Today's post is not about how not to be an ass when you review something: that's as easy as "don't be an ass" in general, and while plenty of people seem to have trouble with even that, such issues are outside of the purview of a single blogpost (even by someone as transcendentally brilliant as yours truly). I'm also not talking about any sort of obligations or outside standards to which reviewers are subject, because frankly, there aren't any. Talking about fanfiction comes with no prerequisites.
But, of course, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should feel no responsibility for what you do. So what I want to talk about today is the intersection between authorial and reviewer action. I don't have any conclusions, but you can at least see some of my thoughts on the matter, below.
On at least one occasion, someone has left the fandom (stopped writing fanfiction, left their FiMFic account behind, never to return) as a direct result of a review from me. There are two more persons whom I believe have done so, though unlike the first person, they didn't explicitly tell me so when they left, so I can't be certain.
In case you're wondering, that's not a great feeling.
The easy reaction here is to absolve myself of all responsibility. After all, I've never told anyone in a review, implicitly or explicitly, that they should quit writing forever. I've never called an author a hack, or an idiot, or beyond reclamation, or anything of the sort. I've said plenty of unkind things about individual stories, but I've always tried to (and, I think usually succeeded at) avoiding unnecessary invective or hyperbolic cruelty. I make an effort not to check any of the "ass" boxes in my reviews.
And yet, it's sometimes hard not to feel I'm having a net negative impact in what I do. Academically, it's easy to see that the positives outweigh the negatives--I've had far more than three people tell me that a review of mine has given them the impetus to improve at this or that, the confidence to keep writing, or the reassurance that some reader out there cared, whether he liked it or not. But those three people sit a lot heavier on my mind.
There are a lot of outs for me, as well. Two of those three are "unconfirmed," as it were. Any or all of those authors might well have found some other impetus to pull up stakes--my contribution might be of the "convenient excuse" variety. But that doesn't change the root fact: people have left the fandom, with my criticism of their writing as a proximal cause.
So, my question: how responsible is a reviewer? To what extent, if any, should I feel like I have stifled someone? I'm not talking about "should I feel responsible" in terms of intent, mind--obviously I've never intended to make anyone feel bad about their writing (I hope that's obvious). But if the things I'm saying are stopping people from writing, and, knowing this, I keep doing what I'm doing... well, surely there's some responsibility to be had there, isn't there?
Hurt feelings are a constant of all human interaction. Even the Royal Canterlot Library, which I and the other curators go to great lengths to keep an all-positive, feature-not-gatekeeper experience for everyone involved, has produced its share of drama and hurt feelings; that's just part of having an audience.
But, if one's goal is to have a positive impact, even as small of one as "entertain people with fanfic reviews, help them find stories they'll enjoy and avoid those they won't, and to encourage people to think at least a little critically about a medium that doesn't always attract enough critical thought," then what should one do in the face of evidence that one's impact isn't so positive (or even "neutral by way of insignificant") as one might hope?