How NOT to Respond to a Bad Review

Today I set up a Twitter account. Mostly because I wanted to follow my daughter (17) but the minute she found out, she made me “unfollow” her. Her exact words were, “That’s creepy, Mom. Stop following me.”

So I did. The point of all of this is to show how I found out about a new e-book called The Greek Seaman, by Jacqueline Howett. While on the Twitter site, someone tweeted something about an author (Ms. Howett)  having a “meltdown” over a bad review. Never one to speed by a car wreck, I checked it out.

Wow. The author of that tweet was being nice. Meltdown? I’d say a full-blown fit.

BigAl’s Books and Pals is a blog dedicated to book reviews. Specifically,

“Book reviews, news, commentary, and other fun stuff for readers and authors with an emphasis on the Kindle world and independent authors.”
 
This is a direct quote from his About page. As of today, BigAl’s Books has 145 FaceBook fans, and 216 Twitter followers. Pretty small numbers comparatively speaking. He has reviewed a lot of books though, so I assume author’s seek him out, send in their submissions, cross their fingers, and hope for a good review.
  
So what’s an author to do if that review is, well, not so good? I’ve heard from many seasoned writers that the best course of action is to ignore it. I’ve even heard authors say to not read ANY of your reviews. “It messes with your head,”  they say.  “The good ones and the bad ones.”  By reading J. Howett’s comments following BigAl’s review, I can definitely say that, yeah, that review really messed with her head.
 
BigAl begins his review with a compliment. The book was “compelling and interesting.” But then he follows up by saying that the chances of someone making it to the end of the book are “pretty slim.” Why? The spelling and grammar errors. He states that there are so many of them it makes it difficult to get into the book. Readers are jarred into reality by Ms. Howett’s many errors. Ouch!
 
These comments hit home for me because, quite frankly, my grammar sucks. But I know that. I’m never shock when someone tells me they found a mistake. I quickly correct it, and then I thank them.
Ms. Howett’s response was swift and petty. I have to wonder if this is the first time anyone has told her she needs the help of an editor.
 
Her first comment to the reviewer states that HE read the wrong copy of the manuscript (in other words, It’s your fault). She then goes on to copy and past a few 4 and 5 star reviews from Amazon; which are soon discredited and called fakes by one of the  300 or so comments that followed her internet temper tantrum. (The post went up at 8am. By 6pm there were over 300 comments. Most of them–didn’t read them all–were not favorable to the author.)
 
The ones I did read stated that they would not buy the book because the author was acting like a child and was “very unprofessional.”  Double ouch!
And, no one was  talking about the book. No one was talking about the characters or the plot. They were all talking about the writer and her over-the-top reaction.
 
Ms. Howett took a bad situation and made it badder. (I know . . . couldn’t resist.)
So, what’s a writer to do?
 
While getting a bad review would not make the reviewer a bully, I would say that the best thing to do would be to follow the advice our parents gave us about school yard bullies. Ignore them. Say nothing. So instead of 300+ negative comments, tweets turning her “meltdown” into entertainment, and bloggers like me spreading the word, the review would have come and gone, without anyone really noticing. 
 
This is really sad. We all know how much energy and time it takes to write a novel.  I truly hope this author can recover from this sad fiasco. In addition to an editor, she should seriously consider hiring a publicist One that specializes in damage control.
 
Or in her second book, she could try this.
Have you ever received a negative review? How did you handle it? (Please, no confessions of anything illegal.)
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Dodd’s, Borders & Fast-moving Trains

There use to be an independent bookstore in my neighborhood called Dodd’s. It was on 2nd street, a very trendy shopping area here. The store was always packed and it had all the trappings of an independent book seller: knowledgeable employees, a pretty good “We recommend” section, regular author readings and signings, plenty of books by local writers and that soft, musty smell only small bookstores seem to possess. It was a great place to either go and buy a book, or just spend an hour roaming the shelves. I loved it.

Then Border’s came to town, followed closely by Barnes & Nobel. I soon found myself going there instead of Dodd’s because, well, everyone else did. (Note: this was before I discovered the writer in me and my esteem of all things literary.) I loved the newness of it, the clean carpets, the fancy displays, the self-help kiosks, the Starbucks.

 When Dodd’s decided to close, it made the front page of our local paper. I read the article and felt a sharp pang of guilt when I came to a quote by the owner. It went something like this:

“We were doing okay until Border’s opened up.”

 I gulped and winced as the realization came to me: I KILLED DODD’S BOOKS!

Well, not me alone. There were plenty others who abandoned the old favorite for the new and shiny mega-store. But that didn’t make me feel any better, so I did what any guilt-laden capitalist would do. I went back to Dodd’s and bought books. Lots of them because my guilt was fueled by a 50% off sale.

Flash forward 15 years.

Borders Announces Bankruptcy

Unlike my guilt-ridden feelings over the independent bookstore, my reaction to this news was pretty indifferent. To say I was surprised would be an exaggeration. I shopped at Borders, bought many books there, and even used it as a reading, socializing and writing spot. But after a while, it just didn’t feel right. The corporate, we’re only here to make money atmosphere seemed to squash my muse, so I stopped going there regularly. Instead I found a few local coffee shops in town that I can write in, hang out, or meet with other writers. I either get my books on Amazon, or the library.

 Do I feel guilty about Borders closing? Not in the least. Yeah, folks losing their jobs and hundreds of empty buildings in cities does depress me, but as a writer, what worries me the most is how rapidly the book business is changing, a business I hope to soon be a part of. I imagine it will be like trying to jump onto a fast-moving train, and all signs indicate that the train will not be slowing down anytime soon.

After researching, talking to other writers, going to workshops, panel discussions and reading every “How to Get Published (or an Agent) article in P & W and Writers Digest, I’m pretty confused. Writers have too many choices. In the “old days” the steps seemed pretty clear: Write a fantastic manuscript, get an agent, get published. Of course there were exceptions, like Stephen King, but they were just that–exceptions.

But in the year 2011, has the exception now become the rule? Self-publishing has gained a lot of momentum from both new and established writers. Once called “vanity books,” self publishing now seems the brave and bold way to go.

 Brave, bold and, scary as hell. Building platforms, marketing, blogging, tweeting, FaceBook-ing, and everything else are all the things a self-published author must do—on their own. Those who don’t will surely get squashed under the rails and end up with cases of unsold books cluttering their living room. Even the E-book route is not guaranteed. No one likes clicking on to their site and seeing the “Books Sold” counter remain stubbornly in the double digits. And those, you know, where the ones your mother bought to give to her bridge club friends.

 So, here I am, like many of my friends, at a crucial point in our writerly journeys. To self-publish or not? To endure months, and months of queries and rejections. To have a publisher keep your manuscript for eight months (true story) only to return it with the sad news that they, just like Borders, are going out of business. “Good-luck placing your manuscript with another publisher.”

One thing the bankruptcy of Borders does not portend is the death of  books and readers who buy them. Experts have a lot of opinions as to why Borders failed, and most of them have nothing to do with the lack of book sales, and there are winners and losers  in this turn of events.

I want to be one of the winners. Although the chance of seeing my book on the shelves of the local Borders is now dead, I need to focus on the many other opportunities out there. [cliché warning] When one door closes, another door opens, and writers today have many, many doors to choose from. But deciding which is best for you, for your particular manuscript, that seems like the hardest part of it all. Maybe even harder than writing the damn book in the first place.

True Grit and Cat Throwing

A few days after Christmas, the 1969 version of True Grit was on TV. I watched it with my mom. About five minutes into  the move, right before Mattie’s pa goes off with the shifty Tom Chaney, Mattie’s mother looks at her daughter and says, “You can still throw a cat through the south wall.” She was trying to illustrate the sorry state of Chaney’s living quarters, and also hoping to get her daughter to feel a little sympathy for poor old Chaney, which turns out to be a bad judgment call on the mother’s part.

Right after the mom spoke,  I turned to my mom and said, “I bet they cut that line from the movie. Can you imagine the backlash if that line was still in? The Cohen Brothers would be attacked by the SPCA every other Cat Lovers  MeetUp group from Los Angeles to New York.”

Well, not that I am even sure the Cohen Brothers would actually care, but that first part of the story was cut out all together. Mattie gets the audience up to date with a thirty, and cat-throwing-free, retell of the beginning of the story. The  movie opens with Mattie and her servant viewing father in his casket. 

One of the first lessons we get as fiction writers is to “write freely” and to not censor ourselves. But what if we create a character who says, quite naturally, “You could throw a cat through the south wall”? What if our character can’t help but refer to that strange man in her building as “retarded”?  What about all those teenage characters who still use “gay” as a negative?  

I know that my fingers have halted over the keyboard whenever I sense a character going into non PC territory. I stop. I ruminate. I worry.

But then I remember something Flannery O’Connor (my hero) said. After a book review editor accused her of “scandalizing the ‘little ones,’ Flannery, a devout Catholic, sought advice from her priest. After musing over it a bit, she comes to this conclusion:

When you write a novel, if you have  been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business . . .

 

I’m not Catholic, so I tend to substitute “Universe” for “God.” But the meaning is still the same. When we write honestly, we have no need to censor, to worry. Let the Universe handle it.

By writing honestly I mean writing without an agenda. A few years ago I read the fiction submissions for an online journal. I often came across stories that had the writer’s personal beliefs all over it: this writer hates men; this writer is a card-carrying member of the NRA; this writer thinks global warming is a myth; this writer is pro-choice. It comes out in the characters, which are typically presented as one-dimensional.  And the plots usually conclude with these characters either happily learning from their mistakes, or suffering because they failed to learn their lesson. 

Another lesson we learn in fiction writing is to make our characters “real.” Real people are never one-dimensional. Real people are contradictory, possessing both positive and negative qualities.

Understanding the complete picture by fleshing out your characters and discovering their past, helps to create a ‘whole view of things.’ “The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.” (O’Connor) 

Here’s how to get a whole view of things:

  • Follow your characters around all day and take notes about what they do and how they do it.
  • Interview your character’s family members,  their coworkers and neighbors.
  • Make a list of their vital statistics: birthdate, address, income level, education, etc.
  • Fill out a job application for you character, or an E-Harmony or Match. Com profile. (Don’t actually do this–make a real page for a fictional person – they frown on that.) 

Whenever I go through this list with students, I usually hear a few groans. Yes, it is a lot of work  but if you care about the people you are writing about, it should be enjoyable, not a chore. And please don’t expect to use everything you discover in your final draft. The key is to make the reader believe that you, the writer, know more about this person than you are revealing on the page.

 So, getting back to the woman in the building and her strange neighbor, she may call him “retarded,” but she also volunteers at the homeless shelter three times a week, and spends the other four days delivering library books to the homebound. Or she was raised in a family where the term was used with endearment: “Come here you cute little re-tard!”

Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn because he has “true grit.” She wants someone who will hunt down her father’s killer with a fearless vengeance. As writers, we need to have the same sort of fearlessness when we explore our characters. What we discover will surprise, shock and delight us, and our readers too.

 Quotes from, Flannery O’Connor; Spiritual  Writings. Edited by Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books, 2003.

Huckleberry Finn in 2011

The year is 2011 and America is still grappling with the issue of race. The election of Barack Obama, two years ago, was a historical event that shook the sleeping beast of racial tension. Now, in 2011, that beast is being riled again by the decision to publish a new edition of  Huckleberry Finn without its “offensive” words.

Professor Alan Gribbon of Auburn University is the man behind the decision. He states that without the change, people simply won’t read the book.  By people he is referring to the teachers and college professors who shy away from assigning text. And he is right. There have been cases where parents have  sued to have the book removed from reading lists. Teachers, already overburdened with budget cuts, larger classes and fewer resources, should not be blamed from shying away from anything that would add to the stress of their job.  But I believe there is a solution.

The offensive word is, as everybody knows, nigger. This is my favorite line from the book : 

 “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger.”

I guess the line could work with “slave” inserted instead of  “nigger,”  but I believe the bigger question is: Does it have to? Isn’t America old enough to be able to read this wonderful story, in the context in which it is supposed to be read, without anyone becoming offended or put-off? The key word in my question is “context.”

When I was getting my teacher’s credential, we learned a little concept called “front loading.” Basically what this means is that before we presented the main content, whether it be fractions or a new story, to our students, we had to make sure they had enough prior knowledge, or context, on the subject. Front loading makes sure the students are prepared to receive the information.  For example, before reading “The Old Man and the Sea,” my students learned about the island of Cuba, marlin fishing, what a skiff looks like and more. When they finally began to actually read the story, I was sure they had enough context so that the deeper meanings or themes of the book could come through.

Of course deconstructing a skiff is nothing compared to deconstructing the word nigger, but is it a challenge we  should shy away from? Can that word even be deconstructed to a point where it is not offensive?

Yes! 

I would like to suggest that anyone concerned about this read Toni Morrison’s book, Playing in the Dark; Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1990). This nonfiction text was the subject of my master thesis. I used her academic “map,” to deconstruct the use of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn, and another story, “The Artificial Nigger,” by Flannery O’Connor. Another great writer who has, I feared, been shifted to the margins in a misguided effort to not offend.

Below is the first section of my critical paper. In it I write about my own experience with forced censorship in Huckleberry Finn, my reactions to it, and how it really needn’t be that way.   

***

During my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to reread Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The class was American Literature; 1895 to the Present. During our discussions of the novel, the instructor would often call on students to read certain passages aloud. Before this happened, he informed us that he found the “N-word” offensive and that whenever we came to it in the text, we were to substitute it for the more acceptable, non-offensive, “African American.” No one disagreed, and we all dutifully followed his directions. Passages such as: “I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars . . .” read like this: “I liked the African American for that; I tell you, gentlemen, an African American like that is worth a thousand dollars” (Twain 402). As I sat there listening to this new offensive-less version of Huck Finn, I definitely felt that something had been lost in this politically correct translation. I sat there racking my brains trying to formulate an objection or at the very least, a sophisticated question that would cause the professor to change his mind.  

At the time I thought that this change was unnecessary and, well, silly. I am sure the intent to not offend was the genesis for the mandate, and for that I give him credit. No one would disagree that “nigger” is a politically charged word and just the mention of it, in whatever context, had the very real potential of veering the class into a discussion of racism, bigotry and the horrors of slavery. As Kennedy states in his essay “Who Can Say ‘Nigger?,’” “Nigger is the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets” (86). By changing Jim from a “nigger” to an “African American,” my instructor was doing his best to avoid turning his classroom into another Hiroshima.  

Speaking as an African American, I wasn’t offended because I understood it to be the vernacular of the time, and more importantly, I knew Mark Twain was not referring to me. I believe what the instructor failed to do was understand or consider what the usage of the term signified or represented in Huck’s world. The emphasis should have been on that, not whether 21st century readers found the word “offensive.” Changing Jim from a “nigger” to an “African American” reduced his persona to someone who just happened to be non-white and catapulted him into the politically correct 21st Century. But Jim wasn’t an “African American.” Not to Huck, the Widow Douglas, Tom or any of the other characters, and certainly not to Mark Twain.

 The class discussion continued with Huck, and “African American Jim” sailing down the Mississippi River with the vital and deeper meanings in the text sailing not too far behind them, and then me, silently exiting the classroom, not knowing how to verbalize my concerns or questions over this new form of censorship. Three years later, I would happily find an answer in Toni Morrison’s, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In this nonfiction text, Morrison successfully, albeit inadvertently, tackles what professors, literary critics and readers have struggled with for centuries: how to interpret, deal with and deconstruct the “niggers” that appeared on the pages of early American literature. Morrison skillfully lays down new and wider boundaries in which to study, deconstruct and interpret these characters in early American Literature.

Unlike others, her “target of attack is not the obvious one of racist stereotypes and language” (Fishkin 629). Her text does not address who should or should not say “nigger,” or even whether one should be offended by it. Instead, Morrison “tackles” the deeper, often ignored discussion of the relevancy, portrayal and symbolism the black characters or “niggers” in literature written by and for white Americans, and her “map” sets forth the guidelines and boundaries of exploration into this area that has been largely ignored, glossed over, or censored by critics and academics.

Like Playing in the Dark, this essay is not about offensive language or censorship. That topic has been beaten to death and new adventures await the literary students, teachers and critics just over the horizon of offensiveness. In this essay, I will show how Morrison uses her map to deconstruct Twain’s usage of “the nigger Jim,” showing it not to be a racist or offensive text, but a truly revealing text that shines the light more on Huck’s whiteness and less on Jim’s blackness. I will then use the same critique or lens to deconstruct another icon of American Literature: Flannery O’Connor. I believe Miss O’Connor has been a victim of the same fate that has censored Mark Twain. To counter this, I will use the parameters of Playing to show how O’Connor’s strategic use of the word “nigger” should be neither censured, nor dismissed as mere racism. By using the literary lens set forth in Playing, analyses that are both startling and revealing rise to the surface, shedding new light on novels and stories that have been the mainstay of college literature.

Let’s Write!

So we meet at last . . .
RWwrites is the blog for Rose Writers Workshop. I began these creative writing workshops in 2008 and have been going strong ever since. Recently, I became an official Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) Affiliate which means I follow the AWA method in all my workshops– a wonderful and successful method that builds creative and confident artists.
Way back in the 1980s, a wonderful writer and poet named Pat Schneider began working with women from low-income and underserved populations. She designed her workshops to be nonhierachical, safe and supportive. Under Mrs. Schneider’s gentle guidance, writers learned how to unearth and honor their true voices. She named it the Amherst Writers & Artists and has been working with and training others to use the method in their own communities.
What a wonderful gift, and I have seen it work myself in the many workshops I have led.

This blog is dedicated to the many writers who have honored me with their presence in my workshops. It is also for writers and artist everywhere who can enjoy a good story, and maybe looking for new and diverse writing prompts.

Thanks for stopping by and check back soon!

Desiree