Feedback and Distortion

In what has turned out to be a nice bit of convergence, I started this post last night (title included), then woke to find a very nice interview of Richard Nash by Guy Gonzalez that helped focus my thoughts.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed myself hesitating to write a few comments on sites for fear of A) appearing like a self-marketing weasel, and B) appearing like a know-it-all weasel. It’s not so much that I’m trying to pass along anything even remotely controversial, but that, as a writer, I’m intensely conscious of how my comments or feedback may affect other readers’ or visitors’ perceptions. To the extent that all information in a conversation affects the next part of that conversation, these things are inevitable. Distortion in this sense is neither positive or negative: it’s simply the effect of the weight of one’s words on the subject at hand.  

How all this relates to storytelling and online distribution is a bit murky for me, and so far it’s something I sense more than consciously understand. But I think it has implications for Richard’s Cursor project (which the interview does a nice job of updating) and for anyone else who hopes to use the internet pipeline as a tool for increasing the frequency and/or depth of conversation between readers and readers, writers and writers, and reader and writers.

I genuinely like the idea of a fan being able to connect online with a favorite writer, or a writer being able to hear from people who want nothing more than to say thank you for a story that touched them. I also like the idea of writers and readers being able to share information with their peers, and I particularly like the idea of books becoming focal points of debate and consideration on the merits, as opposed to the more disconnected (and one-sided, if not roulette-like) process inherent in reviews.

But stop for a minute and think how thoroughly hit-or-miss review assignments are, especially when they involve free-lancers. What if the person first asked to do the review of a first novel called “Now That’s What I Call Romance” –who would have raved about it and said, as one reviewer in the Times once said of a book I acquired, “I beg you to buy this book” — was trying to mend a broken heart and had decided to limit her reading to chocolate-dessert recipes. The person who ends up getting the assignment might also have a broken heart but accept the assignment as an opportunity to inveigh against the foolishness of romantic love and ridicule the novel’s very premise.

Turning a static review into a debate strikes me as a good thing, particularly as regards putting the reviewer on notice that they will also have to defend the merits of their words. (I don’t mean a hot-seat debate with timers and moderators, but rather a back-and-forth between reviewer(s) and author over time.)

After far too many years listening to people talk about Hemingway’s persona when they thought they were talking about Hemingway’s writing I draw a sharp distinction between an author and their work, and I tend to dislike criticism (academic or otherwise) which seeks to explore and explain a given work by digging into an author’s past or (apparent) psychological make-up. Having writers on the record may help mitigate this sort of sanctioned speculation, and I think that would be a good thing. As long as everyone remembers that authors are no more likely to speak absolute truth — particularly about themselves — than is anyone else.

Having a fair bit of experience with workshops, I’m particularly vexed about feedback becoming distorted in any sort of public or semi-public space, although no one has actually proposed such a thing that I know of. Anyone who’s spent ten minutes online knows that the inherent mixing of anonymity and opinion is a toxic gas that cannot be contained, so there are certainly going to be some casualties. But I also wonder about the negative space: what is it that people might not say that might be useful to hear?

Again, I think all of this can work. I’m very interested in Richard’s initial model, and how it will evolve over time. Trust seems to be a big part of what I’m concerned about, but that can be managed with fair but firm community policing. At which point time itself will tell.

(More weird convergence here as this is published.)

— Mark Barrett

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  1. says

    Thanks for the shout-out, Mark! Your point about comments and the impression they can leave is one I’ve long dealt with, especially years back when I was a lot more pugnacious, but if you’re legitimately adding something to discussion and being yourself, then there’s nothing to lose. When I used to review comics, I was surprised by the way some writers would respond to negative reviews, and worse, how they’d gush over badly written, vacuous praise.

    I’m a lot more optimistic about Cursor after talking with Nash and doing the interview. I think his model is viable and, most importantly, he’s being realistic about how to pull it all together. The questions of trust and community policing are huge, but the way he’s approaching things, both should be organic elements of each community.

    • says

      My pleasure. I think you brought Richard out of his shell. :-)

      If writing is the center of the discussion (for Cursor or any other similar model), I think it works. If it becomes personality-driven, I think it falls apart sooner or later. Or becomes corrupted by celebrity.

      What I would dearly love to see is an online approach to writing which is completely unrelated to commerce, to academia, to publishing — to any of the institutions which have been so critical in supporting good works throughout the centuries. The internet is that rare artistic space that can exist as a transparent medium — as so many visual artists have found out over the years.

      My own version of that, I think, will involve the whole question of writing and readership with a few of my own works. I think that’s the key to everything at the most basic level: defining and refining the personal experience of both writer and reader. I’m genuinely curious about that.

  2. says

    Brilliant post, Mark. I’d like to point out that while all these reviews and critical assessments on books would appeal to the academic, or the intellectual, it doesn’t have that much of an impact on, say, the average joe who just wants to read for lunch. Is there a better way for reader-writer interaction? Definitely. But for the majority of people, communicating (reviewing) on the Internet is just another way of saying ‘thanks’ to the author after reading a book they particularly like.

    • says

      I agree with you. Because I tend to think about things too much, my focus becomes warped by concerns about how all of these interactions might forge learning and mentoring opportunities, how the reader-writer communication process might be liberated from current restraints, and how writing itself might evolve as a result of a virtual space in which ideas can be shared. (Something that’s never existed before.)

      The end result is that I lose sight of the obvious. People just like to talk to each other. :-)

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