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August 11, 2005

Installment #15: Of Reviews, Fragile Egos, And "He Sure Went Ape-Shit", Part Four 

Since the last time, I have received nearly two dozen e-mails from people asking for a "preview" of this particular installment; Brian Keene received sixteen e-mails on the day the last installment posted, most of them of the "What the hell are you and Braunbeck fighting about?" variety.

It is to laugh. Sincerely. I mention Brian in reference to the Ron Horsley/Shocklines Affair, and everyone automatically assumes that he and I are going at each other's throats. More than a few of these e-mails expressed concerned that I was either going to point fingers and name names or -- at the other end of the spectrum -- tell people what they want to hear.

We'll be getting to all of this shortly.

As I said in the last installment, one of the things that prompted me to bring up this subject after so long a time is that, in the past five weeks, I have encountered no fewer than seventeen instances on-line of published writers attacking their negative reviews. I say "attacking" rather than "responding to" because in every single case, the writers have wound up throwing hissy fits, nearly all of which have ended with something along the lines of "...you ought to try writing a novel sometime and see how easy it is, then see how you'd respond to a review like the one you gave me."

Wah-wah-wah. Get over yourselves.

I'm not talking about the kind of reviews wherein the reviewer gives careful consideration to the writer's work, its intent, its overall effectiveness, craftsmanship, etc., and ends on a negative note ("I cannot recommend this book.").

No, I'm talking about the kind of review (and I use that term in its broadest possible application) that says, "Man, this book sucked. This guy can't write his way out of wet paper sack. I'm never going to read him again, and am going to tell all my friends to avoid his work. At least I don't have to buy any toilet paper for a while now."

These, for the most part, are the types of "reviews" that I have seen writers attacking lately. With a passion.

And it's embarrassing as hell. I have no doubt that many -- if not all -- of these writers think they are making a strong point by putting the reviewers in their place, but as far as I'm concerned, all they're doing is giving people the impression that the reviewer hit some kind of nerve with them; after all, if the review has no merit whatsoever, why would anyone bothering responding to it? But since the writer did respond, then the review must have some grain of truth to it, no matter how ineloquently expressed. Right?

Once more, with feeling: Wah-wah-wah. Get over yourselves. Not everyone is going to love every single thing you write, and some folks are going to be less than kind when expressing that opinion. Besdies -- shouldn't you be working on the new book or story, not wasting your time defending yourself to someone who's going to take your response as a backhanded validation of thier point?

At this point, I'd like to ask that you pop over to the Guestbook area of my web site. Scroll down until you come to post made by vince on July 7, 2005 (you maybe should scroll down a little farther, as well). Basically, Vince (a wonderful guy who's been a regular here for a long time) thought that Brian Keen's The Rising (direct quote here) "...sucked." There's a little more discussion about this, and then, if you'll scroll back up, you'll find the following post from Brian Keene:

"Hey Vince--sorry to hear that THE RISING and CITY OF THE DEAD didn't work for you. Perhaps TERMINAL will be more your cup o' tea (it has characters and no zombies). But anybody that jams to Golden Earring is okay in my book. ;)"

That, my friends, is how you respond to negative reviews -- if you choose to respond at all. As a result of Brian's gracious reply, he sold 2 copies of Terminal to folks who otherwise would not have bothered. Brian did not get on there and say, "Yeah, well, you didn't spend 7 months writing and revising it, you didn't lose sleep over plot problems, and you don't have to worry about how you're going to make your next house payment if the book doesn't do well, so you know what? Suck on this...."

But responses like that from writers have been popping up with alarming frequency lately, and there's no good goddamn reason for it. Maybe this sort of thing has been going on for a long time and I've only recently become aware of it, but aware of it I am, and sickened by it, as well.

And when did I become so (arguably) over-sensitized to this?

During the Infamous Ron Horsely/From the Borderlands/Shocklines Affair.

For those of you who might not be familiar with The Shocklines Discussion Board, it was established by Matt Schwartz -- one of the premiere on-line booksellers of horror fiction, and quite possibly the most infectiously cheerful human beings you'll ever meet -- a few years ago as a way for Matt's customers to directly interact with those writers whose work they were buying. Curious about what T.M. Wright's next novel will be? Then go on Shocklines and ask him. Want to know why Jim Moore decided to split his latest novel into three separate volumes? Ask him on the board.

This was, and remains, a pretty damned smart marketing strategy on Matt's part -- and make no mistake, marketing was one of the primary reasons Matt decided to host the board; if his customers had a place where they could communicate with the writers whose work he was selling, then it's all good for everyone invloved: his customers get the pleasure of interacting with their favorite writers, Matt sells more books, and the writers always have a place to go to hear what's on readers' minds (and to get an ego boost when one is needed -- you will not find a more friendly, enthusiastic, and vocal group of fans than those who haunt this board, and more than a few of the published writers you have read have stopped in for some much-needed kind words from readers when the work sometimes get the better of them). People can talk about damn near anything they want, so long as it doesn't become personal or discourteous. (And Matt will make this call if needed; it's his right. He pays for the web space, he monitors the board, and everyone is there because of his money, time, and effort. It's his virtual home -- like this web page is mine -- and in Matt's house (as in mine) there will be courtesy.)

A little over a year ago, just after Warner Books released the anthology From the Borderlands in paperback, a guy by the name of Ron Horsley posted an utterly scathing review of it on the Shocklines discussion board. Ron liked some of the stories in the collection, but mostly he didn't. A lot. A lot.

It was, in actuality, only half a review of the book itself; the other half was a merciless criticism of Tom and Elizabeth Monteleone's editorial process, which Ron found to be unfocused and overly self-congratulatory.

In short, it was an almost wholly negative review that was in places a bit mean-spirited (not nearly as mean-spirited as his reviews would soon become, but we'll get to that). The review was bad, yes, but not so much that Matt considered it to be offensive or discourteous -- Matt, in fact, welcomes conflicting opinions on the board, as they often lead to interesting and in-depth discussion.

Well, even if you weren't party to the debacle that followed Ron's review, you can probably guess what happened: the backlash was instantaneous and overwhelmingly defensive. Everyone thought -- to put it mildly -- that Ron's review was unnecessarily harsh, but (and this is the part that was consistently overlooked after the initial explosion) almost no one who responded to this addressed any of Ron's points; they instead went after Ron himself. He was an "asshole", a "jerk", and "...probably some wanna-be writer who got rejected by Tom and Elizabeth." The theorizing about why he did it and what kind of writer and human being he was continued ... and yet only a small handful of people -- mostly writers who had a story in the collection -- made reference to his criticisms of the work itself.

(An aside: Tom Monteleone -- never one to shrink from a good fight -- recognized the review for what it was, and did not bite. Instead, in typically classy fashion, he chimed in once with: "I can see some of the points he's trying to make. I don't agree, but I can understand how someone might see it that way. We should just move on." If only that had happened....)

Well, Ron was quick to respond to every comment made, and as the thread went on (and on...and on...) the posts between him and those who jumped into the fray grew increasingly more vicious, defensive, spiteful, and, at last, personal. It quickly became no longer about the review, but about one-upmanship, who was going to get the last word, the best zinger.

It was pathetic and embarrassing and childish and beneath the intelligence and dignity of everyone who chose to remain involved. (And please spare me the defense of, "Well, he started it." Yeah, he did, but people could have chosen to not continue it, could have taken Tom's sage advice and moved on, but they didn't. Once a gauntlet has been picked up, it doesn't really matter a damn who threw it down.)

Ron then went on to shoot himself in the foot when he replied that, yes, he had submitted to Borderlands and, yes, his story had been rejected. Well, that just went over like gangbusters, because now everyone had even more reason to dismiss his opinions as sour grapes. The focus shifted completely from the content of his review to the reviewer himself, and it got ugly in a hurry on both sides. Ron posted reviews of The Rising, House of Blood, Possessions and several other books in rapid succession, the mean-spiritedness of which increased geometrically with the rancor directed his way on the board. A scathing review from Ron was met by infuriated responses, back and forth, until it all became so personal and offensive that Matt started locking threads and, ultimately, banned Ron from the board.

But it didn't remain on the board. It spilled over onto Ron's own mesage board, as well as those of several other writers, not to mention countless e-mails that flew fast and furious between people, the contents of which became more and more personal. I'm not going to discuss this aspect of the event because I deliberately stayed away from it -- even those few times Ron tried to bring it up in person with me. And I did this because none of it should have happened in the first place. Why?

Because Ron posted a review that was obviously designed to get the response it did. Had peoples' reaction been like that Brian Keene gave to Vince in my Guestbook, none of the ugliness that ensued would have happened. But the bait was thrown out, and it was taken, and what followed, followed. (An aside: Brian Keen's initial response to Ron's review was not unlike that he offered to Vince. It was not until Brian felt that his friends were being unjstifiably attacked that he got deeper into it, but enough of this already; methinks you've got a good idea of what went down.)

And I didn't say a damned thing.

I didn't say anything because, A) I had a story in From the Borderlands that made Ron's very short "pass" list (with reservations on his part), and knew that anything I said woyuld have been seen as defending Ron because he gave my story a thumbs-up; B) I knew most of the people who were taking part in the argument; and, C) Ron was -- and remains -- a close friend of mine. To step in and say anything would have been seen as choosing sides, and I refuse to be pulled into any fight that I had nothing to do with. I'm gonna be dead soon enough, and I've got better things to spend my anger and passion on than a flame war with delusions of granduer.

But then it started coming back on me and my wife. And it's still coming back on us. I started getting e-mails, and then phone calls, from people telling me that I had to "...do something to control" Ron or it was going to hurt my career.


Lemme get this straight: here's a guy who all of you think is an asshole, whose opinions you find meaningless and worthless, and who -- in the words of one writer whose book Ron was particularly harsh on -- "...should not be taken seriously, nor should anyone who associates with him..." -- this is the same guy who's going to damage my career and credibility because I'm friends with him?

I put this question to Matt Warner when he called me with his concerns, and Matt told me -- as a friend -- that there were: "...a lot of people who're taking your silence as tacit approval of what Ron's doing. They think because you're not saying anything, that you agree with him."

Well, it turns out that Brian Keene was one of those people who assumed that my silence was tacit agreement with -- and approval of -- what Ron was saying. "Kinda figured you didn't care for the old Broiler anymore," was what he said. ("Broiler", by the way, is my nickname for Brian.)

If you have been reading this carefully, then you're going to realize that nowhere in this installment have I taken a side on this issue -- except, of course, my own and that of my wife.

For those of you who made the same assumption that Brian did (and he and I remain friends, as do Ron and I), I say to you now the same thing I said to Broiler:

You should have asked me.

But thus far, only Brian Keene has had the good sense to do so -- directly ask me -- after I said that.

Which is why he is the only person who knows what I thought and still think about the whole unfortunate mess. He was concerned enough about our friendship -- not his ego -- to ask me, because he knows that friends can both strongly agree and/or strongly disagree on something and still remain friends.

I wish other friends had paid me this courtesy.

Here is where I definitely take a side.

My wife and I live in Columbus, Ohio. This part of Ohio is all but overflowing with science fiction, fantasy, horror, and dark fantasy writers, many of whom live less than an hour from our front door. Off the top of my head, I'd say there are at least half a dozen writers who live nearby, many of whom Lucy and I used to see socially at least once a month. We thought of them as friends.

Well, take a wild guess as to how many of them we've seen socially since the Ron/Shocklines debacle.

Zero. No get-togethers, no phone calls, and e-mails only when it has to do with business.

Had it only been one or two of them, I would not have given it a second thought -- after all, we're all busy writing, and that has to come before most things in life, save health and family.

But it wasn't just a few of them -- it was all of them, and at the same time. You needn't be Einstein or Hawking to discern the connection. (There is one fellow who both Lucy and I don't include in this group because we know how damned busy he is, and always has been, but for the most part, we've run out of excuses for the rest of them.)

For my part, I can live with it; in one form or another, I've spent most of my time alone for most of my life, I'm used to not hanging out with folks, so the lack of an active social life isn't exactly a stake through my heart.

This has, however, deeply, deeply hurt Lucy, and that I cannot -- nor will I -- live with. Lucy used to be a web-page designer -- and a pretty good one, to boot.

But here's the thing: since the Shocklines debacle, she has lost every one of her clients, a couple of whom at least had the balls to tell her it was because "...everyone knows you're friends with Ron..." and they didn't want it coming back on them. (I'll remind you that Ron is the asshole whose opinions carry no weight whatsoever, nobody takes him seriously, his views are worthless, etc.) She has also had potential clients decide to not use her services for the same reason.

Not only that, but as the war escalated onto other boards and blogs, some folks felt compelled to seek out some of Ron's on-line writing so they could tear it up the same way he tore into Borderlands. Some of his stories had been published in Dark Planet , a web-zine that had been running for several years, edited by Lucy (long before she permitted me to be her hubby). It wasn't enough for these folks to just attack Ron's work that appeared there, no; they had to attack and insult the zine itself, as well as Lucy herself and her efforts at editing and maintaining it. Even when I pointed this out to one group, no apology followed; instead, what I got was: "Yeah, well, it's a lame title for a 'zine, and Ron's stuff sucked, so it doesn't say much about her abilities as an editor that she published it." (That she also published work by Kelly Link, Nalo Hopkinson, Brian Hopkins, and several other award-winning writers was never mentioned, nor that some pieces originally published in Dark Planet went on to be reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Doesn't say much about her abilities as an editor, my ass.)

At the same time "Ron-Gate" was happening, an anthology was being put together that was only recently released (nope, not gonna tell you which one). I saw this anthology, and wondered aloud why I hadn't been invited to submit something for consideration -- the type of stuff I write would have been perfect for this book. So I asked the editor -- a person I've never worked with and now never will. This person's response? You guessed it: "Everyone knows you're friends with Horsley, and I didn't want that affecting sales."

But the icing on the cake for all of this was applied a few weeks ago when I came across a brief thread on another discussion board about my forthcoming Leisure novel, Keepers.

Quick backstory: at the request of editor Don D'Auria, I did a major re-write on Keepers (it orginally appeared in my CD-Rom collection, Sorties, Cathexes, and Personal Effects); I wound up cutting something like 35, 000 words from it and replacing them with nearly 45, 000 new ones. At its core, it's still the same story, but much of it is very different from its original version.

Anyhoo ... I wound up getting seriously blocked on the new opening sequence. Well, enter Ron one afternoon with a brief story about a funny air-freshener he saw hanging from the rear-view mirror of another car and -- viola! -- the new opening sequence reveals itself to me, whole-cloth.

So I dedicated the book to Ron. Told a handful of people about it, and why.

So here's this discussion thread, wherein one person says: "He's dedicated it to Ron Horsley. I'm sure as shit not gonna waste money on any book dedicated that that asshole."

This followed by several posts of agreement; so at least seven people I know of aren't going to be buying the book because I dedicated it to Ron. Talk about guilt by association....

So, here you have two people -- my wife and myself (mostly my wife, goddammit) -- who had nothing to do with what happened at Shocklines, but who, now, have been hurt both professionally and personally because they chose to stay out of it, and it's easier for people to make wrongheaded assumptions about their reasons than do the intelligent thing and ask them.

And all because a handful of people could not handle a bad review that was all-too obviously designed to make tempers flare.

Don't call me or send me e-mails detailing all the personal stuff that happened after Ron's first series of reviews. I am talking solely about his reviews and the initial reactions they solicited on the board. Even more specifically, I am talking about his review of From the Borderlands that began all of it -- and should have ended it right then and there, had not everyone been so willing to take the bait.

If I sound angry, it's because I am. I am angry that my wife has lost all her web-page clients since then (and all within the first week); I am angry that some editor passed me over for an invite not because my work wasn't what he was looking for (my stuff would have been right at home in this book, and he knows it) but because I knew someone who was an object of controversy at the time; I am angry that there are writers out there who assume that the Shocklines board -- as wonderful a place as it is -- represents the attitudes and opinions of the horror field as whole, which it most certainly does not; I am angry that people Lucy and I thought were our friends just assumed that I was siding with Ron because I refused to get invloved in what was and remains an ultimately childish display of tempers; I am angry that people were not only quick to assume my views, but then speak of it to others as if they had some sort of inside information; and I am utterly disgusted that since all of this happened, more and more writers are taking to the web to attack their bad reviews as if it actually proves something other than their complete lack or professionalism, thick skin, and a spine.

My wife has felt diminished and lonely and sad because of what has been directed her way since all this happened, and if it were in my power to assemble everyone who made her feel this way so that I could go down the line with a baseball bat and break all their kneecaps, I would do so without a moment's hesitation. Because you may think that by doing what you did, you proved that you could take a stand against those who attack others' work, but all you've accomplished is to show what weak and pitiful cowards you really are. You hurt my wife's feelings for no reason other than you couldn't hurt Ron's, and so felt compelled to make someone suffer your wrath so you could go to sleep feeling self-righteous and secure in your sycophantic place. How easy it is to side with the majority, even if you know or suspect that the majority may be just as much to blame for things going sour as those the majority accuses of instigating the trouble.

Dress it up in all the bullshit justification you want, but the truth is this: she did nothing to deserve this treatment. (And by the way, neither did I.)

You should have asked.

But you didn't. And so you will never know.

You know what? The above statement isn't completely fair. I decided to write this installment so I could clear the air, and that's what I'm going to do, so here goes:

Did I approve of what Ron did? What the hell does it matter? He's an adult, just like everyone else who got involved, no one needs my permission or approval. For the record: I wish he hadn't done it (I told him that to his face) because it hurt his career. If you're nice, it's viewed as a weakness, and peoples' memories are short; if you piss them off, they will be cursing your name on their deathbeds.

Did I agree with anything he said in his initial series of reviews? Some of what he said, yes. He did make some salient points, but the manner in which he made them too often overshadowed -- and arguably negated -- their validity; it became not so much about the opinions he was expressing as it did how they were being expressed. (This also have I said to him face to face.)

About which books/novels/stories that he reviewed did you agree with him? That's my business and mine alone.

Do I think he is entirely to blame for what happened? No, I do not, and if you've been reading this installment carefully, you know why.

Do you think anything good came out of this? Yes, I do. Every time Ron posted a review, that particular book and its author were a hot topic of conversation, and several people said ourtright that they went out and bought the book so they could read it and offer an informaed opinion about why Ron was wrong. Several writers garnered themselves new readers and additional book sales because of the controversy. Like the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

So, actually, you're defending him, aren't you? You haven't been reading this very carefully, have you? I'm not defending him, nor am I distancing myself from him; he is my friend, as is Brian Keene, as are several of the people who were invloved in this unfortunate incident. If a friendship can't survive a strong disagreement, then it wasn't much of a friendship to begin with.

Then why bring all of this up? Because my wife has been insulted, ostracized, and deeply hurt as a result, and it's been going on for a year now, and it's going to stop, because the people who have done this to her have subtracted enough joy from her life; I'm also bringing it up because I am, A) sick and tired of seeing supposedly professional writers acting like a bunch of shrieking infants every time they get a bad review, and, B) everyone else allowing them to get away with behavior that would be right at home on a playground during 6th-grade recess but has no place in the world of professional publishing.

Which brings me back to my original point: If you are a writer who feels compelled to publicly defend your work against bad reviews, all you wind up proving is that you have too fragile an ego to be in this business in the first place. And if your anger and passion is channeled into anything other than your work and making this world a better place for those you love and care about, then it is wasted effort. Period.

That's it for this installment. From the looks of things, the Fuzzy Bunny Squad may be returning -- with reinforcements -- next time. Come back at the end of the month and see for yourselves.

In the meantime, I won't be looking for any party invitations to come my way.

Until then, stay tuned....



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