Reviews, Please (not that I’m begging)

I want to write a little bit about audience feedback and what it means for an artist. By writing this I’m aware that it could be construed as a shameless plea for feedback, but being shameless is kind of inherent in the process of putting your art out there. Too much shame will just make you want to bury your head in the sand.

It’s hard to expose your work to the world. It requires a peculiar combination of vulnerability and thick-skinnedness. You have to know that there might be negative responses from people who don’t like your art or simply don’t like you. And yet you yearn for acknowledgement and praise, and the only way to get that is to risk the opposite.

So we have two basic categories of audience response; negative and positive. But of course it’s more complicated than than. Some feedback is mixed. And sometimes there’s no feedback at all. Allow me to offer a look at the continuum and a sort of ranking of which feedback is the most gratifying and useful, and which is the worst. All of this is my own opinion drawn from my personal experience, but I hope it’ll match up fairly well to the average artist’s experience.

Let’s start with negative just to get it out of the way. The worst kind of feedback is the nasty, personal attacks that have little or nothing to do with the actual work. These are particularly common with Internet trolls whose only drive seems to be spreading around poison and cruelty. Obviously, this is awful. But it’s so blatantly awful and thoughtless that you should be able to recognize how little bearing it has on the actual quality of your work. These people would probably attack the Mona Lisa if they thought it would get them attention.

So it might be even harder to read a well-written and thoughtful review that thoroughly eviscerates your work. This is someone who has taken the time to examine your art seriously and reaches the conclusion that it’s terrible. Ouch. And yet, if it’s honest and written without rancor, you might use it as an opportunity for genuine artistic soul-searching. It’s not fun to realize your work isn’t very good, obviously, but if it leads to improvement, there might be value in even a scathing review. And then, sometimes you can shrug and dismiss the whole thing because they clearly weren’t the right audience for your work, and the right audience got it.

Less useful is a negative response without any qualifiers. Just “I don’t like it.” It carries the same painful quality as the full-fleshed negative review, but not much instruction on how to improve. It’s the equivalent of disliking a video on YouTube, and while there’s certainly no law against someone simply not liking something, it can be very frustrating as an artist to wonder why.

On the positive side, we have the “like.” This is great for a quick, easy boost of confidence for an artist. Counting likes or 5-star reviews is highly encouraging and provides a tangible, even numerical, sense of how popular your work is. But it’s not the best possible positive feedback, because after all it doesn’t help the artist know why or how their art was successful for that particular audience member.

So specific feedback is even better. Not just “I loved this” but “I loved watching how the protagonist changed throughout the story” or “the descriptions were so evocative” or whatever. I understand that while this comes fairly naturally for me as someone who spent her college career writing about literature, it might be a bit more challenging for others. But even a brief detail or two is so helpful. It doesn’t have to be an eloquent 20-page paper (though I certainly wouldn’t turn up my nose at that either!), just anything specific. And if you liked the work overall but some things didn’t work for you, please include constructive criticism. Because, again, opportunity for improvement is much appreciated by any artist whose ego hasn’t grown too inflated to accept it.

I would have said that detailed favorable reviews are the best, but my husband pointed out that there’s one way to improve upon them — a favorable review that finishes with “I’m an agent/editor/producer and I want to work with you; shall we draw up the standard Rich and Famous Contract?” So, there’s that.

Now I’m going to finish with what might be the worst response: none at all. I’m divided on this, because trolls and merciless review can be pretty awful, and I don’t know that anything could necessarily top them in testing the thickness of an artist’s skin. However, silence is most assuredly not golden. The answer why is very simple. Artists are blessed and cursed with rich imaginations, and when you get no response, you begin to fill in the silence with the worst possible scenarios. How could we not assume that our work was so abysmal that no one dares to respond, unable to come up with a polite way of saying, “It stinks!” Now, if one takes a moment to reasonably consider the possibilities, one might realize that it’s just as likely the reviewer doesn’t feel they have anything new or useful to contribute in terms of feedback. But one is not inclined to behave reasonably when one is putting one’s work out there in view of the entire world. One feels terrified, and one could take the slightest hint of rejection as good cause to turn and hide one’s work in a hole in the ground forever.

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed participating in my church’s choir. Usually my contribution was as the accompanist or one of many sopranos. I was confident enough in my piano skills, though always gratified to receive compliments after a performance. I was not as confident in my singing, but I could safely hide among the blending voices. Until one day the choir director asked if I wanted a solo. I was rather terrified, but the part wasn’t terribly complicated, and in a fit of daring, I decided to give it a try. Even if it didn’t turn out great, I figured that people would be nice enough to acknowledge my efforts.

After the performance, no one said a word. No one told me I’d done badly or offered any backhanded compliments. But no one offered any praise or encouragement or the slightest acknowledgement that I had done anything at all. And the memory still stings some twenty years later. Because of course I could only assume that I had sung so terribly, no one could think of any way to respond other than avoiding any mention of it. They couldn’t say anything nice, so they said nothing at all.  I must have been really bad.

I have no idea how I actually sounded; maybe I was terrible and maybe I was fine. And it’s not like it stunted my promising vocalist career. That was never going to happen. But I cannot tell you how much of a difference it would have made if just one person had said something nice. Not fake, overwrought flattery, just “Hey, good for you to get up there and sing a solo!” I don’t believe we should convince mediocre artists that their work doesn’t need improvement, just to protect their fragile egos. As I said, constructive criticism is very valuable. But above all, feedback. It’s basically the only reason we put our work out there. Deep inside, most artists are like that 12-year-old fanfic writer who posts “PLEASE READ LIKE AND REVIEW” with every new installment. We’ve just gotten a little better at hiding it.

The Long View

Lately I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I feel a disproportionate irritation at the phrase “fan theory.” I think there are a few interrelated reasons for my dislike. First of all, from a pedantic standpoint, theory seems the wrong word to me for this particular usage. Theories are created through scientific analysis in order to provide a working explanation for something not yet fully understood. But you can’t approach a story the same way you approach natural phenomena. Stories aren’t created through some confluence of natural laws. They’re created by people. So any questions or mysteries that exist were either deliberately manufactured by the storyteller, or cropped up in the form of plot holes or inconsistencies. Deliberate mysteries have deliberate answers. Unintentional mysteries have none. Either way, the source is right there in the writer’s brain.

Now, I don’t mean to say that I disapprove of any exploration of a story beyond the author’s conscious intent. Far from it! You can interpret a story any way you please, whether the author agrees with you or not. But that’s creating interpretations, not theories. Every time someone uses the word theory, it seems to imply that they’re analyzing real events that arose from underlying causes other than “someone chose to write it that way” and it makes me twitch.

But my annoyance goes deeper than that, I believe. There are really two different kinds of analysis at play here, and the distinction between them is quite significant. The first type is most common with ongoing stories, particularly the sort wherein the storyteller likes to leave out all sorts of dangling questions to keep the audience guessing. It ensures that they’ll tune in next time, desperate for the answers that the following installment will provide. This sort of questioning takes the form of speculation, often accompanied by a fervid accumulation of spoilers. Who is So-and-So’s long lost family? What is the cryptic hero’s mysterious tragic backstory? How did this random character acquire the coveted object? And almost always, the set-up of the question is paired with the winking promise that the answers are coming, as long as you keep watching the next episode.

You might have gathered that I’m not particularly impressed with this sort of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong; I have jumped on the spoiler train many a time, caught up in the need to uncover mysteries just the same as everyone else. But I’ve learned from those experiences that the reveal of surprises, while exciting at the time, is not enough to make a story truly engaging. It’s a once-and-done thing, and the excitement fades with every subsequent re-watch. Because the answers are very simple once you learn them. There’s no more room for speculation or nuance. After a while it begins to feel like nothing more than a collection of a cheap gimmicks.

So what kind of analysis do I prefer? The questions that have no definitive answers, the mysteries that go beyond the limited scope of a story’s specific details to encompass the eternal questions of human existence. What is the nature of good and evil? What does it mean to be truly selfless? Is perfect happiness possible in an imperfect world? And so on and so on. What makes these questions so compelling is the myriad of potential interpretations, allowing you to go on thinking about them long after the initial idea was sparked. It’s not clear-cut. And it’s the sort of thinking that rewards multiple re-reads or re-views of a story rather than diminishing once the answer is revealed. The best stories, I’ve always felt, are the ones I want to keep coming back to. And if all the answers have already been given, what’s the point of coming back? As I’ve said before, I like stories that encourage me to think, not stories that tell me how to think.

I understand that my preferred method of engaging with stories is not universal…probably not even close. There’s a reason that cliff-hangers are so effective. And I’m not opposed to the occasional tantalizing question leading to a shocking twist. But a story that’s built upon nothing more than a series of ever-more complex mysteries is probably going to collapse in on itself by the end. For true substance, you need to have deeper questions that are worth considering long after the more straight-forward mysteries have all been revealed.