Talking Trash

….wherein I talk about why dissing your colleagues in print, or in front of an open mic, is not a good thing.

From time to time, I hear authors compare writing a novel  to running a political campaign.

On the surface, the two don’t seem terribly similar. Writing is generally a solo pursuit; running for office is just the opposite. But there are a few similiarities.

First, the ticking clock: a writer has a Deadline; a politician has Election Day.  Second, the disruption of family life: a politician goes on the road to stump the electorate; a writer disappears into the basement to pound the keys. Third, if all goes well, they share repetition: both the writer and the politician will have to repeat the entire ordeal in another two (or so) years.

So maybe, with that kind of relentless pressure, it’s okay to be a snarky about your competition. Or is it?

California GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina’s “caught on camera moment” is an excellent illustration on how dissing your rival is not so great for a professional, adult, public person’s image. Fiorina herself admitted she opened the door to discussions that were petty and superficial. I think calling anyone’s hairdo “so yesterday” certainly qualifies as that.

(Also, as an editor, I feel compelled to point out that the phrase “so yesterday” is, well, so yesterday.)

But part of a successful campaign strategy is to criticize your opponent’s work and record, in a public forum. Your rival promised to do something and didn’t? Call them on it. Your rival did a great job two terms ago but was asleep at the wheel for the last one? Buy a TV ad on it. Your rival failed to show up for important votes? Scream it from the podium. After all, that’s politics.

But is it publishing?

The author experience includes being reviewed, critiqued, criticized and rejected. Authors and readers disagree on how much weight a negative review carries, but I can tell you that no author likes it. Nevertheless, it’s part of the gig. You are putting work out for public consumption, and purchase, so an author can expect to be called on it when a book fails to follow through with the promise of its opening, when a story doesn’t hold up to the one that came before it, or when the author seems to be phoning it in.

Authors expect this from reviews and readers. But should they expect it from their fellow authors?

Some time ago, I participated in an online discussion about a novel. It was part of a popular series, much beloved by many readers for many good reasons. But in my opinion, this particular installment had tanked. I said why. I did it respectfully. I explained where I thought the author had made bad choices. Some readers disagreed, and we had a back and forth that was interesting and valuable.

And I would so very much love to take it all back.

Towards the end of the discussion, someone said, we should contact Author X and let them know we are talking about this. And that brought me up short. How would Author X (or I) feel about stumbling upon this discussion, which was held without an invitation to particiate?

I am a reader, and I am certainly entitled to have and express my opinion on books. But I’m also a writer, and I cringe when I’m reading a blog or a list-serve and I see writers bash the work of their colleagues in a non-review format. That part is important.

There are many opportunities to review a published book.  There are also study questions and deconstruction exercises that are both fun and educational. There’s a difference between  reviews and exercises and a public hashing.

Why is it bad to talk trash about a fellow author, in print, with your fellow writers?

1. All authors make choices. Do you want your choices openly questioned by your colleagues, with no invitation for rebuttal?

2. Whatever your take on an author’s level of talent, talking about undeserved popularity makes a jab at the reading public. Do you want to alienate your own potential audience?

3. Publishing is a big business, but genres are a small world. What happens when you are sitting on a panel next to an author whose book you slammed?

4. What goes around comes around. Do  you want to open up your friendly Yahoo group discussion and find that you are lazy, untalented and undeserving of your writing success?

5. It’s bad manners. Notice how I’m not saying anything about Carly Fiorina’s hairdo.

6. It’s not good for your image. Who looks more like a sore loser–the basher, or the bashee?

I wonder how other writers feel.

Once an author reaches a level of success, is it open season on their work, anywhere and anytime? Or do we embrace Solidarity and the adage, if you can’t say something good, make sure there’s not an open mic around?

Ramona …who is writing this on a very humid day, so my hair is a nightmare, FYI

5 thoughts on “Talking Trash

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “This wasn’t up to snuff because…” — so long as you’re being respectful and, in your mind at least, constructive. That doesn’t mean it’s open season. It just means you’re stating your opinion in a low-key, respectful manner.


  2. Excellent point, Susan, about being respectful and constructive. It’s when it gets into “I don’t understand why Blank is so popular” or “Blank just writes the same thing over and over” that I start to cringe.


  3. Unfortunately, it’s become the nature of the beast (the beast being the Internet in this case) for us to sometimes catch ourselves saying things online that are more appropriate for a “private” discussion. Politicians become too comfortable with the constant media presence, and they slip up. We writers become too comfortable with the constant presence of the Internet. It happens.

    I’m constantly reminding myself about who might be reading what I post and find myself deleting before clicking send. Sometimes I hit send first and wish I hadn’t.

    That said, I don’t think it’s ever professional to trash another in your line of work online or off. But we’re human, after all. Sometimes it happens.

    By the way, I think I recall the discussion you’re talking about, and I don’t believe you trashed the author at all. Of course, I avoided most of the discussion because I hadn’t read the book yet. But from what I remember, it was an interesting conversation about choices and preferences.

    Interesting blog, Ramona.


  4. I always figure that Blank is so popular ’cause I’m not like most people. Period. As you know, I march to my own beat, and so when I see someone who’s really popular but who I would put in the backseat behind something like pigeon poop, I figure it’s me, I’m the minority, that’s not new, and whatever. Ya know?


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