Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How Responsible Is a Reviewer?

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?


  1. All you can really do is keep on and take the incident as a lesson in what not to do. Sometimes, it's not even worth getting upset over: I've taken down, I think, three reviews in my tenure (of over a thousand times that many, to date), and none of them was because I said anything untoward, just that I didn't like the story and the author was upset about this. But I try and watch my words and remember that not everyone has been writing all that long; I don't aim my reviews towards writers, but I still try to be constructive at least now and then when I've got nothing good to say about a story.

    On the flip side, one person did clear his whole Fimfic account because I wrote a negative, not even scathing, review of one of his stories (okay, I guess it was a series of negative reviews, but still), and that haunts me. That's not a good feeling, and it doesn't help that the person was someone I knew and respected rather than Random Brony Author #65. :(

    In other news, I think "check the ass box" needs to become a thing. Like, "Sorry for being such a dick, man, I was really checking the ass box back there."

  2. Should you feel bad? No.

    There are reviewers who should. Between the ones who are malicious, mocking the story and insulting the author, and the ones who decide their opinion is law, who can't or won't differentiate between "I didn't like it" and "something's wrong with it," there are a lot of poor reviewers, and it baffles me how many of them have a large following. Maybe because they just like to witness the carnage, but I can't fathom why they care what that person thinks when he doesn't do anything to justify those opinions beyond heaping more and more inconclusive words on while still saying nothing concrete as to what's actually wrong with it.

    I've had similar things happen, where authors have submitted something to me for review, and based on what I thought needed work, the author has deleted the story or said something self-defeating, like apologizing for inflicting it on me and promising not to do so again. And that's not the effect I want at all. Sometimes all I've said is the person really needs an editor, and sometimes I've given a long listing of examples of problems. The more work I put into it like that, the more I want to see the story succeed, the more I want to see the author make good on not only the effort he put in, but the effort I put in as well. It's disappointing when they just go away like that. It's fine if people disagree with me. I mean, it's pretty hard to disagree on the more universal points of good writing, but on the more subjective stuff, if an author doesn't bother to defend it, much less improve it, or his defense is just knee-jerk and not reasoned, there's nothing you can do about it.

    RCL is a different animal, since it's behind closed doors. If an author feels miffed that he's been overlooked, for all he knows, you just haven't gotten to looking at him yet. Maybe you've already considered him and passed him over, but he has no way of telling. I am aware of a recent incident with that, though, and it sure has brought the whiners out of the woodwork.

    Look, if Gardez decides he likes something he saw in one of my stories and wants to imitate it or me or whatever, he's very likely going to write a better story than I could. This is a fact. If RCL wants to feature that better story, fine, and I don't see how that means RCL owes me anything because of that connection. They're not obligated to feature my story as well or find something else of mine they could tolerate posting and put that up first. Depending on who or what Gardez decided to imitate, RCL might not be able to find anything by the original author they could feature. Should they decide not to feature Gardez then? No. If I were in that situation, would it make me feel bad? Sure, but more as a victim of circumstance, not because anyone slighted me.

    Reviewers have a duty to be honest, up front with identifying their preferences, and, if they want people to put any stock in their opinions, good at justifying their opinions with evidence and reasoning. Even if the author disagrees, it gives him something to think about, and if that still makes him want to quit, that's his decision.

    1. >it baffles me how many of them have a large following.

      I figure there are two factors at work. First (especially for the vitriolic/malicious mocking reviewers), I think you're right that there are people who enjoy seeing a take-down. I don't know that I have a problem with that per se--you wouldn't confuse AVGN with Ebert, but that doesn't mean AVGN doesn't have a place in the world, albeit more as entertainment than as a recommendation tool--but that's another matter altogether.

      The other reason is, somewhat ironically, that a lot of people aren't terribly good at telling what a good reviewer looks like--in the same way that most people aren't terribly good at telling what a good story looks like. When we ask why a poor reviewer is so popular, is that really any different than asking why a mediocre story has achieved great acclaim?

    2. What we need is someone who'll review other reviewers — a "metacritic", if you will

    3. Then how do we know if the metacritic is any good?

    4. It is critics all the way down.

  3. I think a reviewer's responsibility pretty much ends with "don't be an ass."

    The function of a reviewer is to communicate to their readers what a story is generally like, and to give them an idea whether or not they'd enjoy reading it. If the reviewer is clever and entertaining in addition to that, so much the better.

    The writer's place in all this is relatively tangential. If the writer is serious about their craft, they won't throw up their hands and quit at the first negative review. If the review is fair, they can take the criticism to heart and revise their work, or keep it in mind while they write their next story. If the review is unfair, they can ignore it.

    And I'm saying this as someone who takes criticism pretty hard, even when it's in all caps and mangled English. Going on after harsh criticism isn't a matter of not caring, it's about caring about the work more.

    It's a shame about the people who "quit the fandom" over your reviews. But if someone balances a delicate vase on top of a tall, wobbly bookcase, I think it's foolish to blame the first person to lightly bump into the shelf for the ensuing loss.

  4. Ouch, that's gotta suck. Honestly, all you can do is try to evaluate their work fairly and constructively. Some people can't handle criticism, but (as iisaw said) that's something one needs to learn if they're serious about writing. So long as you aren't being a jerk (intentionally or not), it's not your fault and it does nobody any good get hung up on it

    I do wonder if it was inevitable that these people would quit. Granted, you're a great reviewer and I'd imagine your opinions carry more clout than most, but wouldn't they likely experience much harsher criticism and react the same way?

    If it makes you feel any better, I'm a much bigger ass. I was just going through some of my old screencaps and found a comment from a few years ago. Decided to look the guy up, hoping to milk the cow for more "lulz", and found out he died last year. Didn't even feel bad about it (making fun of him, I mean), though obviously it was sad to know what happened

    So yeah, I was mocking a dead guy, because I'm a USDA certified slab of asshole. You can't be any worse than me

  5. It's never happened to me, largely because most writers haven't a clue who I am, and why should they? :P But I have wondered about the possibility occasionally, and it's not a nice thought to have. I could justify it to myself by saying that if what I say pushes someone to leave then how would they deal with the far harsher comments they'd probably get in the story's comments section? Still doesn't make me feel comfortable about it, though.

    In all honesty, I never expected to spend two years writing regular ponyfic reviews. I thought I might recommend a couple of dozen stories I liked, then move on to doing something else. I only really continued because a couple of people said they enjoyed the posts and that they found them helpful for digging up stories they might like. That's really why I do it to this day.

  6. When I review fanfic, it's just a comments section thing, and so it's directed towards the author, not readers. To that end, I gear my points towards being constructive, and try to explain what my problems were in detail, to justify why I felt the way I did and how I think it could be fixed if the author were so inclined to work on it, as well as noting whenever something is just a matter of personal opinion.

    In that case, I feel that it is my responsibility, because it often becomes a direct interaction with the author. And even if it doesn't, it was still directed towards them specifically, so their silence says just as much about their feelings. I feel that, as in any personal interaction, it should be important to remain polite, and to stress the fact that it isn't personal, because it can feel personal when my criticism is delivered straight to them. Being encouraging is also important when I haven't got much positive to say otherwise, and it has to sound sincere as well.

    Your reviews are somewhat different, because they're reader-oriented. They don't take the feelings of the author in mind as much, because they're not personally directed towards the author. So when an author comes across them, if there's very little positive to be said about the fic, then there's very little positive to be said in general, which is much more disheartening.

    Personally, I don't think you bear responsibility for people leaving over such reviews, even if you are the reason for it. As you said, you aren't malicious and you don't make personal attacks, and that's really all that can be asked of you for reader-oriented reviews. It's on the author to take criticism graciously, and nobody with skin that thin survives long online anyway.

    All I'd say is, if you don't want to be the cause of similar incidents in future, then the best thing you can do is to write every negative review assuming that the author will read it.

  7. I agree with the rest. You're not an asshole in your reviews, and I don't think you have any reason to blame yourself for them leaving the fandom. But that's not what I'm here to say.

    Without OMPR, I probably would never have taken a serious interest in ponyfiction. I hadn't found that many good stories with a cursory search of fimfiction, and I didn't really know what made a story good anyway. I wasn't expecting to find people routinely discussing and critiquing mere fanfiction, or that there were as many good stories to be found as I've found through your reviews. You generally present a story well enough for me to know if I'll like it, and I learned a lot about what makes for good (or not so good) writing along the way. I may not write much myself, but I doubt I'm the only person who's taken inspiration from these reviews. When you worry that you're nudging people to stop writing, keep that in mind.

  8. You're doing an excellent job Chris. Reading your reviews has opened my mind up to understanding stories and the themes within them that I would have never noticed. Thanks to you, I don't make as many mistakes - simply because I've seen you point out mistakes in others. You're doing all of us a huge favor.

    And like iisaw said, those who have quit the fandom or been offended by your criticism were likely to have quit anyways, for anyone could come along with anything negative and set them off.

  9. Just for the record, I am beyond reclamation.

  10. I've only done a few reviews, so I haven't been on the receiving end of "made someone quit the fandom FOREVERRRRR!!" yet. I did do a review of a fic that was entered for a contest I was also entered into that I thought was pretty mediocre but ended up winning - said author, to his credit, did not rub my face in it.

    Yet, on the other end of things, I think negative reviews can sometimes be really helpful. One of my stories, "The Iron Horse: Everything's Better With Robots!" got a rather middling review early on and that helped tremendously to rework it and make it a much better story. Now it's something I'm immensely proud of, and it's all because someone took the time to point out its weaknesses.

    Bottom line: there will be the so-so authors who take the criticism and quit because they can't take it, there will be the bad authors who refuse to listen because they know it all, and there will be the authors, good or bad, who will become better because of the feedback. The last group of writers more than makes up for the first two.

  11. As far as I know, I've never made anyone quit the fandom 5ever, but worrying about it has discouraged me from actually posting reviews of a substantial number of weak stories from no-name authors because I didn't know how they'd take it. This is mostly a Royal Guard related thing; I figure if someone gets featured or whatever, that's probably a big enough lift to not feel bad if I didn't like their story.

    That said, I've had newbie authors thank me for actually just reading their thing.

    I dunno, really. The reality is that "don't be an ass" is a general rule for human interaction, and if someone takes offense when someone else isn't being an ass, that's really on them, not the person who is being taken offense to for no good reason. I do understand the notion of not hammering someone who is vulnerable, but on the other hand, if a negative review is all it takes for someone to run away and quit, they probably would have done it anyway sooner or later.