Thursday, 7 July 2011

Open House Day 38 - Jan Edwards

Do We Dare To Comment?

Choosing a subject for a blog is more difficult than I imagined, and reading Steve Lockley’s backlist of guest blogs made it even harder. Being one of the handful of female writer included in the BFS Awards short list (a totally unexpected occurrence that I am still reeling from) I had originally thought to cover gender issues. But it’s been done – and at great length.

Then I attended a Writers’ Conference and heard a rather interesting snippet of gossip. Rumours had it that a publishing professional, whilst giving a 1-to-1 feedback session, had been attacked by an enraged writer. Allegedly, the writer had lunged across the table and grabbed for the editor who had the temerity to suggest changes to said writer’s manuscript.

It appears that this particular ‘writer’s genius’ had never been challenged before. One assumes their Mum loved their work, and perhaps that had always been good enough.

There were hundreds of 1-to-1s that weekend, the vast majority of which went on in an entirely professional, orderly and civilised fashion. But that one example of raised passions bordering on lunacy will stick in the mind.

My immediate thought on hearing the tale of violence was how the victim and, of course, other editors would feel about future 1-to-1 sessions. Would it make them wary of offering face to face opinions in the future? Both sides of the equation – writers seeking to improve and editors searching for new talent – are put in jeopardy because one stupid person could not cope with the professional feedback they were there, one assumes, to receive.

So there it was, my blogging topic: Do we dare to comment?

Some may think this an odd question to ask of writers and bloggers who freely discuss their work online. But I wonder, how honest are we? Do we really say what we mean? Or are we all a little guilty of ducking issues to avoid the inevitable storms that this medium – the internet – tends to generate? Is that avoidance a good thing or a bad?

With the internet comes immortality. Comments that once existed only in personal letters or, at the most, in the pages of a magazine, are now out there for all to see. And it appears that they are both accessible forever and for a greater readership. Does this necessitate a far more delicate hand when it comes to expressing personal opinions about the stories and novels one reads? In a modern age where anyone can be an expert, are people less willing to accept comment?

Returning to face-to-face commentaries: I have belonged to many writers’ groups over the years. Some are excellent, others, frankly, a waste of time – a complete waste of time from my perspective.

One group that I attended a few years ago came into the latter category. It had been running for many years and had a long-standing core membership. Each week these members would read their work, and then sit back as they received a polite round of applause (I kid you not), and bask in the collective glow of a mutual appreciation society. It was quite obvious that genuine opinions were not welcome when the ‘comments’ were always of the ‘lovely dear’ variety. That might not have been so much of a problem had they not advertised themselves as a group for aspiring writers. When it came to my turn I said nothing, and didn’t go back for a second session.

Fortunately we have another group locally, The Renegade Writers, who have no such qualms. I know that several writers have come once and run away, unprepared to have their literary babies murdered – as they see it – by the pack. In fact, the feedback is always constructive and stimulating.

This reluctance to comment also extends to the world of the slush pile. I suspect there are many reading this blog who are, or have been, involved with a publishing imprint of some kind and know full well the problems that can and do arise from giving feedback on submissions.

I’m sure that a great many writers would welcome an honest break down on why they have had a rejection letter or email. But there are also sufficient rabid scribblers out there ready and willing to lash out at the smallest critique they receive – and that makes it a dangerous move for editors to provide feedback. Vitriolic diatribes on your editing skills, and occasionally your ancestry, are common enough to make the form rejection letter a very useful tool.

Reviewing brings similar problems. Of course, reviews should be well reasoned, indicating why the reviewer liked or didn’t like a particular piece. Hatchet jobs serve no purpose. But if you have a book to review that you find unreadable what do you do? An aspiring writer can change his/her writing group. An editor or slush reader issues standard rejection letters. But does the reviewer move to the next book on the to-be-read pile and not write that review, or does he/she ‘tell it like it is’? We’ve seen cases, on various forums, where an author on the receiving end of a bad review has attacked the reviewer. Completely nonsensical, and only goes to highlight the author’s weaknesses as a writer.

I’m not sure I can be bothered to comment on the anonymous scathing and badly argued reviews found on a certain bookseller’s website which are another matter entirely.

As an aside, there was a case some time ago when the BFS Prism received a letter blaming a reviewer (not me I hasten to add) for the correspondent buying a book based on a review, and that they didn’t enjoy. The letter writer hinted that maybe the reviewer should reimburse the reader accordingly. This is an extreme – and amusing – example, I agree, but an interesting take on the power of the review.

To return to the question: Do we dare to comment?

The answer, in my humble opinion, has to be yes. Otherwise where would be the point of becoming a writer, especially one trying to develop, trying make a living? Having an opinion can be a dangerous thing, it seems, when flack may make you feel miserable. But not having an opinion would make the fantasy world – indeed the whole the world – a far less interesting place to inhabit.

A past chair of both the British Fantasy Society and Fantasycon, Jan is currently Book Reviews Editor for the Prism section of the BFS Journal. She is also an assistant editor with both the award winning Alchemy Press. She has been short listed this year for the BFS Short Story Award Read more at:


  1. Interesting and highly pertinent blog, Jan. With the explosion of self-publishing and ebooks there are many 'authors' out there who 'publish' their work with no quality checks in place like professional editing. Many think having next door's auntie check for spelling mistakes and typos is all that is needed. They refuse any form of criticism other than gushing praise. They will never learn or improve as they have no concept of honing their craft.
    Something the aggresive person mentioned in your blog has yet to grasp.

  2. Oh I so wish I'd seen that. Did you giggle? Even a little bit?