Negative Reviews (Day 18)

I have said it once and I will say it again: if you care more about external opinion than you do internal, you are going to go insane.

Literally.

This week the Guardian published the personal essay of a novelist who confessed to stalking a blogger who had posted a negative review of the author’s book on Goodreads. And when I say stalked, I don’t mean online stalking only; I mean, she physically went up to the blogger’s house and confronted the woman she believed to be responsible for the review.

There are two sides to every coin. Public forums democratize the once elitist role of “reviewer.” Now anyone, under any pseudonym, can review anything from books, movies, and cameras to doctors, restaurants, and teachers.

Sites like Goodreads provide a space where readers can engage with other readers; unpublished and self-published authors can gain a platform as they interact with readers, as well.

It is all so great—until it gets all so bad. Reviewers can get spiteful and enlist their online friends in a fight against a particular author, sending a flood of one-stars from people who sometimes have not even read the book in question. (Based on some of the things I have read on the site, I sometimes wonder whether some people have even understood the books they are talking about.) In turn, as the stalker-author admitted, writers can become obsessive with tracking down anyone who gives bad press to their work.

Mick Jagger once said that he did not care what a reporter said about him on page 20 so long as he was on the front cover. But some people do care, and they will become freakishly consumed by what others are saying about them.

For writers, their stories are like their babies, and you know what happens when you fail to praise a mother’s baby—it can get ugly. Having an online presence can be an amazing networking tool, but as the recent past has shown, it can also reveal the neurotic, spiteful, and downright insane side of people.

This is what happens when pride and vanity gain the upper hand.

Let’s digress for a minute. I am a teacher, and last year, a girl pounced into my office, all smiles. “Miss,” she said, “you have to read your [name of rating website] review. It is amazing. I wrote the last one.”

I replied: “I actually do not check my reviews on the website. I wait for the official ones conducted by the school.” She was baffled for a moment, and then nodded her head as if she finally understood: “Oh no, there is nothing to fear. They are all good reviews.”

She assumed that I was afraid of what I would find there. I tried to explain, but I knew it was useless.

I give it my all when I am in the classroom; for those few hours nothing matters but my students. From both subjective (i.e. personal perception) and objective (i.e. official reviews) perspectives, I seem to be doing a good job. I am keenly aware, nevertheless, that for the 29 people who absolutely, positively adore my teaching style, there will always—always—be that one person who unreservedly, totally hates it.

That’s the way it is. Dostoyevsky is my one true love; but so is Nabokov—and yet, the latter hated the former. Tastes are hard to explain. So is art.

I once shared an office where some of my colleagues would regularly read out loud the online reviews written about them by anonymous students. As a new teacher, I was often tempted to check my own reviews. And I did succumb one day; and the one that was there at the time was positive. Then I checked again, and again, until the second review came; and it, too, was positive. Happy ending, right? No, of course not: I realized that I was beginning to change my style based on what the reviewers had said. They had mentioned some things that perhaps I myself had not noticed, and my own teaching was slowly being altered. One day I started wondering: what would happen when the inevitable bad review would come? Or even worse, what would happen if my desire to remain the “OMG the bessssst teacher EVER!!!” (for hyperbole rules the rating world) became so strong that their reviews would become more important to me than what I was teaching? What would happen if I were to be more concerned with giving students high grades so as to ensure being “liked,” instead of fulfilling my mandate and firmly but fairly assigning them the hard work their level required and grading them accordingly? What would have happened is this: in the short term, I would have been super liked (“She’s the best because she gives 100% to everyone!!”), but in the long run, what an epic failure that would be. Teachers have to teach—but they cannot do that properly if they are constantly worrying about their online ratings. The fear will start to cloud their judgment.

The same goes for artists. Your blood, toil, tears, and sweat go into your art, and you want the world to recognize it, identify with it, and love it.

But that can never be the case for the world is diverse and the anonymity of online social forums makes it easier for this diversity to be heard.

You have to create your art because you are an artist and that is your nature; it can never be because you want to gain popularity among your peers. Surely, it may come, and it is nice when our work is well-received; but if it is not, will that stop the true artist from creating?

Art is informed by passion and purpose—not vanity and ego.

  • CK

    “Never be afraid to be kicked in the teeth. Let the blood and the bruises define your legacy.” – LG