you know that author Kiersten White mentions all sorts of paranormal beings (vampires, werewolves, faeries, mermaids, pixies, and many others). But the books never seem overstuffed, because of an organization White developed for her series: the International Paranormal Containment Agency. Think Men in Black Meets Paranormals. The series wouldn’t work if only one group of paranormals was mentioned.

So, what’s wrong with the following picture? A manuscript I previously worked on involved elves, humans (regular and menthol), shape-shifters, witches, evil princes, scornful princesses, cringing lackeys, unicorns, a ghost, a dragon, and a weird old man who kept popping up to throw curses on people. Add a medievalish setting, four or five different perspectives, and stir. Voilà! You have a manuscript that I spent years writing. I gave part of the revised version of this manuscript to a beta reader, because he was an expert on medieval studies. The conversation went something like this.

Beta Reader: Well, the time period facts are okay. But . . .
Me: But?
Beta Reader: It’s a bit choppy and hard to follow.
Me (stunned): What?!
He then tried to explain why it was so choppy, but I was too crushed to listen. He didn’t like it! is what I came away with. I can make this work, the resilient part of me thought. After all, people like Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, and Brandon Sanderson have written series involving different beings coexisting within their fantasy worlds. Why shouldn’t mine?

Months after that experience, I quickly wrote the first three chapters of a new manuscript involving fewer characters and a third-person limited viewpoint. After spending less than a week writing those chapters, I gave the hastily written manuscript to the beta reader.

Beta Reader: This is much better.
Me: This is a completely different manuscript.
Beta Reader: Yes, this is much better. You should go with this one.
Me (outraged): What?!
I was peeved. He found fault with the first manuscript but preferred one I hastily cobbled together??? The moral of this story is that beta readers cannot win.

Seriously, the manuscript the beta reader found only so-so was probably the literary equivalent of a chopped salad from Portillo’s—everything I liked about fantasy thrown into the mix.

I kept thinking I could make the thing work. Sadly, I failed to pay attention to the “character comes first” rule. Instead of developing the ones I had (especially their cultures), I was too busy adding characters I thought were cool. Elves? Yeah! Unicorns? That could work! Witches? Sure! All could roam the land like free-range chickens. The only group missing were ninjas. I simply couldn’t make them work with the plot.

The problems with this manuscript became obvious during the battle scenes. Hundreds of people stormed a castle. In one room of the castle, about twelve people—many of them major secondary characters—were involved in the climactic battle with the evil prince and his minions. I had trouble writing the scene, because I was too spatially challenged. I kept getting confused about who stood where.

I admit I breathed a sigh of relief when I turned to the book I recently completed. Working with a smaller cast and fewer subplots allowed me time to develop the characters and their cultures. And with fewer people involved in a fight scene, I always knew where everyone stood.

How about you? Are you a kitchen sink kind of writer: continually adding characters, cultures, tropes, and whatever else you think sounds cool? What feedback have you received?

Sink by Jiangmen Jin Ke Ying Stainless Steel Wares Co., Ltd.

“You Can’t Knock Me Down”

If you’re a fan of the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series, these words may strike a chord. Katara said them during a fight with Master Pakku, the titular waterbending master with a sexist attitude in the season 1 episode, “The Waterbending Master” (written by Michael Dante DiMartino). For those of you who are scratching your head about waterbending, it is the ability to use water as a weapon or defense—a different form of martial arts. Someone like Katara can use water like a whip. But her words are apt for me in a different context: handling criticism.

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Critiques are a necessary part of writing. But I don’t always handle critiques well. Those who know me know that in the face of criticism I sometimes fold faster than a card player with a bad hand in poker. Discouragement often rears its ugly head. Too much for my dewicate widdle feewings. (And no, those aren’t typos. If you know Tweety Bird talk, you know what I mean.)

“Develop thicker skin” is the mantra many writers intone in regard to criticism. And I know this to be true. When discouragement sets in, I wish I could be like Katara in the episode I mentioned earlier. In that episode [SPOILER if you don’t want to know any details because you’ve just starting watching this series] she used water to form ice around her feet and ankles to make her stance solid to avoid being knocked over easily. [END SPOILER]

Developing thicker skin takes time, humility, and courage. I’m working on that. While the “rhino epidermis” develops, I have determined to improve my stance by seeking more advice on craft. In a previous post, I mentioned the craft books littering my living room floor. (Someday I will write about some of them.) But I also headed to the following sources for some much needed perspective:

• Janice Hardy, author of the fab fantasy series, The Healing Wars, has excellent advice here on being your own book doctor—shoring up weaknesses in plot, tone, and structure.
Sharon Darrow, Coe Booth, Tim Wynne-Jones, and other faculty members at VCFA provide great advice on many craft-related subjects.
• Writer Jen Bailey writes about ways to use poetry motifs to describe emotions more powerfully.
• Writer/editor/teacher Linda Taylor has great tips for polishing a manuscript at the micro level.

And there’s always this or this or this. Yeah, I know. Total procrastination, but they make me smile.

What are the ways in which you shore yourself up to avoid being knocked down by discouragement?

 

For more information on waterbending (if you’re curious), go here. Image of Katara from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katara_(Avatar:_The_Last_Airbender))

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The character Katara was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER and all related titles, logos and characters are ™ and © of Viacom International Inc. 2005–2008. All Rights Reserved. Original Presentation 2005–2008 Nickelodeon.