Wednesday, April 1, 2015

It's Time For You To Grow Up (part 1) (an IWSG post)

Let's start with a story:

My wife is a data analyst. It's a job that requires some math skills. Not a lot. Not like calculus or trig or, even, all that much algebra, but it does require some maths. There's a lot of working with percentages and fractions. There are a few months each year when her job is really busy and requires lots of overtime. Last year, not long before the rush, one of the people in her department retired. Like any good company, to get through the busy time, they hired a temp. A temp with the potential to stay on. That was rather than hire someone permanent for the position at the point when they still had time to do that and provide adequate training, but that's another story entirely.

Now, the temp they hired seemed qualified for the job, which was not the full job, just some of the lower level routine stuff that required a lot of time. She looked qualified on paper, anyway, and got through all of the interviews and stuff. However, when it came time to do the job, she couldn't math. At all. It was almost immediately apparent that she wasn't going to work out, and there was still time to hire someone else. But, guess what, that's not what happened.

What happened is that they kept her on. The initial hope, I think, was that if they kept working with her that maybe she would "get it" and be able to do the job they hired her to do. But, no, that didn't happen. She never "got it" and, in fact, for a while, she made more work for everyone as she continued to not get it, because she would spend time doing a task (more time than it should have taken) and, then, someone else (usually my wife) would have to go back and re-do the task because it hadn't been done correctly. Eventually, after weeks of this, she became a kind of glorified filing clerk, because that's the only thing she could do.

I want to point out at this point that she was, as my wife put it, "a perfectly nice person, very sweet." She liked her. Everyone liked her. There was no one that thought she was a bad person or a dumb person or anything like that. But she couldn't do the job. And, yet, the people who should have told her that she couldn't do the job were unwilling to do their job of letting her know that she wasn't working out. Nothing positive came out of the situation.
1. It created more work for everyone involved.
2. It caused the marginalization of the temp as they looked for tasks to keep her busy because they couldn't give her any real work.
3. It created a false sense of hope in the temp as the message she received was, "you're doing fine," even though everyone knew that wasn't the case. But, you know, they kept her on, so she must have been doing something right, right? No...
4. It caused resentment toward the people who should have stepped in and said, "Hey, you're not ready for this work, yet. We need to let you go and find someone else." And, maybe, she never would be ready for it or, maybe, she just needed to get reacquainted with her math skills. No one will ever know, because no one ever told her that she wasn't doing the job. They just kept decreasing the level of the tasks given to her.
5. She was never told in what way she failed at the job. When the time was up on the job, they just didn't retain her. There was never any feedback on what she could have done to be kept on.

And, see, that's the real issue. No one ever told her what she was "failing" at, so she never knew what to get better at. Well, other than my wife explaining the same errors to her everyday, to which she would always reply, "Got it!" in a way that seemed the first few times that she really had gotten it. But that, having a coworker try to show you what you're doing incorrectly, is not quite the same as having your superior, the person who has the ability to tell you they need to let you go, sit you down and explain to you where you're not meeting expectations.

See, no one wanted to be the one to hurt her feelings.


So I'm just going to say this:
Screw your feelings.
And, yes, that sounds more harsh than I really mean it, but, still, screw your feelings.

The problem is twofold:
1. Indie writers who hold their friendship for you hostage in order to get good reviews.
And, man, have I run into this one. I've lost count of the number of "friends" I've lost over negative reviews, but I'll just say this: If our "friendship" is conditional upon me saying that I like what you write, then we have no friendship. If I can't say to you, "You know, I don't like this one," without you yelling, "Well, you're not my friend," then we're already not friends. Or, likewise, if I can't say that about something some friend of yours wrote. It's the same thing. All I have for you is this:
It's time for you to grow up.
2. Indie authors who are unwilling to give honest reviews to their friends because they are scared of losing their friendships.
I know you "think" you're supporting your "friends" by giving them positive reviews of their not-better-than-average books, but, really, you're just making it harder on everyone, yourselves included. Every 5-star rating you throw out there that should have been a 3 or a 2 or, even, a 1 is destroying the credibility of the indie book market in general. You know how I know? Because I see it said repeatedly by book reviewers who refuse to review indie books and by readers who will not buy indie books (sure, they'll download free stuff because who cares if it's free). They see all the false positive reviews out there and have learned that you can't trust indie authors. I'm sorry, but the fact that you are out there lying (because you are lying) about the quality of your "friends'" books is making my job more difficult. And, you know, it's encouraging them to continue to write the same crappy stuff rather than working on getting better. What I have for you is this:
It's time for you to grow up.
 Here's the thing, people say it all the time, "If you want to be a writer, you better develop some thick skin," and that's true. Except it's not about having "thick skin." It's about learning separation. The things people say about your work are not things they are saying about you, and someone can very validly say, "I don't like this thing you made, but I like you." When you flip out about that and do the virtual equivalent of yelling, "Then, I'm not your friend," you're acting like a first grader. At best. And, well, if that's where you are developmentally, then you need to go find something else to do with your time, because, frankly, writing is not for you. Or, at least, writing for anyone other than yourself. You need to do what Dickinson did and store it all in a trunk and leave it for someone else to sort out after you're dead.

But here's the other thing about being a grown up, and maybe this comes from having spent so much of my life as a teacher, you have to be able to tell people when they haven't done a good job. If the only thing you can do is tell people "good job" because you're worried about hurting someone's feelings, you need to grow up, too. This is not a dinner party where you nod politely and tell the host that the substandard food is "wonderful" and "delicious." In fact, that behavior at a dinner party will lead people not to come back and leave the host wondering why. You know, since everyone said they loved the food the previous time. The problem here is that in this "dinner party," we're all responsible for the food and, when we go around telling each other "oh, I love that" when you actually want to spit it out then that's the food that gets served. But, see, we're not the guests. Readers are the guests and, when they keep coming to the indie writers' banquet only to find a bunch of crap food that the all the "cooks" are saying is wonderful, well, then, those readers will decide that ALL indie food is crap.

Basically, if you are unwilling to give a negative review, you shouldn't be giving any reviews at all. The whole thing where you opt out of reviewing the books you don't like and only giving reviews to books you do like would be like me only giving As and, maybe, Bs in my classroom and leaving all of the other kids gradeless. It doesn't help the situation.

So, no, when I read a book that I don't like, for whatever reason, I get to say I don't like it and, even better, I get to explain why I didn't like it. Other people can then come along and figure out if they want to try it. So, if I say, "This one is too sweet," someone who likes sweet things will go, "Oh! I like sweets! I'll try this one." Or, if I say, "This one was too salty for me," someone else has the option of saying, "Oh, yeah, I don't like lots of salt; I'll stay away from this one."

Honesty is important in reviews. Period. It's not about treating my "friends" like they're five and saying, "Oh, it's beautiful!" and hanging it on the refrigerator. So sorry if you think that's what this is all about. There comes a point when even parents quit hanging those things up. Usually right about the time the kid realizes the drawings are actually pretty crappy.

So, just to reiterate, if you're approaching this whole indie writing thing as if it's some weird support system of giving good reviews to your buddies so that they won't feel bad, well, just grow up. Actually, and excuse the language (or not, I don't really care), it's time for you to grow the fuck up.

[This post has been brought to you in part by Alex Cavanaugh and the IWSG.(But, mostly, this one is just me.)]


  1. Well said. I've seen so many threads and blog posts and what-not that say, "I won't leave anything less than a 4-star review" or "If I don't like it, I don't review it" or "If I couldn't finish it because it was so bad, I won't review it." What's the point of reviewing at all? And this is for any book, not just self-pubbed.

    At the same time, I suspect part of this also stems from the well-publicized cases of authors behaving badly when faced with bad reviews. A lot of people want to avoid the potential trolling of an author's "Internet Army" (or even an author's multiple fake IDs) if they leave a bad review, so they just don't bother. It's a shame.

    1. JeffO: That's the risk you run, for sure, and I have run into plenty of that, as you will see if you come back for parts 2 and 3 of this series. But badly behaving authors reflect poorly only on themselves.

  2. I've learned as a critique partner to really say what works and what doesn't. I didn't at first, especially with an early critique partner who just wasn't very good and I didn't know how to tell him. Now I know.
    If I don't like a book, I usually don't get past the second or third chapter, if that. And sorry, I won't review a book I didn't read.

    1. Alex: Yeah, you're no good as a CP if you can't bring yourself to say what's not working.
      And I agree with you about not reviewing books you didn't read. As a general principal, anyway. I am about to make an exception, though.

  3. Well, you can try to get people to tell the truth in reviews when it comes to friends' books, but the practice of giving high marks is pretty ingrained in the online/social media culture. Not sure that will change. I assume everyone can judge books for themselves, though. There's usually a way to check out the first chapter for yourself before you buy to see if a book is something you'd like or not, regardless of reviews.

    1. L.G.: That's not always true about the first chapter, though. A book can be really good that doesn't seem to start out that way, or a book that has a really good opening can go one to suck hairy lollipops. When you're dealing with mainstream stuff that has lots of reviews, you can usually pick through them and a few that actually evaluate what you're looking at. When you're dealing with indie stuff that usually has less than a dozen reviews and they are all "yea! this is awesome!" you don't have any way to evaluate.

  4. Your opening here caught my attention. In my years of management I hired a few of those dud employees. They gave great first impressions in interviews and had wonderful resumes. Some people are really good at convincing people to hire them and I fell for it more than once.

    I think sometimes those people really don't want to be doing the job so once they get on and start collecting a paycheck then they just sit back to get what they can for as long as they can. That's been my argument against raising minimum wage: If someone's good enough an employer will be willing to pay them what they are worth. Firing someone is not something most managers like to do and there can sometimes be unwanted repercussions in those firings.

    Kind of like the bad reviews I guess. I mostly don't review much because I don't read enough. I have given some less than stellar reviews and have had the authors stop contacting me. I like to be fair, but honest. If an author doesn't want honest then they are going to hurt themselves in the long run. The market will be the one to decide and the market can be brutal. But the market sometimes can also be stupid and accept crap so I guess it's all a crap game in the end. There's just some crap that's a whole lot better than others. And how I got there I'm not sure, but maybe something that I said made some kind of sense.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    1. Lee: I think she wanted to do the job. I mean, she tried to do the job; she just couldn't get it right. Not that I haven't known plenty of people who spent most of their time try to figure out ways to look like they were working when they really weren't.

      It's true that the market accepts a lot of... low quality work, but that doesn't mean I'm going to rush over and give Twilight (because that author started out, for all intents and purposes, an indie author) a 5-star rating to be nice. We judge by the standards we hold, and we shouldn't toss those aside just to be nice and stroke someone's ego.

  5. I agree that honest feedback is crucial, especially for those of us in the teaching profession. But, as I think I've probably said before, what most people lack is the ability to criticize constructively. Too many either slam shamelessly, ignore the problem or, perhaps most aggravating, opt for the passive aggressive approach.

    As far as friends and colleagues are concerned, I've always valued those who aren't afraid to be completely honest. It's often not easy to hear the truth but it sure beats delusion.

    1. TAS: That's true. Most people can't tell you why they don't like something without someone else prying it out of them. Still, a simple "I didn't like this" is better than a positive review to "support" something you didn't actually like.

    2. I think every artist needs a trusted friend. Honesty is good but it's also important to realize not all opinions are equal.

    3. TAS: That's true. As I was saying in my creative writing class the other night (the one for adults, not the one for middle schoolers):
      If not for Lewis, we wouldn't have Tolkien.
      But, if Lewis had listened to Tolkien, we wouldn't have Lewis.

  6. I never like the "thick skin" analogy. It never seemed apt. Honestly, I do think people have to be worried about others' feelings, because they aren't nearly enough. But this doesn't mean that you shouldn't critique or point out problems. That being said, there's a difference between being sensitive to feelings and just being nice so you can get a good review back.

    1. Jeanne: The way to be worried about an author's feelings is to only talk about the work. If I start bashing the author and name-calling, that's different than talking about the reasons I didn't like a particular work. If I talk about the work and the author gets all bent out of shape, that's on the author.

  7. Well, I like you but I disagree a bit.

    The dinner party analogy isn't quite apt; if I come to your house for dinner and the food is awful, I'm not sure I should 'review' it and say so. If it's just a social occasion, a little white lie is probably called for.

    If, though, you say "How'd you like the food? I'm thinking of going into business as a chef," I owe it to tell you the truth.

    So reviewing a book for an indie writer is the latter; this isn't someone just doing something for fun or to be friendly. If someone tells me a story over lunch, and they're just BAD at telling stories, I don't say anything. I just nod and laugh etc. It's different when you're trying to do it as a business. It's just silly to say "I am going into business but you can't say anything negative about my products because that will hurt my feelings and/or destroy our friendship."

    About not posting negative reviews: I don't think it's exactly like only giving As or Bs; again, that's your job. I employ people and have to review them. I dislike criticizing people and making them feel bad. So I don't. Instead, I say something like "We need to get you more organized. Let's see how we can avoid having this happen again." I try to find jobs for people that match their skillsets; I have one employee who is very disorganized but good at other things, so that person is NOT in charge of things that require a lot of preplanning.

    The point is: if you are required to review EVERYONE because it's your job, you have to do negative reviews. Last year, I had to pull a lawyer off ALL of my cases. I had never done that before. But I was disappointed in his work and couldn't trust him to work on my files, and I told him so. I was polite about it, but that was it.

    So teachers have to grade everyone, and that means telling some people you got an F.

    But as a reader, I don't have to review anyone at all, and I can pick and choose who or what to review. I try to post positive reviews of books I liked from indie authors because I want them to know I liked the book and I want other people to know I liked it. That's my only goal in posting reviews: Let people know I liked it.

    I think your goals are more along the lines of 'providing information to people.' So in that case you have to post a negative review; that's more your thing, reviewing the good and the bad. But I don't think people should feel compelled to post a review of everything they read, especially if they don't want to make someone feel bad. I'm just taking the stance that it's wrong to post a false review to help someone or save their feelings..

    1. Briane: Okay, as a side: I wasn't so much thinking of a personal dinner party at my house as I was a big hosted event. That's my bad for not being more clear.

      And I do understand your point about choosing what you review. However, when you're dealing with the indie book industry, choosing to only review books you like is bad for the industry. If we, as independent authors, want readers to take us seriously, we have to do a better job of informing the readers. The general consensus about indie authors is still a bunch of authors throwing crap against the wall and seeing how much of it sticks.

      Aside from that, indie authors need reviews, and a negative review is often as good as a positive one if it gives credibility to the book.

  8. YES. Your story at the beginning was perfect. I knew exactly where it was heading, and I really can't agree more with your opinions on this. Very well stated, Andrew. :) Shared it.