Thursday, October 23, 2014
Reviews and Criticism
Sarah Hunter, who writes a "Webcomics Wednesday" blog for The Booklist Reader, posted a very nice write-up of The Last Mechanical Monster yesterday. She calls it "playful, nostalgic and heartwarming," which are three words I like. Thanks to Sarah.
My webcomic got another review back in July that I think I mentioned elsewhere but not here. Larry Cruz of Comic Book Resources' "Robot 6" came up with a subtitle for his review I really liked: "No Country for Old Villains." Larry picked up on some things I was very happy to see somebody "get" but also missed a couple of details, which suggests I could make them clearer. That's one reason I'm publishing the story as a webcomic: to get readers' feedback on what works and what doesn't. Overall, a nicely positive review.
Also, while I'm on the topic, the immensely respected Cory Doctorow posted a review of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow on the immensely popular BoingBoing.net back in August. This one's a keeper. In my favorite sentence, Doctorow writes that "Fies is going further and longer here, taking a core sample of the Gernsback Continuaa, the futures that shaped our past." (Hugo Gernsback was a writer, editor and publisher very influential in mid-Century science fiction. The Hugo Award is named for him.)
A few thoughts on reviews and being reviewed . . .
It's true what they say: you'll forget 100 good reviews but one bad one will haunt you for years. Whenever I sit down to draw, I still hear in the back of my mind the voice of one reviewer 10 years ago who thought Mom's Cancer was poorly drawn. I will try to prove him wrong forever.
Sometimes I know a review is coming but usually I don't. Sarah contacted me to ask permission to use images from The Last Mechanical Monster to illustrate her Booklist Reader review. My understanding of copyright law is that's not necessary--Fair Use allows the use of excerpts for the purposes of criticism--but I always appreciate being asked. It seems polite and professional. However, I'm not offended when I'm not asked.
Nobody gave me an author's handbook when I started out, but my sense is that it's not cool to ask whether the review is good before granting permission to reprint an excerpt. "You didn't like my story? Then tough noogies!" I think you need to be a good sport. Especially in comics, which is a pretty small industry with a tiny number of respectable reviewers.
I learned the hard way to never respond publicly to a review. "The hard way" means that a long time ago I tried to defend myself online and only came off sounding whiny, even to me. Once in a while I'll see an author show up in the comments thread of a review, and instantly know two things: they're young (or nuts), and it's not going to end well. I haven't been wrong yet. It's wince-inducing.
Best to pretend that you never saw it. However, I do sometimes privately contact writers of especially thoughtful reviews to let them know I appreciated it, and writers of tough-but-fair reviews to say "Sorry this one didn't work for you, hope I can catch you next time." And I mean it.
I tend to skim my reviews rather than read them closely. It's too emotionally taxing. All I want to know is "good" or "bad." It's always gratifying to discover that a reader related to a theme or got a point I was trying to make. Anything else just twists my knickers.
I think more creators see more reviews of their work than you'd expect. I know professional cartoonists who stalk the most obscure backwoods of the Internet hunting for comments, and everybody's got a "Google Alert" set up for their name and comic title. I also learned that the hard way, after making fun of a comic strip only to get an e-mail from its creator. Gulp. Luckily he was very gracious, but since then I've been careful to only post statements I can stand behind. If I wouldn't say something to somebody's face, I don't say it online.
I admit I'm ambivalent about the whole matter of criticism. It's necessary . . . I guess. A good critic can put a work in context, analyze it intelligently, and illuminate it in ways readers might otherwise miss. They can promote the worthy and rebuke the worthless. When I'm in a bad mood, critics are a low form of parasite who'd have nothing to do if creators weren't putting their heads on the chopping block every day, begging for their mercy or at least a quick sharp blade. Some appreciation would be nice.
The knee-jerk response to criticism is, "Yeah, if you think it's so easy, why don't you do it?" That's wrong. I don't have to be able to shoot a movie or play professional baseball to have an opinion on whether someone else is doing it well or poorly. Otherwise, nobody could ever criticize anything! My opinion may be more or less informed--most five-year-olds aren't equipped to critique a gourmet restaurant--but I have every right to express it. It's up to my consumers to figure out whether I know what I'm talking about.
Still. Still still still. It's so hard to create anything--even something terrible--and so easy to sit on the sidelines sniping. Nobody sets out to do bad work, and releasing it into the world is asking for a kick to the heart. I think too few critics understand the power they hold and the harm they can do.
You wouldn't know it from this blog or Facebook, but I have pretty strong private opinions about books, movies, comics, etc. There's a lot I don't like. Sticking to comics, there's work I think is artless, unskilled, amateurish, puerile, stupid, and corrosive to the mind and body. I could name a dozen comics creators whose careers I find completely inexplicable; I literally can't fathom why anybody likes their stuff.
But somebody does. That's why the worst I'll ever say about something is, "It's not for me." It may be for stupid people with no taste but . . .
It's not for me.
I also realize I'm probably off base about some art and artists. My judgment's not infallible. There's work that nearly everybody but me thinks is excellent. There's work that even I agree is excellent, but for some reason I just don't enjoy.
It's not for me.
That doesn't give me license to stick it to 'em.
My favorite take on criticism is from filmmaker Orson Welles who, when asked by a critic to explain his work, said "I'm the bird. You're the ornithologist."
Now, ornithology is a worthwhile scientific field in which smart people do important work. But what does a bird care about how an ornithologist observes it, classifies it, documents it? What would ornithology be without birds to study?
Nothing, and nothing.
I try to be the best bird I can be, and leave the ornithology to the ornithologists.