How Amazon reviews became the new battlefield of US politics

13 October 2017

From The Guardian:

There are stars that twinkle and shine in the firmament and yet others that determine the destiny of authors. In the case of the latter, every author wishes for an Amazon page that is, much like the Coldplay song, “full of stars”. Hillary Clinton, former US presidential candidate, and author of the testily titled What Happened, was not such a fortunate author. A mere day after it was released, Clinton (or, more likely, one of her many publicists) found her book’s Amazon page to be a battleground. Within 24 hours of the book’s release, 1,500 reviews had been posted and – like the American electorate – divided between ardent love and ferocious hatred for the book and its author. The former slathered on five stars, the latter a single, sulky one. The election, it appeared, was being replayed in Amazon reviews.

But while power and strategic string-pulling were unable to turn the election, they did come to Clinton’s rescue in the review wars. The day after the book’s release, Amazon chose to remove nearly 900 reviews from Clinton’s page, a move that brought the book’s rating up from 3.2 stars to a dazzling 4.3. Ever cryptic, Amazon alluded to its “community guidelines” and cited “mechanisms in place to ensure that the voices of the many do not drown out the voices of the few” as a reason for the excision. Supporters of Amazon’s move went further: the reviews could not have been legitimate, they opined; so many people could not possibly have read and then loved or hated the book in a single night. One week later, What Happened was averaging five stars, based on more than 1,500 reviews. Only one recourse remained for the Hillary haters: voting up the few remaining one-stars from “verified purchases” as “most helpful”.

Amazon is not always sympathetic to sad sagas of political animus wrecking the review destinies of authors. The story of Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is an example. Bray’s book, published by Melville House, happened to be released the Monday after neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to a counter-protestor being run over and killed. This placed Bray’s book right in the middle of President Trump’s blame for “both sides” by likening Antifa to neo-Nazis. Eager to fight, some of the so-called “alt-right” took to Reddit with a screenshot of Bray’s Amazon page and the instruction: “Currently at 3.5 stars. You know what to do.” They did: in no time, the book’s listing was, in the words of its publisher Dennis Johnson, “flooded” with single-star reviews. Johnson complained to Amazon – via the automatic submission forms provided to the non-Clintons of the world – and a few one-star reviews were removed, but at that point there were now about 50 of them. Johnson even sent Amazon a screenshot of the Reddit page, but was still unable to speak to a human representative. The reviews, meanwhile, slowed the book’s sales, claiming that purchasing the book would support violence. In an odd and unlucky irony, the gap in intellectual history that Bray had attempted to address in his book – the US’s inattention to anti-fascist resistance – manufactured the material for its condemnation. A book about fighting evil was characterised as evil.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Marcel Proust paid for reviews praising his work to go into newspapers

2 October 2017

From The Guardian:

The French writer Marcel Proust paid for glowing reviews of the first volume of his Remembrance of Things Past to be put into newspapers, letters by the author reveal.

The novelist wrote the notices himself and sent them to be typed up by his publisher “so there is no trace of my handwriting” to distance himself “absolutely from the money that will change hands”.

The letters have come to light with an extremely rare copy of Swann’s Way, which is expected to go for around half a million euros (£438,000) when it goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s in Paris next month.

They make it clear that Proust orchestrated the operation himself from his bed, promising his editor at the publisher Grasset that he would “of course, pay him back in full”.

The wealthy writer paid 300 francs – around £900 today – for a flattering reference to Swann’s Way to appear on the front page of Le Figaro, then – as now – one of France’s leading dailies. He paid a further 660 francs for another much larger summary of a glowing review by a friend of his to similarly appear on the front page of the Journal des Debats.

. . . .

Proust’s desperation for publicity was partly because he was having to pay for the book’s publication himself, experts said. A string of publishing houses had turned it down before Brun persuaded his boss Bernard Grasset to take it in 1913 – but only if the author paid all the costs.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Are reviews worth reading?

23 August 2017

This article is written by a software developer and is about reviews of an app he was involved in creating for Dropbox. He read a lot of reviews.

Since book reviews are of continuing interest to most authors, PG was interested to see so many similarities in the behaviors of readers of books and the users of software apps. The OP’s analysis of star ratings from various subgroups of users was particularly intriguing.

PG thought some of this software author’s thoughts might be beneficial to those who write books (which are converted into ebooks which are a component in ereading software programs).

From Medium:

I recently read thousands of reviews about our Dropbox app. Call me crazy, but it was the most riveting thing I’ve read all year. I laughed, I cried, I got warm fuzzies inside.

Why in the world would anyone read so many app reviews? Well, I was on a mission. I wanted to learn more about our users and what they thought about our product.

Yes, we run user studies at Dropbox, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear from people across the globe. I wanted to read their actual words — tirades, triumphs, and all.

Looking back at this experience, I have to say it was incredibly humbling. I learned new things about our users that I never would’ve learned otherwise.

. . . .

1. People just want to be heard

The first thing that jumped out at me while reading these reviews was that people had such strong opinions about our app. As I scrolled from review to review, I noticed people using a whole lot of superlatives—words like mostbest, and worst popped up again and again.

. . . .

After crunching the numbers, I found that over 70% of our app reviews were either 5-star or 1-star reviews. Over two-thirds of reviewers either loved or hated our app.

Why is it that people tend to give extreme ratings? There are a few theories that try to explain extreme responding, but I like to think that people on the internet are just passionate about voicing their opinions.

People want to be heard, and giving a 1-star or 5-star rating adds oomph to your opinion.

. . . .

2. People want to know what’s going on

A little over a year ago, we stopped writing release notes for our iOS and Android apps. Instead, we used a generic message about how we “regularly release updates.” Although we wanted to write release notes, there were a bunch of internal reasons that made it difficult for us to keep writing them.

You might be thinking, “Who the heck reads release notes anyway?” Well, it turns out a lot of people do. After we stopped writing release notes, 12% of reviewers complained about our generic release notes. That’s more than one in every ten reviews!

. . . .

5. Ratings differ a lot by country

Our Dropbox app is available in over 100 countries. Except for the UI language, the app is pretty much the same in every country.

Because it’s the same app, you’d expect the ratings to be roughly the same in every country, right? Well, it turns out our ratings are pretty different in each country.

Let’s look at our iOS app, for example. In the United States, we have roughly the same amount of 5-star reviews as 1-star reviews. But in Japan, we have almost twice as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews. In Brazil, it’s flipped—we have a lot more 5-star reviews than 1-star reviews.

Link to the rest at Medium

The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again

22 August 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

The fourth floor of the New York Times Building, where the eponymous paper’s newly-formed Books Desk keeps its nest, is, somewhat appropriately, under construction. One side of the floor is blocked off with yellow barricade tape. On the other side, the books team, led by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, is undergoing renovations of its own.

Those changes began last August, when the newsroom leadership decided that the paper’s books coverage, both in print and for the web, should be centralized to one desk. Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.

With the choice to combine books sections made, another choice was inevitable: how to combine. “You could say, ‘Let’s just take these three separate sections—which, again, were really derived from a print newspaper era—and shove them together and continue coverage as-is, coordinating more,’” Paul said. “Or you could pause and take a moment and say, ‘If you were starting from scratch and weren’t just pushing these three sections together, what would New York Times books coverage look like?’”

The paper opted for the latter, and began the process of discovering what that coverage would look like by expanding Paul’s duties from running the Book Review to overseeing all books coverage at the paper.

. . . .

[A]s Paul put it, “this is one of the cases in which centralizing and consolidating is not reduction. It’s expansion. Obviously, we need the staff to be able to carry that out.” That has meant bringing on faces both fresh and well-known at the Times over the course of the past year, including deputy editor of books features Laura Marmor (from the paper’s Styles section), Susan Ellingwood as news and features editor (from Opinion), digital staff writer Concepción de Léon (from Glamour magazine), fact-checker and occasional writer Lovia Gyarke (from the New Republic), and Book Review staff editor Lauren Christensen (from Harper’s Bazaar), among others. Earlier this month, senior editor Parul Sehgal, a PW alumnus, joined Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior as a daily critic in the wake of the departure of longtime chief critic Michiko Kakutani—one of many writers at the Times to recently take a buy-out. Kakutani’s role will not be filled.

Once Jones was on board, she and Paul, along with the research wing of the Times, set out to investigate what current and prospective readers of the paper, both in New York City and elsewhere, wanted to see in terms of coverage. That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?

In short, the duo discovered the need for a paradigm shift in terms of how they were approaching the books that came across the Books Desk.

“It used to be that a book would come in and we’d say, ‘Should we review this or not?’” Paul said. “Now the book comes in and we say, ‘Should we cover this or not, and if so, what should that coverage be? What is the best way to tell this story, regardless of the medium?’”

. . . .

As for the Times bestseller lists—which, famously, are governed by an algorithm that the paper’s reporters and editors know nothing about—Paul maintains that publishers and authors (whom, she stressed, comprise only a subsection of the Book Review’s audience) were the only readers who showed any particular unhappiness about the axing earlier this year of such rankings as the mass market and graphic novel lists. She said that the Books Desk as a whole is providing a similar function for its readers in what she believes are much better ways.

“Many readers of the print Book Review don’t like flipping through ten pages of lists,” Paul said. “We’re going to have some kind of ‘new and noteworthy’ column [in the redesign], which is, frankly, a much better way to find out what’s new, where there’s actual description and an image of the book and a much more useful sense of what the book is about than a teeny little microdescription on a bestseller list.”

. . . .

But other growing categories, like e-book only and self-published books, will not be covered. “Frankly, many, many, many books have been thoroughly vetted and edited and worked on collaboratively, and we only review about 1% of those books,” Paul said. “For our editors to pay attention to the number of books that are coming out from every big publisher all the way down to the smallest indie publisher, and for them to do that job well, is job enough.”

. . . .

And the industry will, Paul insists, be there in 12 years for the Times to cover, undoubtedly in newer ways. The drumbeat of doom and gloom that accompanies the day-to-day existence of the book industry is, she noted, perennial. But as far as she’s concerned, that industry—like the paper that houses the Books Desk that covers it—is anything but failing.

“I am ever bullish on the book industry, because I think that people like to hear stories, and books remain one of the great ways in which to tell them. And as everything else gets faster, quicker, shorter, smaller, people look for balance in their lives and want to turn to books for a broader context, deeper context, a sustained narrative,” Paul said. “People looked at retailing, they said, ‘It’s dead, it’s gone, it’s done.’ And yet independent bookstores are thriving. Amazon is getting into the retail space. This could be a new area of growth. I don’t feel worried.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says any proper “Books Desk” in 2017 would have at least one person, and likely more than one person, located in Seattle, which is where the real center of the U.S. book business is and will be for at least the next several years.

PG notes that Amazon is mentioned only one time in the OP, and only because Amazon has opened a few physical bookstores.

At times New York City seems like a very provincial place.

What the Departure of the Times’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

18 August 2017

From New York Magazine:

Except for the few people who were privy to Michiko Kakutani’s growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic, most readers were surprised by her decision last month to take a buyout after 38 years at the New York Times. But one book publicist did have a premonition a week before the announcement. She had emailed Kakutani about a controversial political book for the early fall, which was technically under embargo, and hadn’t heard back with a request for an early copy. Books that break news are zealously guarded from most reporters and critics, but when Kakutani asked, you just mailed it off and bit your nails waiting for the verdict.

It’s usually overreaching to call any critic’s departure the end of an era, and Kakutani’s writing career isn’t over at all: This week she signed a multiple-book deal with Crown’s Tim Duggan Books. The first book, published next year, will be a controversial political book of her own, a cultural history of “alternative facts” titled The Death of Truth. But an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me. Her column was a gauntlet no major author could escape, a maker of new stars (Zadie Smith, Alice Sebold, Jonathan Franzen) and punisher of old (Mailer, Updike, Franzen). And as she grew into the job, she became more legend than human, less knowable the more we got to know her. Famously private and therefore ripe for rumors (she’s dating Paul Simon! No, Woody Allen! No, she doesn’t exist!), given to quirks that made her a figure of snark (overusing the word limn, writing in the voice of Holden Caulfield), she attained a status in New York somewhere between Edmund Wilson and Dr. Zizmor. White male writers derided her for bashing their books, though Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was terrified of her, too. Kakutanied became a verb. But whatever was said about her, which was a lot, the one thing you couldn’t say was that her judgment didn’t matter.

. . . .

Meanwhile, the Times became a tougher place for critical gods. Lone wolves hurling thunderbolts from their garrets gave way to affable co-critics doing online chats, TimesTalks, and video clips, writing personal essays and exploring their own biases. Change has been especially swift in books. Last year, Pamela Paul, editor of the Sunday Book Review, was directed to consolidate the paper’s three separate book fiefdoms — the Review, the print daily reviews, and publishing news — under one print-and-online department. Each of the three daily critics was generally reduced to one review per week (though asked to supplement with essays). Important books that used to be reviewed in both the daily and the Review now usually get only one at-bat, and, as at the Book Review under Paul, there is a move toward appreciations, Q&As, genre roundups, and hot-take debates.

Lead critics are going out of style across the paper; there are now “co-chief critics” in art, theater, and film, and after Kakutani’s departure, no book critic will have the right of first refusal. (Dwight Garner will review on Tuesdays, when the biggest books are published, followed by more recent arrival Jennifer Senior and new third critic Parul Sehgal.) Critics now meet with editors to brainstorm new elements and submit their pitches to the will of the collective. It’s a sea change for the daily, where critics had barely interacted with either editors or each other, and where, per two sources, Kakutani had sometimes been allowed to choose her editors and even copy editors. “For a very long time, Michi got her way,” says someone close to the situation, “until very recently people started pushing back in a big way, and I think that was part of her leaving.”

Link to the rest at New York Magazine

The OP reminded PG that New York City is really a lot of gossipy small towns. In the particular small town in which the OP is set, everybody knows the book critic pecking order and is obsessed by the reviewer who is at the top of that pecking order and every word she writes.

Similarly, the residents of this particular New York small town keep up with the latest gossip about the Times – who’s up and who’s down, what so-and-so said about whoever.

PG has traveled to New York City dozens of times, most on business and a few times for pleasure. Generally speaking, he has enjoyed those visits (particularly when someone else is paying his expenses), so he’s not a New York hater.

But PG doesn’t think New York is the most important place in the world and he absolutely knows that, while some smart people live in New York, the large majority live elsewhere. Since he is an attorney, PG also knows some very good (and some very bad) attorneys practice in New York, but most very good attorneys practice somewhere else.

Without question, New York is a special city. But so is Chicago. And Los Angeles and Dallas and Atlanta and Miami and Denver and Seattle and San Francisco. Plus London, Paris, Brussels, Venice, Florence, Rome, etc. (PG admits a bias in favor of Italian cities.) Like the children in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, almost every city is above average.

A final comment from P.J. O’Rourke:

I live in New Hampshire. We’re in favor of global warming. Eleven hundred more feet of sea-level rises? I’ve got beachfront property. You tell us up there, ‘By the end of the century, New York City could be underwater,’ and we say, ‘Your point is?’

The Funnel Theory of Book Reviews

15 August 2017
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From The Writing Cooperative:

I read books.

Many, many books….about 125 a year.

Some are pre-release review copies. I read them and post my honest review on amazon, Goodreads and wherever else the author has specified. My favorite guidance from an author was to post my most forthright and honest review prior to release date because any review is better than none.

During a dynamic seminar by Gabriela Pereira, she talked about her stance on book reviews: she doesn’t do them. She is also a prodigious reader with wide-ranging interests and deep expertise. Her view is that if she posted reviews, they would have to be what she thought of the good, the bad, and the ugly — and she doesn’t want to do that. If she did not post negative book reviews along with the positive ones, she reasons that you won’t be able to trust her integrity, intelligence, and discernment: when every book is brilliant, no book is brilliant — obscuring the truly remarkable, important books of brilliance. (Plus, she is a profoundly kind, compassionate, and encouraging person.)

. . . .

While I finish reading approximately 125 books a year, that is not the total number of books that I eagerly borrow from the library or clutch to my chest in bookstores, swap meets, and other venues.

Many, many books don’t make the cut.

The cut is not a well-developed, profoundly considered benchmark. A book makes the cut when I am lost in the story, captivated by characters, laughing out loud in quiet public spaces, or weeping through every tissue. It is a lively experience, me and the words on the page, the story enticing, inspiring, and urging me to think, to feel, to imagine differently than I ever have before. This relationship with the book extends to all genres, all types of fiction and nonfiction alike.

. . . .

My book reviews tend to be positive, because I don’t read books that don’t work for me. It’s a big world with all kinds of readers; what doesn’t draw me in may be the best possible experience for someone else. Let them read it, review it, and attract readers who like that kind of story.

Link to the rest at The Writing Cooperative

What Happened to the Negative Music Review?

14 August 2017
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From The Wall Street Journal:

If you rely on reviews to decide what books to buy, movies to watch or restaurants to visit, you may have noticed something strange when it comes to pop music: Negative reviews have become extremely rare.

Between 2012 and 2016, Metacritic, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews for music, films, television and video-games, gave just eight out of 7,287 albums a “red” score—a designation that means reviews were “generally unfavorable” or worse.

Movies, by comparison, garner many more negatives: So far this year, Metacritic has given 39 out of 380 movies a red score. For albums, not one out of 787 albums aggregated thus far this year has received a red score.

“It’s actually news at this point when an album does get a bad review,” says Dan Ozzi, a writer at VICE’s music site, Noisey.

The dearth of negative music reviews is due to a number of factors. In the digital era, outlets covering music have become decentralized with fewer dominant players and more outlets running reviews. That’s helped create a new power dynamic between pop stars and the press—one where stars are less dependent on critics and critics are more eager to please artists.

Reviewers generally herd together—especially in praise of megastars like Adele, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift—instead of dissenting or championing less-known artists. With shrinking staff, growing competition and limited space, publications may simply not write about a bad album at all, says Jim Merlis, a veteran publicist who has worked with Nirvana and the Strokes.

A recent album by Radiohead was excessively praised by critics, notes freelance critic Joseph Schafer. “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which includes old songs that the band had performed but had not previously recorded, appeared on many year-end lists. “The band’s first album in five years was half a B-sides collection and half boring,” Mr. Schafer says, who didn’t review the album. “This record was lazy, why didn’t people call the band out?” Radiohead declined to comment.

“It can sometimes feel like there’s less of an appetite for [serious] criticism, or the culture has decided it’s unimportant,” says Amanda Petrusich, an assistant professor at New York University who teaches music writing and contributes to the New Yorker. “It makes [criticism] feel like just an extension of public relations.”

. . . .

Meanwhile, megastars like Drake, armed with huge social-media followings, can generate publicity themselves; there’s little upside to giving interviews or forwarding advance copies to critics. Some artists—Beyoncé and her sister Solange, for example—have taken to interviewing each other.

. . . .

Public shaming on social media can dissuade critics from being negative. While discussions between critics and angry artists once were private, now they are public, with pop stars sometimes haranguing critics on Twitter. Even without an artist prodding them, fans can attack a writer online. A critic being paid $75 for a quick review may seek to avoid being berated for a week on the Internet, critics say.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter

8 August 2017

From Vulture:

Young-adult books are being targeted in intense social-media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons — sometimes before anybody’s even read them.

. . . .

The Black Witch, a debut young-adult fantasy novel by Laurie Forest, was still seven weeks from its May 1 publication date, but positive buzz was already building, with early reviews calling it “an intoxicating tale of rebellion and star-crossed romance,” “a massive page-turner that leaves readers longing for more,” and “an uncompromising condemnation of prejudice and injustice.”

The hype train was derailed in mid-March, however, by Shauna Sinyard, a bookstore employee and blogger who writes primarily about YA and had a different take: “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” she wrote in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the novel as an end-to-end mess of unadulterated bigotry. “It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.”

The Black Witch centers on a girl named Elloren who has been raised in a stratified society where other races (including selkies, fae, wolfmen, etc.) are considered inferior at best and enemies at worst. But when she goes off to college, she begins to question her beliefs, an ideological transformation she’s still working on when she joins with the rebellion in the last of the novel’s 600 pages. (It’s the first of a series; one hopes that Elloren will be more woke in book two.)

It was this premise that led Sinyard to slam The Black Witch as “racist, ableist, homophobic, and … written with no marginalized people in mind,” in a review that consisted largely of pull quotes featuring the book’s racist characters saying or doing racist things. Here’s a representative excerpt, an offending sentence juxtaposed with Sinyard’s commentary:

“pg. 163. The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.”

Yes, you just read that with your own two eyes. This is one of the times my jaw dropped in horror and I had to walk away from this book.

. . . .

Based almost solely on Sinyard’s opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release. Its publisher, Harlequin Teen, was bombarded with angry emails demanding they pull the book. The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.

. . . .

The harm Mimi describes is central to campaigns like the one against The Black Witch, which are almost always waged in the name of protecting vulnerable teens from dangerous ideas. These books, it’s claimed, are hurting children.

. . . .

Dramatic as that sounds, it’s worth noting that my attempts to report this piece were met with intense pushback. Sinyard politely declined my request for an interview in what seemed like a routine exchange, but then announced on Twitter that our interaction had “scared” her, leading to backlash from community members who insisted that the as-yet-unwritten story would endanger her life. Rumors quickly spread that I had threatened or harassed Sinyard; several influential authors instructed their followers not to speak to me; and one librarian and member of the Newbery Award committee tweeted at Vulture nearly a dozen times accusing them of enabling “a washed-up YA author” engaged in “a personalized crusade” against the entire publishing community (disclosure: while freelance culture writing makes up the bulk of my work, I published a pair of young adult novels in 2012 and 2014.) With one exception, all my sources insisted on anonymity, citing fear of professional damage and abuse.

None of this comes as a surprise to the folks concerned by the current state of the discourse, who describe being harassed for dissenting from or even questioning the community’s dynamics. One prominent children’s-book agent told me, “None of us are willing to comment publicly for fear of being targeted and labeled racist or bigoted. But if children’s-book publishing is no longer allowed to feature an unlikable character, who grows as a person over the course of the story, then we’re going to have a pretty boring business.”

Another agent, via email, said that while being tarred as problematic may not kill an author’s career — “It’s likely made the rounds as gossip, but I don’t know it’s impacting acquisitions or agents offering representation” — the potential for reputational damage is real: “No one wants to be called a racist, or sexist, or homophobic. That stink doesn’t wash off.”

Link to the rest at Vulture

On some days, PG feels like he’s living

Watership Frown

3 August 2017

From The Literary Hub:


. . . .

“The impulse to make animals represent or incarnate human significances is of long standing in literature, going back at least as far as Aesop. For whatever reason, English literature has for scene time been especially lavish in the granting to animals of human properties: speech, humor, moral values, histories. One distinction of this kind of writing is that while it is mostly directed toward children, adults have enjoyed the best of it as much as children and sometimes more: Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, surely, but also Kipling, A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, even Beatrix potter.

I doubt that Richard Adams’s Watership Down is really aimed at young children, despite his having said that it arose from impromptu stories he used to tell his small daughters. I can’t imagine many readers under 13 or 14, an age when the lines between juvenile and adult fiction begin to blur, having the patience and grasp of extended allegorical strategies to persevere to the end of a 426‐page epic about a community of rabbits. And while older teen‐agers may well enjoy it, I suspect that this tour de force, the Iliad and Odyssey of Oryctolagus cuniculus, is going to find its true audience mainly among the people who have made a cult of Tolkien, among ecology‐minded romantics and all those in need of a positive statement, not too subtle but not too blatant either, about the future of courage, native simplicity, the life‐force, and so on.

I don’t mean to be condescending. Watership Down is in some ways a delightful book, at times an affecting one. But faced with the extraordinary praise given the book in England, one has to draw back some distance. Lacking the high wit and imaginative force of Alice in Wonderland or the triumphant (if occasionally purple) lyricism of The Wind in the Willows, the book seems to me a good deal less than the ‘classic’—with the implication in the word of settled universal appeal—that British commentators have so reflexively proclaimed it.

. . . .

“As in all such fiction, the plausibility issues from the detail and consistency with which the animal life is rendered, and above all from the resemblances we can discern to aspects of our own lives. To this end Adams offers a remarkable wealth of information on rabbit existence and wisely concentrates on matters of sustenance, living arrangement, behavior toward other animals, and the like.

“But as anthropomorphic fantasy replaces observation (the book is in an actual area of Berkshire, England, and Adams is particularly fine on landscapes and flora, weathers and seasons) he sees fit to give rabbits a folklore and folk‐heroes, a mythology complete with creationmyth and, finally, a language …  If I remember correctly, the great writers of animal fiction let their characters unselfconsciously speak the authors’ own languages, and this is proper because the imaginative act is complete once the literary decision has been made to allow animals to speak in words; to let them use their own worth, their own verbal language, is to tempt the pathetic fallacy beyond its acceptable limits. This may seem a small point, especially since the Lapine is a very minor element of the rhetoric, brit I think it symptomatic of what is wrong with Watership Down, or rather what keeps it from being wholly right.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

When Should We Ignore Criticism?

8 July 2017

From freeCodeCamp:

A fairly well-known and respected graphic designer once openly criticized something I had written and shared publicly. He did a poor job with his feedback however, as his only remark—in its entirety—was: “This guy doesn’t get it.”

The feedback stung, but it also made me question the designer’s intention and understanding of what he was criticizing.

“This guy doesn’t get it.” What was the “it” he was referring to exactly? How might I begin learning how to “get” whatever “it” was? What could I do to improve and become as seemingly aware and insightful as the critic? He failed to provide any answers. His criticism was hurtful and loud, but ultimately useless.

Of course criticism is important: it can expose us to perspectives we weren’t aware of, uncover flaws in our work, and help us identify areas for learning and growing. Criticism can be generative and help us create a more complete picture of whatever it is we’re trying to do. But some criticism, while obnoxiously loud, will lack any real substance.

Knowing when to tune-in and probe or when to ignore criticism is valuable. It will save you time, help you avoid headaches and heartaches, and get you to a place where you’re growing and producing good work rather than obsessing over the impossible pursuit of perfection.

In his book Antifragile Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:

“When you take risks, insults by small men, those who don’t risk anything, are similar to barks by nonhuman animals; you can’t feel insulted by a dog.”

In my example story, this once noble designer may have had some great years of experience, but if the only guidance he can muster to a fellow designer is: “you don’t get it,” he’s wasting his time. He wasn’t helping me, or any of his dutiful followers, just barking like an obnoxious dog.

When you hear or give criticism you must consider whether it’s additive or generative—is it offering anything that can be built on?—or is it neutral or subtractive?

If I had listened to the criticism—if I had taken the words to heart and believed that I wasn’t “getting it,” if I had done anything because of the criticism—I’d be no better off. Absolutely unchanged. Because I wouldn’t have had the slightest clue as to any reason the criticism might be true. What was the argument to be made against whatever “it” was I wasn’t getting? What was the way forward, toward understanding?

Link to the rest at freeCodeCamp

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