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Sunday, March 02, 2008

THE 'PENALTY' OF PROGRESS...

It was, I believe, Oscar Wilde who said 'I don't care what they say about me as long as they spell my name correctly...', or words to that effect. Perhaps, lacking skin as thick as Mr. Wilde, I do care what they say about me. At least to some small degree.
It has been interesting over the past few weeks watching the reviews that have been posted on Amazon regarding 'A Quiet Belief In Angels'. Obviously, small though it may be in comparison to the visibility of certain other literary, cinematic and musical luminaries, exposure is something of a two-edged sword. If no-one knows what you are doing then there is no target for criticism. The moment you put your head above the trench, look out for the shots.
Amazon is an interesting outlet. It accounts for approximately twenty percent of the books I have sold. It is also one of only two places where direct contact with readers can be established. The first point of contact is through my website, and the readers that e-mail me through the website are sufficiently interested in my work to have not only found the website, but to then send me a message. I must say I have never received a hostile, negative or critical e-mail. They have been - unanimously - messages of encouragement, support, sometimes questions regarding a book that has been read, in some cases questions from aspiring writers asking for help. I never let an e-mail go unanswered. The idea of failing to reply to someone is anathema to me.
So then we come to Amazon, again a means by which a reader can contact a writer, but not because the reader has a specific interest in a writer, but simply because they have read a book and want to make a comment. There is a scoring system, a grading from one to five for the book, one being the lowest grade, five being the highest. In excess of eighty percent of the reviews I have received for AQBIA have been four and five stars, and as we stand - out of a current total of eighty seven reviews - fifty eight of them have been of the highest grade. You would think that this would be reason to be pleased, but here we seem to highlight the fundamental human error, the fact that we always and invariably seem to concentrate on that with which we are dissatisfied, as opposed to that which meets our standard. I find it intriguing that there are reviews on Amazon of many, many, many wonderful books where the reviewer seems to have taken it upon themselves to be as vindictive, negative, personally vicious and hostile as they can be. On the Richard & Judy website there is on reviewer who has written not one, but four particularly nasty reviews of my book, and it reads as if she tried one review, thought perhaps that she had not been critical enough, and then proceeded to write another three, each time becoming more bold in her attacks, more vociferous in her hatred!
When I read similarly dreadful reviews of Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller's Wife), Carlos Ruis Zafon (The Shadow of the Wind), Kate Morton (The House at Riverton), Louis De Bernieres (Captain Corelli's Mandolin) - choosing only these at random because they have been hugely successful and very, very popular - I sat back for a moment and contemplated the nature of criticism and the effect it might create on the creator of that which was being criticised. How did Alice Sebold feel when she read something so hostile, so barbed, so seemingly spiteful, and written by someone she had never met, and was never likely to meet? I am not questioning someone's right to like or dislike a book, a painting, a piece of music. That is not the point here. The point is whether or not there is some seed of an idea in the mind of an individual that drives them to destroy something that others evidently enjoy.
Bob Dylan made an interesting comment in a lyric. Struck by the seeming negative attitude of some people he met, he was inspired to comment on them as 'bent out of shape by society's pliers, care not to come up any higher, but rather drag you down in the hole that they're in...', and it seems that this observation might have been as astute as many other observations he made.
So, without preaching or attempting to be pretentious, or overblown, or trying to be something I am not, or just failing to write even a halfway decent book (as my critics have unreservedly pointed out as some of my many failings), I am going to remind anyone who might ever decide to create anything of any aesthetic value that sometimes 'constructive criticism' is just plain old criticism, and that generally the ones who are the most helpful are the ones who point out what's right about something in an effort to make it better.
Critics don't direct films or write books or compose music or stage plays or design buildings...they just stand on the sidelines and criticise those who do.
This, though it may sound negative, is not a criticism, just an observation.
So please - if for no other reason than it is your vocation, your calling, your reason to be - go ahead and write the book, compose the song, complete the lyrics, finish the paintings, and get them out there where the world can receive them. The world - at least the vast majority of the world - will accept what you have done and tell you what they love about it. The small (and I mean very small) percentage will tell you that you shouldn't have bothered, that what you have done has no value, was a waste of their time, and you really should have remained at home and stayed quiet. That's what they want you to do. Why? Because if you shine brightly, it makes them look even more dull than they already are.
Go shine. Do what you were meant to do. To hell with the critics.
Last question: Who can remember the name of the guy that told Michaelangelo that he should try something other than painting?
No, neither can I.
Until we speak again, take care, best wishes.

15 comments:

Mark said...

It's interesting you should touch on this John as I was wondering (while reading the reviews for AQBIA on Amazon) whether that was a source of feedback that you would look at.

As a simple reader ('simple' being the operative word much of the time ;)...) I was much more swayed by the positive reviews - as you rightly point out, the majority of them are. I didn't trawl through them all, not sure anyone would to be perfectly honest, but the negative ones seemed to strike me as a being nothing more than the bitter, throwaway lines of the pretentious out there. I've not read the R&J site though and shall avoid the ramblings of the 'critic' you mention.

It strikes me that the social tools we now have consuming the internet have opened up this side of things like never before. Everyone's an expert eh! And now they all have a voice...blogs, wikis, fora, review sites...

I'm a bit of an amateur photographer and display some of my work on a photoblog, where viewers can comment. I like your thoughts on constructive criticism still being plain old criticism and pointing out the good things being just as helpful...it's a good way of looking at things.

As you say, people focus on the negative rather than the positive don't they. It makes me think of my kids. They're all at primary school and still at the stage where they get awarded for doing things well. Stickers, stars, etc. There comes the point though (secondary school or sooner?) where that will flip won't it. Then it'll be what they do wrong that gets held up in front of them.

Perhaps there's a fundamental flaw in our education system that shapes society in this way.

Blimey...rant over. Oh and thanks for the reply last time I commented - I'll definitely be going back to your previous books. Along with looking forward to your next! Cheers.

Mark said...

Bugger....Faux pas extraordinaire...

I was thinking "Roger John" and addressed you as John.

Me bad.

Mark said...

Oh bloody hell...I can't even spell it right! Please, Roger - just amend the first post, delete these next 2 and let me slink quietly away, tail between legs! ;)

R J Ellory said...

I was wondering whether someone might respond to this post, and there you were! Christ, don't even give the 'wrong name' thing a second thought! For years I have been known as Ellroy, to such an extent that when I was first published I suggested to my editor that he circulate a rumour on the internet in the vein of 'We would like to utterly deny the rumour or suggestion that Roger Jon Ellroy is in any way related to James Ellroy (he of 'LA Confidential fame)...' etc etc. Create a rumor that doesn't really exist, you know?
Anyway, to the point at hand. I agree utterly. I have an eleven year old and I have begun to see the 'Look at what you've done wrong' mentality creeping in at school. There's a point where children cease to be just cute and funny, and they become 'accident prone' and 'hyperactive'. Don't even get me started on the bulls*** psychiatric evaluations that seem to be the order of the day. Anyway, before I get mad... thanks you for your reply, and I agree completely with what you say. It's good to know there are people who agree on the fundamental right of human beings to have a viewpoint and encourage each other to do better, as opposed to the infinitesimal minority who just seem to want to spend their time f*****g it up for everyone else! The internet, as you so rightly observe, has given everyone a voice, and though I am a proud and committed exponent of freedom of speech I understand that such a freedom is granted to
everyone and we have to take responsibility for the negative buggers as well!

Ray-Anne said...

I happened to notice that 'A Quiet Belief in Angels' was the 'Audio Book of the Week' in the Sunday Times this past week.
Most Excellent!
Only the article included a rather negative critique by the Sunday Times reviewer.
Am I the only one who thinks that it is bizarre to make this Audio Book the recommended choice for the week, then add a personal note which suggests that it is not worthy?
Sensible choice= Praise the decision. Ignore the comments - one person. Entitled to their opinion.
The good news? You can hear an extract from the audio book on the Sunday Times website.

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/fiction/article3449337.ece

Job done.
More please.

R J Ellory said...

My view regarding negative critiques have now been made public! I am going to aspire to a Buddhist-like clarity and balance, I shall attain near-bulletproof status from such things, and then they will not concern me. Truth be known, I wasn't even aware of the fact that it was 'Audio Book of the Week'. I went down to London a few weeks ago and heard them recording some of it. It had to be significantly abridged to fit onto 6 CDs, but there's a full length version coming out through the BBC in May. Audio is a tough thing. I've never got on with them to be honest. I can always read faster than the person speaking. However I must say that the man who did mine (Garrick Hagon) is a truly superb actor, and I was blown away by his ability to be every character in the book. And the music was great! Meanwhile we have successfully transacted translation rights of AQBIA to Brazil, Japan, Norway and France, so now we are giving both the East, the South Americans and the Europeans a chance to tell me what they think of me!

Mark said...

Thanks Roger (aha!). As your view of negative critiques is now public, so is my bumbling idiocy ;)

I hope that the level of sheer, unadulterated and pure brutality of being openly accessible through the internet doesn't push you away from engaging with it like you do. While it does indeed give voice to people that maybe are best not heard (Argh! Am I allowed to say that!?) it also makes this conversation possible....

...one minute I'm reading a book that is one of the best I ever have, the next I'm chatting with the author on a personal level. So I guess it balances out in the big picture view of things ;)

**Disclaimer: I have not been planted by Roger to counteract the idiots on Amazon & Richard & Judy site...I am a real reader... ;)... **

R J Ellory said...

I do believe there are certain people who should not be heard, and frankly, I don't think there's any intelligent, reasonably sane individual who doesn't agree with that. There are a very considerable number of the current US administration who should be permitted to govern a small outcrop of uninhabited islands somewhere in the Arctic Ocean and nothing more than that. And as far as engaging with people is concerned, I think the internet, mobile phones, texting and God knows what else has given us the opportunity to be in real honest-to-God communication far more than we ever have been. The fact that a tiny percentage of unscrupulous and spiritually-dead people choose to use such media to promote all manner of negativity and horses**t is, unfortunately, a case of having to take the rough with the smooth. They are, believe me, in the minority, and I believe the vast percentage of the populace recognize them for who and what they are. Anyway, it is good to be in conversation, and we shall soon begin our master plan to assume control of the world through internet blogging, and then we shall despatch all unwanteds to the small outcrop of islands in the Arctic Ocean and let Donald Rumsfeld organize their social calendar. Are you with me?

Mark said...

Huzzah!! ;)

Adam Bird said...

Hi Roger,

I read your post when it was first published and agreed with you word for word. I am glad that other people are now reacting with fierce support and loyalty to you.

Personally, I think that people feel the need to "go against the grain" so to speak, whether or not they actually have a valid opinion or not, being drawn to a polar opposite to the "norm", in this case placing negativity in a sea of positive.

Having deliberately visited the R&J site to read the comments in which you refer to, it is almost laughable to read what has been posted. Even if I hadn't read your book, or indeed ANY book I would have been able to see that the author of those comment was, for some reason being spiteful and vindictive!

With regards to being referred to as Ellroy, I find this utterly amusing! My girlfriend opened my recent arrival from Amazon and declared that I had received "two more books from that Ellroy bloke".

I am reading "The Book Thief" right now, having just finished Ghostheart. I enjoyed this immensely and was most definitely didn't see that ending coming!

Best Regards

Adam

R J Ellory said...

Hey there Adam.
Good to hear from you, and glad you enjoyed Ghostheart. Interesting, but I have had a few e-mails through the website regarding this issue of negative criticism, and some of those e-mails have come from people who haven't read anything I've written! As I've said before, I'm not of the opinion that if you don't have anything good to say then say nothing, but I do believe that sometimes the lengths people go to to make you aware that you have 'failed' are quiet ridiculous and extraordinary. Anway, we shall wait until they write some books, and then we shall review them with the same perceptive and demanding viewpoint, eh?
Best wishes to you all.
Roger.

Roni said...

I have recently heard many good things about your book called A Quiet Belief in Angels. I have been looking all over the place for it but can't seem to find it. Can you please tell me, where in the United States I can find yout books? I love to read. Thanks

R J Ellory said...

Unfortunately Roni, they are neither published nor distributed in the US. Simplest thing to do is send me your full name and postal address and I will drop one in the mail for you.
Hope that helps!
Roger

Roni said...

I would really appriciate that. You can send it to

Veronica Scott
412 w. washington st
Hagerstown, MD 21740

R J Ellory said...

Consider it done!
Best wishes,
Roger.