Mission Critical At Writer Unboxed’s UnConfab In Salem

iStockphoto / sphraner
iStockphoto / sphraner

Reviewing? What’s Your Motive?

Next week, I’ll be leading a session on criticism — “When To Listen And What To Hear” — at Writer Unboxed’s “Un-Conference” event in Salem, Massachusetts…where they know a few things about being critical.

That session and this column are not about the more extreme moments in consumer review that have been so avidly discussed lately.

Laura Miller
Laura Miller

You’ll be familiar, for example, with the strange case of the YA novelist Kathleen Hale whose stalking of an online detractor is given (finally) some sober, contextual consideration by my colleague, the Salon critic Laura Miller, in her piece, Battle Of The Trolls: Kathleen Hale Reveals The War Raging Between Authors And Readers.

Among the simplest but most important points Miller makes is a parenthetical line having to do with the online element of that tawdry business. Miller points out:

So much of the Internet’s nastiest manifestations come from those who view themselves as underdogs striking back in the only way they can.

While Miller goes on to reference the myriad dust-ups on the huge Goodreads site (which became so insupportable at one point that they triggered administrative intervention last year), for me the key concept she has introduced in her good essay is animus — as in intent, an objective. Sometimes it’s the negative ill will of animosity, but not always. In many cases there are ostensibly and apparently positive intentions animating some of the worst excesses of reviews encountered by readers and writers today.

I can give you a sense for what I’m talking about in a religious reference, of all things. (The many talents of ministers’ sons, you see?) Among the great faiths, Christianity is sometimes said to be set apart primarily by its evangelical tenets: the mission. Trying to persuade others to believe what one believes and behave the way one behaves (“one way”) is not essential to all doctrines, as it is to many formulations of Christian myth and practice.

And what marks a lot of consumer review is mission. A purpose. An intent to cause one reaction or another in the reader of the review. Many people writing reviews today either consciously or unconsciously are trying to sway those who read their reviews to do one thing or another: read the book or don’t read it; see the film or don’t see it; buy the music or don’t buy it; eat at the restaurant or eat somewhere else; etc.

It might surprise some of those consumer reviewers to know that this is not, in fact, a part of traditional critical practice.

Nothing here is about consumer reviewers’ rights, by the way. You frequently hear, “I have a right to write this thing any way I want.” And that’s correct.

But having the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

The noise and bad blood around a lot of reviews and reactions could be eased if more reviewers stopped trying to trigger one reaction or another in everyone else.

The best critic doesn’t instruct you to go to a play, read a book, avoid a concert, or try a new gym. The best critic simply lays out what she or he thinks about something, then steps back and lets the reader of the review make up his or her mind.

The Writer Unboxed community is the kind that will understand this point: asking yourself what your motivation is for writing a review can help you sidestep a lot of the troublesome tone that can make consumer reviews such a swamp — or your manuscript such a mire.

Writers, Unboxed In Salem

9780142437339BNo better place than Salem to be reminded of how easily a pack mentality can overcome individual discretion and drive people to behave in ways they’d never entertain alone.

The late Arthur Miller, whom I had a chance to meet and interview, wrote an articulate precede to his playscript for The Crucible. His drama is about the madness that produced the Salem witch trials in the 17th century, and he wrote about the setting for such atrocities this way:

The people of Salem in 1692 were not quite the dedicated folk that arrived
on the Mayflower. A vast differentiation had taken place, and in their own time a revolution had unseated the royal government and substituted a junta which was at this moment in power. The times, to their eyes, must have been out of joint, and to the common folk must have seemed as insoluble and complicated as do ours today. It is not hard to see how easily many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought upon them by deep and darkling forces.

Needless to say, there’s an acute “out of joint” sense attached to many elements of the digital dynamic, which has made it possible for so many people to publish books. Most are amateurs to the professional world of publishing — not quite the Mayflower elite of the so-called “legacy” industry — at least in the eyes of many traditionalists.

Where once an orderly, august regime of mainstream-media “legitimate” critics parsed the literature of the day, we now have, as Laura Miller’s article is headlined, a “battle of the trolls.”

And while newcomers to the business may celebrate by self-publishing untold numbers of books (we truly do not know how many), they also approach their own and their cohorts’ work with few of the guidelines and shared values that over many decades have outlined the rigors of a deeply flawed but highly organized publishing industry.

This is why the choice of Salem as the setting for the Writer Unboxed conference is of note. It runs November 3 through 7.

Moon SistersThe event is organized and led by the author and Writer Unboxed co-founder Therese Walsh. Her The Moon Sisters has just been named a “best book of 2014” in the women’s fiction category by the Library Journal.

And one of the most adamantly staged characteristics of this inaugural doing of the conference is that “there are no sessions on the business end of things,” as Walsh puts it to me.

“No sessions on finding an agent, self-publishing your book, platform, how to tweet, Amazon, etc.”

The primary interest of the Writer Unboxed community is craft. Probably no more than 30 percent of the daily posts blogged to its highly trafficked site in a month relate to business issues. Most articles are about writing and the writing life, occasionally focusing on the inspiration and/or fortitude required for serious writing.

In fact, so different from this group’s overall norm are my own and a few others’ pieces — mainly driven by news events in the industry! the industry! — that a special bit of branding has been created for my articles: “Provocations in Publishing” is meant to make it clear that my journalistic bent may provoke some regular readers in ways that a piece on nurturing a protagonist’s sweeter nature might not.

We all coexist with remarkable geniality and lots of laughs. Many of us are looking forward to meeting in person. Over drinks. Especially Campari (my dream sponsor).

Walsh’s development of the Salem program has some fun components relative to its provocative social setting.

Therese Walsh
Therese Walsh

For example, some if its 95 or so delegates will engage in sessions at the Nathaniel Hawthorne House of Seven Gables visitor’s center.

In one instance, the author Brunonia Barry will walk the historic Hooper-Hathaway House property with a group while discussing settings in fiction. Barry will lead another session in “method writing” (as in Method acting) in which attendees will have lunch “in character” as one or another personage from his or her work.

In some instances (including my own about criticism), instructors will take a standard, programmed workshop approach. In others, attendees will drive the discussion with their own questions and interests — the source of the “un-conference” term being applied to the event, reflective of gatherings that are given their agendas by their participants.

Lisa Cron, John Vorhaus, Liz Michelski, Meg Rosoff, Kathleen McCleary, Ray Rhamey, Heather Webb, Catherine McKenzie and Donald Maass will join Walsh, Barry, and me in the corps of session leaders. Maass’ series of several independent workshops will be followed on November 7 by a full-day presentation based on his seminal book — a tremendous advance, even in his own well-regarded work — Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.

With luck, I may have a chance to talk with a couple of attendees, as well, about the #MusicForWriters material I use in my series of columns here at Thought Catalog with the help of Q2 Music.

The Critical Connection

21st century fictionNo, I anticipate no court being established at the Hawthorne Hotel to determine which of us has truly seen Goody Therese with the Devil. However, it’s worth looking once more, briefly, at Miller’s timeless work’s opening essay:

The edge of the wilderness was close by. The American continent stretched endlessly west, and it was full of mystery for them. It stood, dark and threatening, over their shoulders night and day, for out of it Indian tribes marauded from time to time, and Reverend Parris had parishioners who had lost relatives to these heathen.

In our own time, we stand at the edge of the digital dynamic’s ham-handed overtake of our media. Publishing, we like to say, is the last to go. As the wise Henry Volans at Faber Press said to me this summer in London, “publishing has taken the digital disruption very hard.” And so it has.

Few shoulders have no chips on them these days. Everyone is mad about something, most frequently an expectation unmet by the reality of a business pulled apart in the siege of aspirational effort crashing in from that “edge of the wilderness.” The Net itself can stretch into a jungle “full of mystery” for us, “dark and threatening,” that battle of heathen trolls always nearby, worrisome, damaging.

And at times, the rudeness, vulgarity, and undisguised hostility encountered in the consumer review setting can look very much like an assault. Discussions rage in many parts of the conversational arena online about “the tone” of online discourse today. The word “attack” is everywhere. It takes no sociological cleverness to realize that for some reason the electronic distance of our interactions on the Internet cause many people to dismiss the self-restraint they’d probably (we have to hope) exercise IRL, in real life.

In keeping with the craft focus of things, my session on criticism will focus not on the bad-part-of-town nature of customer reviews online but on the actual writings those things contain and on what to do with it — I did not say where you can put it, thank you.

 Donald Maass
Donald Maass

And it’s worth considering the organizational preference among the Unboxed Writers for craft over business. Digital is an engine of distribution, not of art or aesthetics. And while it’s just fine for this conference to eschew business considerations for a concentration on craft, surely Salem is a place in which we will know that we skirt “the edge of that wilderness” at our own peril.

The next time you get ready to write a comment on a post or to dash off a review of someone’s work, ask yourself what your intent is. Clarify your own motivation. Check your fears.

If you’re interested in putting into words something of your own reaction to an author’s writings, an artist’s vision, a composer’s concept, this can be of immense value both to that maker and to your fellow consumers. The less emotion you bring to the task, the better, too.

But if you find that your instinct is animated by a desire to either promote or suppress sales of the work — if there’s something going on for you that makes you want to affect what others do in response to your review — take a little time, mull it over, check what’s triggering that response: understand your mission.

Your actual impetus, however informal, can skew your commentary and reshape its best values with intentions you haven’t noticed or considered.

I should explain that I’m a professional critic trained in critical theory and practice — a Fellow with the National Critics Institute — and I’ve worked as a critic in masthead positions with The Village Voice, The Dallas Times-Herald, The Sarasota Herald Tribune, The Tampa Tribune and other mainstream media. For the first time in history, our once joking line — “everybody’s a critic” — is true. We, too, have been disrupted, you see.

And how many acting in that new guise of reviewer might see themselves, as Laura Miller writes, as “underdogs striking back in the only way they can”? Do they recognize that motivation? Or just act on it.

Those of us who have sat in the aisle seats for so many years, have had to learn to juggle what we really saw or heard or read with. how we felt or thought or wanted things to go. And I can tell you that detecting and neutralizing quiet, unspoken motivations behind your own criticism is not easy.

At the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, we’ll be talking about what reviews actually say, and what they don’t say. But we’ll be keeping an ear to the forest. (Wait. Did you hear something?)

After all, my name — from the Latin, port-arius — means “gatekeeper.” Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Main image: In Salem, Massachusetts, stone benches set into a wall form the Witch Trials Memorial dedicated in 1992 by Elie Wiesel. There are 20 granite benches, one each for the 14 women and six men executed on conviction of witchcraft in 1692. 

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

Keep up with Porter on Twitter

More From Thought Catalog