Last few days, I’ve been rereading a moderately successful SF series. I hadn’t revisited it for twenty years, since back before anyone paid me anything to write or edit. I won’t go so far as to say that I had no critical perspective back then, but years of doing this stuff professionally do alter that perspective. I am more perplexed now than before by the popular acceptance of bad writing.
Not that I ever sniff “well, clearly she should fire her editor.” We’ve been over that. In the first place, I do not know whether she had one. In the second, I do not know whether she heeded him or her. In the third, there are many different types of editing. The most I could ever say would be something like: “The book does not reflect competent copy editing.” That may be the the publisher’s fault, as in one spectacular screwup where the house printed and distributed an early draft by mistake. I am not joking. They really can be that stupid and haphazard.
No, the problem is greater: I have to live with these people, and with my words about them. That wake-up call came at an SF con. I have no idea what the panel’s subject was, but one of its participant authors rang a bell. I sat there trying to remember why. Something vaguely familiar here. And then it came to me–I’d read one of her books, and panned it on Amazon. Odds she would remember me, even if she happened to look at my name tag? Very low. Odds of me meeting her socially at all? Not so low. Odds of me feeling awkward? Bank on that. Yes, I would have stood by my words, but the issue is that I’m in the business too. In theory, at least, she was a potential client.
Now let’s consider the leap from a harsh Amazon review to this blog. One might write many reviews on Amazon, or elsewhere, and have them lost in an ocean of snippy “obviously she didn’t have a good editor” junkfests. To dissect this author by name, in this space, would take it to the next level. That would single her out as an example of what not to do. She would probably learn of it, from a devoted fan or message board if not through her own searching. People being people, she would wonder who the hell I was, and what she had ever done to make such an enemy of me. She would remember my name, whether or not she were fool enough to reply here, and the memory would be unfriendly. It would not be that I said anything unfair, or that I didn’t mean. Her best rejoinder would be: there are tons of books out there with similar flaws, or more grievous ones. Why single me out? And while we’re at it, this is my work twenty years ago. You of all people ought to know that we evolve. Why pummel me today as if my older work represented my current standard? How would you like to be judged and strung up for writing you did during the first Clinton administration, hm?
She’d have a point or two, and such a reasoned reply would be the best case scenario. Authors can be sensitive. It could get awkward. Could she harm me professionally? Not really, but she could make sure I didn’t soon hear the end of it. What if I’m on a panel with her someday? Even if she did not notice, or did not bring it up, I know I’d be pretty uncomfortable. The issue would not be that I had been critical. It would be that I had made a vindictive-seeming, special, personal effort to hurt her. If I were here, I wouldn’t like that either.
So we’re not going to talk about how authors come up with motifs they evidently consider very clever, then hammer them so hard that each mention might as well come with “thissss…issss…significant” background music (props to my bro John for that joke, moderately edited and recycled). We’re not going into how “She felt…” are two of the worst words in narrative fiction. And we’re not going to say who is so guilty of contrivance that the story becomes predictable. And no, before some of you who know me personally begin to suspect, she is no one I have ever met in person. But I might.
And that’s why we won’t be citing examples. It’s also why I write rather few reviews on Amazon (along with not much wishing to donate free labor to the behemoth). If I don’t feel comfortable being objective and candid there, silence is best.