Mission Critical At Writer Unboxed’s UnConfab in Salem

Image - the Fort Pickering Lighthouse at Salem | iStockphoto: JuliScalzi
Image – the Fort Pickering Lighthouse at Salem | iStockphoto: JuliScalzi

Reviewing? What’s Your Motive?

Next week, I’ll be leading a session on criticism — “When To Listen And What To Hear” — at Writer Unboxed’s “Un-Conference” event in Salem, Massachusetts…where they know a few things about being critical.

That session and this column are not about the more extreme moments in consumer review that have been so avidly discussed lately.

Laura Miller
Laura Miller

You’ll be familiar, for example, with the strange case of the YA novelist Kathleen Hale whose stalking of an online detractor is given (finally) some sober, contextual consideration by my colleague, the Salon critic Laura Miller, in her piece, Battle Of The Trolls: Kathleen Hale Reveals The War Raging Between Authors And Readers.

Among the simplest but most important points Miller makes is a parenthetical line having to do with the online element of that tawdry business. Miller points out:

So much of the Internet’s nastiest manifestations come from those who view themselves as underdogs striking back in the only way they can.

Therese Walsh
Therese Walsh

While Miller goes on to reference the myriad dust-ups on the huge Goodreads site (which became so insupportable at one point that they triggeredadministrative intervention last year), for me the key concept she has introduced in her good essay is animus — as in intent, an objective. Sometimes it’s the negative ill will of animosity, but not always. In many cases there are ostensibly and apparently positive intentions animating some of the worst excesses of reviews encountered by readers and writers today.

I can give you a sense for what I’m talking about in a religious reference, of all things. (The many talents of ministers’ sons, you see?) Among the great faiths, Christianity is sometimes said to be set apart primarily by its evangelical tenets: the mission. Trying to persuade others to believe what one believes and behave the way one behaves (“one way”) is not essential to all doctrines, as it is to many formulations of Christian myth and practice.

 Donald Maass
Donald Maass

And what marks a lot of consumer review is mission. A purpose. An intent to cause one reaction or another in the reader of the review. Many people writing reviews today either consciously or unconsciously are trying to sway those who read their reviews to do one thing or another: read the book or don’t read it; see the film or don’t see it; buy the music or don’t buy it; eat at the restaurant or eat somewhere else; etc.

It might surprise some of those consumer reviewers to know that this is not, in fact, a part of traditional critical practice.

Nothing here is about consumer reviewers’ rights, by the way. You frequently hear, “I have a right to write this thing any way I want.” And that’s correct.

But having the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

The noise and bad blood around a lot of reviews and reactions could be eased if more reviewers stopped trying to trigger one reaction or another in everyone else.

The best critic doesn’t instruct you to go to a play, read a book, avoid a concert, or try a new gym. The best critic simply lays out what she or he thinks about something, then steps back and lets the reader of the review make up his or her mind.

The Writer Unboxed community is the kind that will understand this point: asking yourself what your motivation is for writing a review can help you sidestep a lot of the troublesome tone that can make consumer reviews such a swamp — or your manuscript such a mire.

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

Writing on the Ether: Mission Critical At Writer Unboxed’s UnConfab In Salem

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com



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