Billy Corgan, criticism, misunderstanding, observation, reviews, writing

The Right to Disagree Depends on Your Fame

Recently, someone wrote a review about one of my stories. Before they got to the story itself, they said someone sent them a blog in which I gave a rebuttal to a reviewer. (I’m guessing it was “How Reviews SHOULD Be Done.”) While the reviewer did wind up proving that he understood my story and even complimenting it quite well, there was one thing he said that stuck with me: he said that this rebuttal blog was a “red flag.”

I can only assume this statement means something like: “Uh oh, here is a super sensitive writer who can’t handle criticism, and he is going to lash out at every reviewer who says his book sucks.” On the contrary, I can take criticism quite well. However, I think there is a right and wrong way to do it. If you give my horror novella Maybe the Dream Knows What is Real two stars out of five because the main character is not someone with whom you can empathize, then you missed the entire point of the story. You AREN’T supposed to empathize with him. In fact, that is written in the synopsis.

With that said, I started to think about other artists who have responded to their negative reviews. Let’s see:

  • Billy Corgan (leader of the Smashing Pumpkins called Jim DeRogatis “that fat fuck from the Chicago Sun-Times” because DeRogatis had said of the Siamese Dream track “Hummer” that the lyrics were sophomoric and stupid.
  • When Roger Ebert gave a scathing review of The Brown Bunny, the director Vincent Gallo said that he hoped Ebert got cancer.
  • When Salon book reviewer Laura Miller wrote a brutal review of Chuck Palahnuik’s Diary, the author sent her a letter which includes the following quote: “Until you can write something that captivates people, I’d invite you to just shut up.”
  • The music magazine Hit Parader was very critical of the band Quiet Riot. In one interview, the lead singer said he loved the Hit Parader because it was good to wipe his ass with!

The thing is, I hardly ever hear anyone coming down on these people for lashing out at their critics. Okay, maybe I do with Billy Corgan because everyone thinks he is an asshole anyway, but I have never heard anyone say what a scumbag Vincent Gallo is for wishing cancer upon Roger Ebert…not even after the critic really did die from cancer. Has anyone come down on Palahnuik for his letter? If so, I never heard of it.

Then I started to think: what is the difference between these artists and myself?

There is really only one thing.

Fame.

Well, there is money too, but usually money comes with the fame.

Some people might be tempted to say, “Well, they are better writers than you,” but I don’t know how that can be judged. For everyone who thinks Fight Club sucked, you might find someone who thinks Maybe the Dream Knows What is Real is a masterpiece. So let’s discard any discussion of who is better for now.

So why are things this way? Why is okay for famous people to fire back, but some unknown writer who may very well have as much talent as the famous figures? Does this mean that, if my books were picked up by a publisher and I was suddenly famous, that I would then have the “right” to post a retort?

No, I don’t think so. And do you know why? Because I think I already have that right. We all do. Even if you wrote just one short story, and someone wound up giving you a lousy review, but in that review they prove they missed the entire point of what you were saying, you would still have the right to a rebuttal.

But hey…maybe that is just me. Maybe I stand alone in this opinion. Who knows? All I know is this: yes, I did write a rebuttal to a critical review, but I don’t see how that should count as a “red flag.”

And the sad thing?

By writing this, I’ll probably have TWO red flags under my belt.

You don’t have to be writer or musician to have an opinion on this blog. If you DO in fact have one, I’d love to hear it in the comments below!

 

criticism, lesson, writing

The Worst Question to Ask a Writer?

Usually I write blogs that can relate to anyone. Today I want to be self-indulgent.

Stephen King once said that one of the questions he hated being asked was, “Where do you get your ideas?” At least I THINK he said that. I’m pretty sure it was an inquiry he didn’t enjoy. Even if he never said it, I know for a fact David J. Schow didn’t. He wrote about it at length in one of his “Raving & Drooling” articles in Fangoria.

My point is that I don’t understand why this question drew such repulsion. After all, there have been many non-fiction pieces written by many authors (King was one of them!) where they specifically say, “I was walking through the store when I saw something, and it made me think, ‘What if…'” In other words, there are many occasions where they know EXACTLY what inspired a story idea.

Maybe it’s because they think the question means, “Why are you so creative when the rest of us aren’t?” I can’t say. The only time a question related to my ideas annoyed me was when one person said to me, “All I kept thinking is, ‘Why would anyone write a story like this?'” That’s because she was a romance novelist, and I had asked for her assistance with a novel called The Size Curse.

To be honest, I kind of had it coming. I mean, Size Curse does not have your usual plot. Not a lot of people “get” it. However, I fired back at her and said, “Well, in that case you could ask why any author writes ANYTHING. I mean, I could just as easily ask you why you write the stories you do when Danielle Steel already got there decades before you, and did it better.” The reason for the snark in my reply was due to the implied snootiness in hers. If you think about it, what her question was really saying was, “I can’t imagine how anyone could be SICK ENOUGH to write a story like this.”

Meanwhile, the news is full of stories of terrorist attacks, serial murder, people selling their kids for their weight in drugs, etc. Given how horrifying real-life stories are, I don’t think it’s an indication of a sick mind if you come up with a horrifying story. (And if it’s a sick mind who comes up with these stories, what does that say of those who CONSUME them? I mean, the writer gets paid to write them, but the reader has to PAY to read them. Think about that for a moment!)

At any rate, enough about the close-minded Danielle Steel clone. My point is just that I don’t think being asked where you get your ideas is a bad thing. It’s not like they’re saying what Danielle 2.0 said: “This idea is so repulsive that I can’t imagine coming up with it. How could you possibly think of such a sick idea???” THAT would be a question worth hating, yes, but not the inquiry I’m discussing.

I like when people ask where I get ideas. Sometimes it’s easy to answer. For example, with The Size Curse, I was thinking about how so many people wish they are something they’re not: taller, more handsome, in better shape, etc. I combined that with a riff on the Franz Kafka story Metamorphoses, and BOOM! Instant Size Curse.

Being asked where I get my ideas make me think about it, and sometimes it’s an interesting exploration. Oh, and sometimes it will even make me think of NEW stories. So let’s dial back the hate for this question. It’s undeserved.

And in case you’re wondering what this Size Curse is all about (after all, reading it would help you understand this post more), then you can find out about it here:

The Size Curse

criticism, life, medication, mental health, misunderstanding

I’m the Anti Anti-Pharmacy Guy (Mental Illness is Real)

The other day I was listening to an interview with a guy who I shall not name, but I will give his initials: GC. He was being interviewed because he is someone who has made his business blow up through YouTube. At any rate, he started out by giving some good advice, but then things took a turn for a worse when the interviewer went into something called “the lightning round,” where he asked some quick questions unrelated to the main topic. One of them was, “What is your favorite movie?” GC said, “Oh, man, what is that one…that meteor one…I watched it seventeen times, and I cry every time…oh yeah Armageddon!”

I actually paused the video and thought, “Wait a minute. Do I really want to take advice from someone who is THAT excited about a movie that is universally regarded as one of the worst ever made?” I decided to keep giving him a chance. After all, I’m sure I have liked movies that made people question my sanity.

Then the interviewer got around to the topic of a new book that GC had coming out, and he revealed that the proceeds of the book were going toward some cause (Drug-Free America and Drug-Free World) toward educating parents about how kids are being “overprescribed” drugs for ADHD and so on. He said, “The drugs that are coming from the ‘big pharma’ are massive, MASSIVE drugs.” He said he wanted to educate kids and tell them, “Hey, maybe there is NOTHING wrong with you. Maybe you’re a genius. It’s like Van Gogh. Everyone thought there was something wrong with him, until one day someone looked and said, ‘Wow, he’s a genius.'”

Yeah, a one-eared genius.

I’m so sick of these dime-store psychiatrists who think they know so much. Oh, so the medications from “big pharma” are heavy drugs, eh? Hmmm…maybe that’s why you have to jump through hoops to get them. It’s not like crack where you can go down to the street corner. Then again, maybe you can. I’m sure drug dealers peddle legal drugs just as much as they do the illegal ones. But if someone is going to a drug dealer to get something that they aren’t prescribed illegally, that’s not something that rests on “big pharma’s” shoulders.

All I can say is this: from MY own experience, the life before and after being on medication is like night and day. My self-esteem is better, my outlook on life is 1000 times more positive, and I am happier than ever. Oh, and for those of you who are wondering if medication has dulled my creativity, here’s your answer:

IT HASN’T DULLED IT ONE BIT.

In other words, for those of you who think Van Gogh wouldn’t have been able to create all those wonderful paintings, you are wrong. The other difference? He would have still had both ears.

criticism, intelligence, misunderstanding, reviews, writing

How Reviews SHOULD Be Done

Not too long ago I got a 2-star review about my novella Maybe the Dream Knows What is Real. It wasn’t the 2 stars that angered me; it was the reasoning behind it. Here is what the review said:

“REVIEW TITLE: You can’t blame everyone for everything…

Every so often I come across a story that I find hard to review, and this was one of them. The main character wasn’t likable, and I found it hard to empathize with his plight. He was written as an awkward kid short on friends who grows up to be cocky and opinionated. He blames everyone for how he turned out in life, taking little responsibility for himself. The story had some very graphic scenes, more than I found enjoyable, which is saying a lot since I spend most of my time reading horror stories.
The synopsis stated, ‘This is a story about the dangers of depending on others to give you a sense of self-worth, taken to the extreme.’ This is probably why the world is full of psychopaths and unbalanced people. To hinge your feelings and views on the world on the feedback of everyone you meet in your life can only lead to disappointment. To blame all past interactions as the reason for your current and future behavior is a problem and the situation the main character finds himself in. If you want a dark ride through the eyes of a crazy person this is the book for you, for me it didn’t hit the mark.”

Right off the bat, this reviewer shows he didn’t get the entire idea behind the story. He is critical of the main character for not being likable and not taking responsibility for himself.

Um…well…yeah, that was kind of the idea of the story. That is why the my synopsis says, “This is a story about the dangers of depending on others to give you a sense of self-worth.” He wasn’t meant to be likable.

In fact, I want to talk about this whole idea that main characters are always meant to be likable. It’s foolish, and it hasn’t been the case ever since the whole “anti-hero” motif came along. To base a review on whether or not you and the main character could be best buddies seems a bit odd to me.

That shouldn’t be what informs a review. What SHOULD inform are two simple questions: (1) What was the author trying to achieve? (2) Did they do that? I mean, can you imagine if every reviewer based reviews on whether or not they liked or could identify with the main character? Books like A Clockwork Orange and By Reason of Insanity would have nothing but 1- and 2-star reviews.

Look at it this way: I bet Roger Ebert was not a fan of every genre of every movie he was sent to see, and yet his reviews were not based on whether or not he liked horror movies. They weren’t based on whether or not he liked the characters. They were based on how well the filmmakers made their world believable. End of story. For example, if a movie was about a character who was insane, he didn’t give it 2 stars and say, “The main character was crazy, and I couldn’t identify with him.”

Thankfully, there are still some people understand this rule. They know how to look at the story without any personal biases. They know that depending on others for a sense of self-worth is the EXACT downfall of this main character, and they understand I’m not asking anyone to empathize or feel sorry for him.

I’m not sure if the majority of reviewers write like the quote above, or if they know how to separate those emotions. The jury is still out on that one. However, I am grateful for those who do.

 

criticism, lesson, life, music, universal, writing

Taking Criticism…When It Makes Sense

For some reason, this morning I woke up thinking about criticism and how I have gotten better at taking it. (Higher self-esteem can give you this ability.) However, the more I thought about this, the more I realized something: I have never really been BAD at taking it, but it has to mean something or else I can’t take it seriously.

This can make it seem like I can’t handle criticism. I remember telling a young woman I knew about a criticism a friend had of one of my stories, and she said, “Have you ever thought about taking people’s remarks as ways to make your story better instead of just being like, ‘Haha they’re so ignorant?'” To which I said, “Yes, I can…if it’s logical criticism.”

Let me explain the story in question, and you will see what I mean.

In this instance, I had asked a friend to read a script I’d written for a martial arts movie. (For the record, I called it Shaolin Secrets.) The story was about a half-American, half-Chinese martial arts star named Raymond Liu who gets drawn into some mysterious plot. I’m not going to explain the whole movie here; I gave you the very basics so that I could get to the part that drew criticism from my friend.

Raymond’s mother died when he was very young, which left him to be raised alone by his father. (His name: Jian.) Now some of you reading this might not know the history, but there was something that happened in Chinese history called the Sino-Japanese War. During this conflict, the Japanese committed many horrific war crimes; some people even refer to it as the “Asian Holocaust.” Jian lived through that and, as a result, developed a racist attitude toward the Japanese, which he passed on to Raymond.

You see, in most stories, the main character experiences some kind of growth by the end of the story. In this case, my intention was that Raymond would shed his racist attitude, and I had a way to do it that didn’t seem preachy/heavy-handed.

Then my friend got back to me with what he thought of the story. He liked the action sequences, liked the plot, liked the dialogue, liked the characters, but there was one thing he didn’t like.

What was that?

You guessed it.

The fact that Raymond was racist.

I asked why not, and he expressed a view about martial artists that has to be one of the most common myths out there. He said, “Well, it’s because he’s a serious martial artist, and most martial artists are enlightened, and they can rise above petty things like that.”

I said, “Really? So what about those martial artists that confronted Bruce Lee about teaching kung fu to whites and blacks? Or what about the Chinese guy who runs a school in Albany, who I’ve heard say disparaging things about the Japanese because he grew up through the Sino-Japanese War, just like Ray’s father?” (SIDE NOTE: I based Raymond’s racism on this real-life example.)

So when I passed my friend’s remark on to this other person, that is when she said I couldn’t take criticism. Incidentally, this same young lady was the source of another critique that I never took seriously because, again, it didn’t make sense.

At the time, I was in a band. This young lady and her boyfriend came to see one of my shows. When I saw her at work, I asked what they thought of our performance. She said the songs, lyrics, and my guitar playing were all good, but the singing fell short because I sang monotone. I asked what she meant by that, but she never explained it.

This is why I couldn’t take it seriously: I doubt she knew what the word meant. That sounds like I am mocking her, but think about it. If you went and saw a band where the lead vocalist sang “monotone,” then it would sound something like this:

I know for a fact I don’t sing like that. Near as I can tell, what she REALLY meant was that I didn’t sing with enough guts/passion, that I didn’t sound like I “meant” it, which is a criticism I’ve had of myself over the years. Still, that wasn’t the way it was communicated to me, so therefore the “criticism” was brushed aside.

In summary, I have no problem with criticism, but I don’t believe it should be taken blindly. Sometimes you might have knowledge of the subject being critiqued that the source of the remark doesn’t have that renders it meaningless. That doesn’t mean you can’t TAKE it; it just means it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Maybe most people reading this post are not writers or musicians. That’s fine because this idea of analyzing criticism can be applied to any part of life. Think about it: let’s say you buy some shoes that you think are the most stylish shoes ever made. You ask a friend what they think, and all they say is, “They’re ugly because they’re gray.”

Okay, well..maybe YOU like gray, so that is why, to you, they were awesome shoes. In my opinion, that would be a form of criticism that could be dismissed because it doesn’t hold up to close examination.

I always write my blogs with the intention of making what I say applicable to everyone, not just writers, musicians, and other artists. I bet you thought I was going to leave you folks out this time, huh? No, I’m going to always do my best to NEVER do that.

Until next time,

~~~Steve