Two interesting (and seemingly unrelated) articles popped up in my Facebook feed today. The first was a reaction post to the new Supergirl TV series, which called it ‘Badly-written, Badly-acted Dreck.’ (I haven’t watched the pilot episode, so I cannot comment on it – besides, pilots are often quite weak viewing in any case.) The second was a piece entitled ‘The Left’s War On Comments Sections’.
You may ask what these have in common. Read on.
Reading the first link led to an interesting series of points. Official commenters – The Washington Post, Vox – applauded the episode in no uncertain terms. Unofficial commenters – the IMDB page is particularly noteworthy – were less impressed. Many of their reviews boiled down to an episode that tries too hard to sell a message, rather than tell a story.
The issue here, as I see it, is that the first set of commenters focus on the industry buzzwords – feminism, in this case. (The fact that Kara is a superpowered alien, with powers no human can match, is seemingly ignored.) Their argument is that Supergirl is great because it’s a feminist show, that Kara is a great role model for young girls. But the second set of commenters aren’t looking for deep symbolism, they’re looking to be entertained. And their assertion is that Supergirl is not entertaining.
Now, I have no idea if the producers are reading the IMDB page or not, but that’s the kind of feedback they need (if not what they want). They should not be trying to make TV shows (etc) that appeal to the cultural elite, but shows that appeal to their watchers. All the plaudits in the world from official commenters won’t help if viewers are changing the channel and watching something else.
Feedback, actual feedback, is important. And that’s where the second article comes in.
One of the issues writers have to deal with is people who don’t feel obliged to give them a good review. (Every writer has a story about showing a manuscript to his mother, who says it’s wonderful, and then puts it online and gets nothing apart from one-star reviews.) I know it hurts have your work dissected by a reader, to read a comment that tears at the very foundation of your novel, but it has to be endured. Feedback from the readers is the only pro-active way to monitor your own success and work to improve it. (Or, sometimes, to overcome the ‘this is awful’ depression that writers get from time to time.)
I’ve had a lot of feedback over the years. Sometimes, it’s helpful remarks about words I’ve misspelled or facts I’ve gotten wrong. Sometimes, it’s suggestions about the direction of the plot that need to be incorporated into the manuscript. Sometimes, I think about it overnight and decide I don’t agree with the reader. That’s my decision – I’m the writer – but the mere fact that someone commented on it means I have a problem.
Yes, there are bad commenters out there. There are ‘drive-by commenters’ who say “I don’t like this” and buzz off without bothering to explain why. There are trolls whose only objective is to get under your skin, people who haven’t read the book but feel compelled to give an opinion anyway. I think every writer gets people like this … yet, trying to deny them the right to comment is not only pointless (Amazon rarely deletes legitimate reviews), but self-defeating (you won’t get feedback you desperately need).
The odd disconnect between official and unofficial commenters that I noted above appears in the publishing world too, with odd results. Comments on Star Wars: Aftermath have suffered from a similar spilt, with many official commenters praising the book while unofficial commenters have been sharply criticising it. (It currently has 1407 reviews on Amazon US, with an overall rating of 2.5.) The literature elite’s power to push a book has been crippled, perhaps fatally, by the change in the market, by the ability of everyone to review a book they bought. Indeed, the problems facing the Hugo Awards owe a great deal to the fact that official commenters praise books for their message first and put entertainment second.
For writers, the tendency to believe official commenters over unofficial commenters can be disastrous. The average reader does not want to be given a message, but relax into an alternate world they can enjoy. It doesn’t matter if they’re a SF reader, fantasy reader or even a romance reader. Entertainment comes first! Plaudits from the elite are no longer worth what they were, if indeed they were worth anything in the first place. All that matters is pleasing the readers – and the only way to know how well you’re doing is listening to the feedback.
The reboot of Battlestar Galactica suffered from the same problem. I don’t mind admitting that much of the first two seasons included some of the finest moments in TV science-fiction since Babylon 5. (And both the miniseries and the first episode of the series were very good.) But nBSG went off the rails shortly afterwards, at the same time as its producers were being invited to the United Nations. They sacrificed the interests of their viewers for the praise of the cultural elite and the show became unwatchable.
I don’t know if the second article is right, if there is a growing tendency to ban commenters from blogs, online newspapers, etc. Jokes aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was. The concept that someone disagrees with you (that they think your book isn’t the paragon of good writing you believe it to be) isn’t an easy one to stomach. And there is the prospect of someone who knows more than you, or is simply more convincing, popping up to lure your readers away. But it has to be faced.
But, for what it’s worth, I don’t ever intend to stop listening to feedback.