Friday, April 8, 2011

Artists and Critics - How Much Contact Do We Want?

There have always been publishing companies that charge a writer to publish their own work. The rise of the Kindle and other markets for ebooks have made this even easier to do. Most people refer to these companies as "vanity presses," though some of the more optimistic writers refer to themselves as "indie authors." This method is either a great way to build a fanbase, or a total scam, depending on whom you ask.

Few of these authors ever achieve anything close to mainstream success. But sometimes they stumble into fame in other ways. Most recently, self-described "author, poet and artist" Jacqueline Howett managed to create quite a bit of a stir online when she took to responding to reviews of her book, The Greek Seaman

A small, humble blog titled "Big Al's Books and Pals," which dedicates itself to reviewing independently published ebooks, published a review of The Greek Seaman on March 16th. Big Al gave the book two stars, but he was not necessarily mean-spirited. The review acknowledged that the book had an interesting plot that was marred by a large number of grammatical and spelling errors, rendering the story almost incomprehensible. 

You can read what happened yourself - Howett appeared in the comments section, apparently incensed that Big Al had dared to give her book two stars. She posted copies of other, more favorable reviews, and then started to attack Big Al personally, with a grasp of the English language that did nothing to combat Big Al's criticisms ("...if their were any spelling mistakes they were corrected" reads one typical Howett response). By March 28th, Howett was calling Big Al "a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom [sic]", before leaving with the final, exquisitely professional, request to "Fuck off!"

Howett has received her comeuppance in Big Al's comments section (and, thanks to the strange power of the Internet, probably increased her sales as a result), so I don't want to relate this story just to pick on a woman who left a few immature comments on somebody's blog. But I think this incident reveals a few interesting things about the current state of the arts. 

In the past, Big Al would not have had a forum to publish his opinions on Howett's book, and Howett certainly would not have had a place to publicly respond. Now, the magic of the Internet allows for artists to respond personally to their critics. Suddenly the whole world is a lot smaller; it's certainly easier to provide professional criticism without the actual artist standing in the room, breathing down your neck. 

But while the artist, critic, and fan previously corresponded only on a professional and financial level, the great equalizer of the Internet means that all of these worlds are now colliding. Things like Twitter and Facebook give us unmediated contact with our favorite artists, and while that's certainly exciting for the fans, Jacqueline Howett proves it doesn't necessarily do the artist any favors. 

Another example is provided by Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy writer who we've reviewed on this very blog. Sanderson is a member of the Mormon faith, and on his personal blog in the past he's spoken of his thorny relationship with the Church's stance on homosexuality. This subject has never come up in any of Sanderson's book's that I've read (in fact, I detect no Mormon vibes whatsoever), so one might think that this would be a nonissue. However, that didn't stop a gay member on the website Reddit from starting a thread entitled "My Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Author Hates Me."

And here's the glorious and terrifying power of the Internet - Sanderson himself appeared on Reddit and responded, clarifying his position. (For the record, Sanderson's take was: "the government shouldn't be marrying anybody, and marriage is a religious right...I favor legislation that moves everyone toward getting only civil unions, and allow different churches to define marriage how they will.")

What followed was a nuanced debate about the separation of church and state, civil unions, and possible reforms within the Mormon church. But unlike Howett, everybody involved conducted themselves with respect. The person who started the subject even apologized for the incendiary nature of the original post. There was no big "hug-it-out" moment where Everyone agreed on Everything Ever, but reading the discussion, one walks away with the notion that it was at least a productive conversation between people taking each other's views seriously. 

But what's interesting is that the Internet allows us to call each other out on our shit. Sanderson was forced to confront fans not as some far-removed group who buy his books, but people who had real issues with his personal beliefs. Reddit was forced to confront Sanderson not as some distant homophobic monster, but as a real person directly talking to them. 

Sanderson comes across as a classy author, Howett as an unprofessional hack. But, in both cases, critics of these authors were directly confronted by the authors themselves. One of the situations was far more productive than the other, of course. But even with Sanderson's worthwhile conversation on Reddit, is this something we need? Shouldn't art speak for itself? Howett and Sanderson both felt misrepresented by their critics and made moves to correct the situation - but where do we draw the line? Do we need artists popping up on forums all over the Internet, tapping people on the shoulder and explaining, "No, this is what I really meant." 

But I'd be lying if I pretended that how authors conduct themselves in life didn't affect how I read their work, and I assume that this is why Sanderson and Howett reach out to their critics. Craig wrote an interesting post a few months back about Orson Scott Card's increasingly radical and homophobic views (even Sanderson, a fellow Mormon, wrote that "I'm not going to defend [Scott Card] on this particular issue."). Card's politics have nothing to do with Ender's Game, or my enjoyment of it, but it's there all the same. It's Roman Polanski Syndrome - in the back of your mind, you can't separate the art you're enjoying from the artist who created it. 

For better or for worse, the future holds an unprecedented amount of direct contact between artists, fans, and critics. There's no going back, and new figures are already learning to milk the Internet for all the publicity it's worth. But if authors are going to be popping up across the Web, I can only hope they conduct themselves with the dignity of Sanderson, and not the shrill martyrdom of Howett.