Is it okay to openly mock books?

Last week, one of those most infamous books of our generation became a blockbuster. For the few who don’t know, Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie adaptation of a book that was originally a Twilight fanfic. Not to say anything bad of my beloved genre – fanfiction – but that isn’t a promising origin story for a novel.

Obviously, Fifty Shades is an easy target for tomato-throwing in the literary world, as was it’s spiritual predecessor Twilight. I’m sure you already know the various insults hurled at both. I can’t really argue – I’ve read excerpts of Fifty Shades and the writing is indeed terrible. I’m amazed that it became such a phenomenon when the romance/erotica/harlequin section of Barnes and Noble is packed floor-to-ceiling with similar, better written books. Was there not a book already published about BDSM with a rich bad boy? I can hardly believe that market was untapped (cue pun noise).

I would almost argue that the reason Fifty Shades became so popular is because it is so bad. It’s the same reason Rocky Horror and The Room became cultural landmarks. When an artist pegs the perfect spot of “so bad it’s good,” they can match or exceed the success of people who simply are good.

But I’m not here to talk about whether bad books and movies are entertaining. I’d rather argue about whether it’s okay for us to rip apart media that never should have reached the public eye. Is it acceptable to be so openly cruel in an era when anyone can see it?

Let me take you back to my first fanfic experience. I was 11 years old and I really loved the Artemis Fowl books (so, basically like now except I was skinnier and didn’t have to pay taxes). I discovered the summer before middle school and figured I’d give it a go. I’d written plenty of stories before, but never published anything on the internet.

I whipped out my first story in a few days. I admit, I barely edited it. I didn’t put much effort into it. But I posted it anyway and got some nice comments. So, I started a sequel with a bit more care. To this day, I’m not too ashamed of that sequel. Yeah, it’s weak because it was written by a child, but at least it shows the highest ability of my 11-year-old self. The first installment, however, became a bit notorious.

About two months into my fanfic writing career, I stumbled across a LiveJournal community devoted to bashing Artemis Fowl fanfics. And guess whose story ended up as one of their entries?

Their diatribe dissected my writing at length, calling me “an X-Men fan on drugs,” accusing my version of the female protagonist to be a Mary-Sue, made fun of the relationship aspect of the fic, etc.

Okay, I was 11. Of course I responded to this poorly, and of course it was in bad taste of the flamers to bash the efforts of a kid (they sort of apologized when they realized I was so young, but in a backhanded “well, this is still good for you” way). But honestly, that experience stuck with me ever since. Because of that moment, I try to be careful about how I treat other people’s work in public.

Sure, I’ve snickered behind the backs of other fanfic writers in the past, I’ve laughed at movies in the comfort of my home, I’ve put down books because they were too terrible to slog through, and I haven’t censored my opinions on books that I feel are overrated. But I would never comment on a person’s piece of writing directly and say that they were awful. I would never go up to an author at a signing and whine about their book. I would never leave an eviscerating GoodReads review. I would never post a video of myself on YouTube reading someone’s fanfic in mocking. And honestly, I try to realize the difference between works that are poorly made and works that are simply not to my taste (Lord of The Rings is a good example – I respect it, even if I don’t enjoy it).

Did you know that Veronica Roth suffers from anxiety, which is often triggered by bad reviews of her novels? Can you imagine how Ben Affleck must have felt to wake up and see the entire Internet hating him because he was cast as Batman? Look, I know that being a public figure means that you need tough skin – but being human consumers with some form of empathy means that we should remember the artists behind the art. I’m not saying that artists should be blocked from legit critique, and they should not be praised if their efforts are truly poor. But accusing an author of writing like a fourth grader, saying they should never write again, or going out of your way to not like a story because it’s cool to be a contrarian are not real methods of criticism. At that point, you’re not bashing the work as much as you’re bashing the person who made it.

A lot of readers/viewers distance themself from the creators by bringing up money. “Stephanie Meyer doesn’t care if I bash her book – she’s rich and I’m not.” Sorry, money doesn’t solve feelings, and this is also a sick way of casting rich/famous people as sub-human. “Oh, they’ll never see my review – it doesn’t matter what I say!” Really? You think famous people don’t have the internet? That they don’t Google themselves occasionally? Have you seen Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets series?

I think we should take the same approach with famous authors as we would with anyone we could encounter in real life – if we can’t comfortably say it to their face, we probably shouldn’t immortalize it on the internet. While we’re at it, maybe you should be careful talking about people you do know too. And when in doubt about the harsh commentary you may or may not want to make, it’s good to simply follow Wheaton’s Law.

17 thoughts on “Is it okay to openly mock books?

  1. Awesome post! I’m on the same page as you, I think. Sure, there are things I’ve watched or read where I’ve thought “Wow, this is crap”, but to be honest, I’m in the same boat as you. To be honest,voicing my disgust and disdain on social media or in the form of an online review isn’t all that productive. I may make jabs at something (and I have when it comes to Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey), but I think there’s a difference between that and being all-out brutal. Frankly, I think any reviewer who leaves a horribly scathing or hurtful review is forgetting what it’s like to create something. Authors put a lot of work into their pieces regardless of whether people think it’s crap or not, and by being unnecessarily cruel, reviewers disrespect the time and effort writing takes. Now, time and effort does not equal quality by any means, but when it comes to reviewing pieces that I genuinely think are garbage, I remember what my Mamma taught me: if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Even when I give a less than favourable review, I try to include what is it that I liked about the piece also. I think criticism is probably better received that way anyway, and if there’s nothing positive to say, I normally will have stopped reading to the point where I’d be forced to give a terrible review.

    • You bring up a good point at the end there – if you hate a book, why not just put it away and forget about it? It takes much more energy to bash it. And if the book is actually offensive in its content, perhaps that merits a hard review analyzing the problematic aspects of the piece, but that still does not give one licence to eviscerate the author as a person. EL James portayed BDSM incorrectly, but it probably wasn’t intentional. Poorly researched and ignorant, but not malicious. So why treat her like the spawn of Satan?

      And yeah, I like Mystery Science Theater 3000. I like hate-watching stuff in privacy. It’s fine to have opinions and I’m certainly not out to encourage oppression of free speech or anything like that. But….you’re right. Art takes work, even if the results aren’t what anyone wants to see. I think some basic human respect would be nice, as well as constructive critique to help the author actually improve instead of scaring them out of their Web browsers. Plus, as I said, people must learn the difference between “this is bad” and “this just isn’t for me.”

  2. I don’t bash writers online–or actors or anyone else (well, okay, I have made some Donald Trump and Ann Coulter jokes, but come on, don’t they just ask for it?… ;) ). But I’m of the mindset that everyone has feelings, whether they’re rich and famous or not. That doesn’t mean one can’t leave a thoughtful negative review, but the review should focus on the book, not the author. I’m often shocked by what people put out there.

    This ties in somewhat to a post I’ve got scheduled for Monday about book reviews, so I found this very interesting. (As I do all your posts!)

    • Agreed! I am all for constructive critique. But I would certainly rather hear “this is a bad book” over “you’re a bad writer.” And I admit, even the latter comment can have merit despite it being hard to hear – but not the “you are hopeless scum and I hate you” that could be attached to it!

  3. I think there is a difference in criticism and constructive criticism. As a graphic artist, I’ve had to develop a thick skin. Not everyone will like what I do. It’s OK. But I do get upset when I get criticism like “It sucks”. What specifically about it sucks? How can I improve if you are not specific about it. I always try to start critiques with something positive, but if there is a negative, “You might want to consider this, that or the other thing.”

    • Offering suggestions is a good way to pad critique, but even that can be out of left field. Hey, we remember some of Dad’s “suggestions” for Paradisa, don’t we? :P “You need to make it an all-white sausage fest because women suck and I hate reading about them!!!”

      But hey, at least critiques like that are more hilarious to read than hurtful :P

  4. I cringe every time someone bashes any writer. If someone doesn’t like something, there’s no need to be rude and hate on the book or author. And I personally believe there is merit in any piece of writing. It just takes some digging beneath the surface and thinking about the text instead of merely judging it without truly understanding it.

    • I agree. Everything is written for a reason. If we stretch our minds a bit and try to understand why, maybe we can empathize more with the author. We don’t have to like the piece or even like the reason they wrote it, but at least then it’s an educated criticism.

  5. I agree with a couple of above commenters up there that it’s okay to give criticism on the “work” and not the writer. I don’t think personally attacking the writer is productive, but you leave your goodreads review or whatever on why the book didn’t work for you, and then leave it at that. Move on. Maybe the writer can learn from it, but it’s not a personal attack on them. Coming from the illustration and writing culture, you absolutely must develop a thick skin. It’s also a business, and in the business world, it’s very likely, if you’re a designer for example, you work hours and hours on your design, and the boss comes back and hates it and wants you to start over. You have to take that criticsm, bite the bullet, learn from the experience and try again. I think writing can be like that too. Sure we all have hurt feelings but the hurt doesn’t last. We cope and move on and continue to do what we love and get stronger.

    As for fandom, I think those wank and bashing communities are awful. There are better ways of handling fanfic criticsm than attacking people. Fanfic is more of a “practice” and “hobby” for most folks anyway.

    Great post! I find it interesting since I have very strong opinions on said book, though I tend to keep my feelings among watercooler discussions. :)

    • Believe me, I have pretty strong opinions on the book too – and I like to imagine EL James riding on a unicorn throwing money everywhere singing “I DON’T CAAAAAARE!” But I have to sympathize slightly with her, because she was a fanfic author who decided to go indie and against all odds it exploded. Had she known it would be big, maybe she would have done it differently. So I can’t critique her as a person much, because there are actually revamped fanfics I’ve considered self-publishing too. *shrug* But it’s certainly okay to take issue with her writing, because it is pretty bad stylistically and implies a lot of ignorant stuff about BDSM – which is one of the most legit, earned reasons to dislike a book.

      I was so afraid to do my first beta round of Paradisa because I didn’t want my feelings to be hurt – but honestly, it wasn’t hurtful at all. The “hurtful” stuff from my dad just amused me at how crazy it was. Most of the other comments were 1) stuff I already knew/expected or 2) stuff I didn’t know, but was SO happy to hear because of how well it helped the story. I don’t really consider myself a “thick skinned” person, as I don’t fancy being insulted, but I do pride myself on being open to the wisdom of others. It doesn’t make me bulletproof, but I think I’m good at being objective with my work and hearing suggestions with enthusiasm. We’ve both known people who get angry when anyone even hints that changes are required in their work, and I’m definetly not that person. I invite other ideas! I crave them! I want to know the 100 different ways I could change my story, so that I can settle on the best one.

      If I were ever to become a famous writer, I’m not sure if I’d look at what people were saying about me on the Internet. I guess if the good outweighed the bad, maybe I wouldn’t care that much. Maybe the rude stuff could just be laughed off.

  6. I agree with this, but I do wish people would give honest critique. Not so much bashing but like a true critique that explains their distaste for the story. I hate it when an opinion is brought up about a story and people don’t bother to find out for themselves if they will like it or not. For instance movies, someone watches the movie tells a friend it was bad or good and the friend decides to see it or not based on one opinion. Also, making fun and picking at pieces of work or the author is wrong. If you don’t like it, don’t read the books or watch the future movies expecting greatness to suddenly find itself. Nice post.

    • No harm in honesty, certainly, so long as it’s not mean spirited. And you bring up a good point that all critique is subjective, and we should try to avoid the bandwagoning mindset. I made sure to watch Twilight to decide if it truly was “bad.” I’ve read some bits of Fifty Shades. But then, I watched Jupiter Ascending and John Carter and loved them, so critics get it wrong for me sometimes.

      Sometimes I actually think there’s a bit of a conspiracy when it comes to what gets panned. At least in movies, that is. Even more of a good reason to judge things for ourselves.

      • Yeah, I know there are some books and movies people warn me about and critiques point out and I ignore them. Then, I experience the books and movies myself and a few times I have felt the same way as the critiques. But what thing I really hate, is when you already have a negative perspective of the movie because someone ruined the movie for you. I hate that so much.

  7. I agree with this. Openly bashing a book is not cool, but criticism is what makes us evolve as the audience and the creators. I agree with the criticism around Fifty Shades of Grey because of the way the main relationship is portrayed, but I’m not about to post all over the Internet that the story is awful. Choose your battles (when it comes to criticism), I would say.

    • I think the relationship is a 100% valid thing to critique about Fifty Shades, because its portrayal is damaging to the audience. There are many social issues – portrayals of women and minorities, etc – that are sensitive and just begging to be critiqued if they aren’t done perfectly in books.

      But again, the key word is “valid.” Critiquing representation is one of the most valid complaints someone can have about a piece of art – and doing it on the internet is okay too. Those sorts of opinions are actually really important to spread (Your Fav Is Problematic is a good tumblr for this sort of thing, although they can get a bit grouchy). But if we’re going to go after the AUTHOR, we must remember intent. Was EL James intending to insult and misrepresent fetish subcultures? Is she a terrible person for fantasizing about the things she wrote about it? I don’t believe so. Her failure was a result of poor research and not putting enough effort into a self-published rework of fanfiction because she didn’t expect it to take off. So, that’s important to remember when picking apart the book. Yeah, we can throw all sorts of tomatoes at Christian and Anastasia, but to drag EL James into it with insults and judgement about her personal life is pretty immature and cruel.

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