Trusting Your Vision

Every writer, artist, or creative spirit must contend with public reaction.  Out of favor, in favor, sought after, dismissed.  There are many possibilities along the wobbly continuum of external review and ratings.  Yet, artists and authors know they must work from their own vision, avoiding goals of public approval.  It can be a difficult balancing act when life realities come into play.  But, realistically, there has never been a “perfect” opinion rendered.  Subjectivity, not objectivity, is the basis for all reviews.

  • How do you avoid becoming entangled in the world of good or bad, wonderful or horrendous?

The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics.
The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones
who want to write don’t have time to read the reviews.
William Faulkner

Much has been written about this topic, but, for me, Robert Olen Butler’s take on this makes sense.  In his book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, he notes that some reviews are generated by speed-readers.  “Speed-reading is one reason editors and, not incidentally, book reviewers can be so utterly wrongheaded about a particular work of art.”  Butler also points out that writers will get all kinds of responses from all kinds of people … and “the nonsense never ends.”  Since it will never end, he advises artists to cultivate their own inner confidence in their vision of things.  And Butler suggests that bias “works against the unique voice of the real artist.”  Thus, bad stuff, bland stuff, and mediocre stuff is perpetuated.  “And this happens at the highest, most prestigious, slickest (literary) magazines–for any number of reasons that don’t have to do with art.”

Clearly, it is a grey area — reviewing and rating the creative work of others.  The number of “giants” who have died without public acceptance and recognition for their work speaks to the problem of external validation.

  • Can it actually ruin lives?  What do you think?

By and large, artists simply can’t take external reviews seriously.  It is terribly distracting and so often the reviewer hasn’t spent quality time with the material.  Perhaps, the reviewer doesn’t even “get it” … some works of art are truly lost on others (depending on life perspective, personal background, education, and spiritual evolution).  As Steve Jobs put it, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”  Go where others have not thought to go.  Be original.  Don’t be a slave to the opinion of others.

  • I’m happy to introduce my guest, because Trish Nicholson is addressing this issue of rating others via the numbers game and otherwise.

Trish is a non-fiction author and writer of some award-winning short stories. Four of her stories have been accepted for publication in anthologies. She is a keen photographer and uses only her own pictures on her website. Trish likes to vary her weekly blogs at  which include book reviews, stories and writing tips among other topics. In between writing she runs her Relaxation Therapy clinic and plants trees. Her background is in social anthropology and management training. Together they led her to spend 12 years working on aid and development projects and research in the Asia Pacific region before settling on a hillside in New Zealand. She lives in the ‘winterless’ Far North, just inside the sub-tropics where the sun shines even in winter and they pick oranges between showers. Trish is currently working on two writing projects: a book on storytelling, and an illustrated e-book on a spectacular religious pageant in the Philippines which will be released later this year.

  • Welcome, Trish, to SunnyRoomStudio.  You are my 20th guest, but my first Studio Guest from New Zealand.

Rating: With Due Respect

by Trish Nicholson

When we give stars and scores to each other what are we judging – and why do we do it?

I used to think literary critics a bit stuffy in their prose, but certainly learned, well informed, and professionally engaged. I imagined crusty old academics with smouldering pipes in their mouths and thick-rimmed spectacles gliding down their noses. It seems this species is almost extinct: anyone reviews everything and everybody these days. We all perch on the judge’s desk and sometimes it can backfire.

Recently an award of £65,000 (roughly US$106,000) for damages was made by Mr Justice Tugendhat to author Sarah Thornton, for malicious falsehood and libel in a Daily Telegraph review by journalist Lynn Barber. This is not compensation for ‘a bad review’ as some have suggested, but for errors of fact; errors that questioned the integrity of the author’s research. This is not a trivial matter for an author’s reputation.  The Daily Telegraph has published an apology and removed the original review from its website, but this episode set me thinking about reviewers, their motivation, and the whole concept of ‘rating’ others.

I read somewhere that the guiding rule for reviewers should be: “don’t be wrong”. Good advice, but it loses sight of the fact that reviews are opinions: they are subjective. Opinions – unlike facts – cannot claim to be ‘right’, we can only agree or disagree with them. To do this, we need to know something of the reviewer’s motivation.

There is nothing wrong with readers putting up personal responses to a book on Amazon or anywhere else; some reader-reviews are informative and insightful,  but when they say little more than “awesome” or “hated this book”, they reveal more about the reviewer’s own limitations than about the book. We’re not sure they even read it. No matter, they still award a star or five and influence the books reputation. As to professional reviewers, sensation sells newspapers, and I wonder how much this encourages journalists to create controversy with extreme opinions and provocative language.

I am neither a professional reviewer nor a literary critic; the reviews on my blog merely share my personal views as a writer. These are books I buy myself, not review copies. I try to describe each book sufficiently for readers to understand my response, but I don’t rate them because to me this gives a false sense of objectivity, a judge’s sentence based on…what?

There is no agreed standard for awarding one or five stars, or even for knowing what exactly is being assessed. Official star ratings applied to hotels, for example, are to standards agreed within the industry and assessed on specific, measurable criteria by qualified personnel. Ratings affect business outcomes. There would be an outcry if anyone off the street could influence a hotel’s star rating whether or not they’d even stayed there.

But it’s not only books. What worries me is that we are now rating each other. I’m fairly new to social media but I can’t help noticing a growing obsession with personal statistics: How many hits on my blog this week? How many page-views? How can I increase my traffic, my followers, my re-tweets?

And now: Is my Klout score higher than hers?

When I found the site for Klout my biggest surprise was to find my own name listed. I hadn’t asked for this; hadn’t signed up to be ‘klouted’, or even knew what it was, but beside my name is a label and a number – a score – what it really means I have no idea. I didn’t notice any stars but that doesn’t mean they won’t be the next thing.

My Twitter stream is full of messages declaring: “I gave @***** +K about ****”. Why are people doing this? Do they enjoy the power to award and withhold points in a public forum? Do they hope their awardees will become new followers? Or hope they will reciprocate and increase their own scores? And can you cancel +Ks to punish people if they don’t?

With due respect, whoever we are, we are each ‘about’ far more than what appears on a Klout label. Making judgements on this basis ignores the whole person in each of us. And what might it do to personal outcomes? If someone hasn’t accumulated a high score are they not worth knowing? Should we avoid them like we might a one-star hotel, unless there was nowhere else available? And who are we to be judging?

It is a wonderful thing to admire the qualities and deeds of another; why not give them this sweet offering of appreciation directly – publicly if we wish – rather than rate them as if they were products being graded and priced at the grocery store?

You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try
to give that to them.  By the time you get it built,
they’ll want something new.

~ Steve Jobs

Blog posts by DazyDayWriter @ work in  SunnyRoomStudio: rights reserved.

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