Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

If you can't say anything nice

by Robison Wells

I have a secret. It's not a very well-kept secret, nor is it all that surprising, but it's a secret nonetheless, and I'm letting you in on it in the hope that we can come to a better understanding of one another. (In other words, I'm building a relationship of trust with you, after which I'll try to sell you something.)

My secret is that I really dislike a lot of stuff. My problem is that I'm not allowed to say it, because I'm an author, and I have to be diplomatic.

I was raised in a family that was very critical of a lot of things, not because we were filled with hate and rage, but because we were all pretentious and full of ourselves. No, I kid my crazy family. We were critical of a lot of things because... I don't know why -- it's just what we were. We'd go to movies and then tear them apart as we left the theater, not because we didn't like them, but because that was the way we appreciated them: we couldn't enjoy a movie fully unless it was discussed in critical detail. (Incidentally, this drives my wife crazy.)

So, when I became a published author, and started blogging and started posting on author forums, I was more than happy to tell everyone how lame the Home Teachers movie was, and how much I hated cheesy Mormon pop music. And I'd blab for a while before someone would pull me aside and say "You know, that's probably not a good idea."

The first occasion of this was on my personal blog. I had written some inflammatory diatribe about how a certain local television reporter had no more journalistic experience than working for the Relief Society monthly newsletter (wherein, I'm sure, she used lots of exclamation points!!!!). This post had been sitting on my website for a few days, amusing the masses, when another author emailed me. He said that his agent (he's national) had advised him against that very thing. It's okay to be honest, but you need to be careful about alienating your readers. And really, if I thought about it, this nauseatingly-sweet reporter was probably liked by some of the same people who read my books. So I ought to knock it off.

The second occasion was on I honestly can't remember what I was talking about, but I imagine it was LDS cinema, because that's what I used to talk about all the time. One of the editors of the site gave me the following advice: "The LDS arts market is really small, and word gets around. It's probably not a good idea to shoot your mouth off."

So, there you go. I've had to learn diplomacy, which stinks. It's a lot more fun to just say "Have you read the latest crap from Stephanie Black? Talk about a stinkfest!!!!1!!!"

Am I saying that LDS authors need to be dishonest? Of course not. Back when I was brand new in the writing world (not the seasoned professional I am now) I was asked to read someone else's novel and offer a backliner quote. So, I read it, and I thought it was the most contrived piece of intellectual plagiarism I'd read in many moons. But I didn't say that. On the contrary, I was just so dang flattered to be asked to give a quote that I made up some phoney baloney praise. I wasn't dishonest exactly -- I just chose my words very carefully (kind of like when your mom tells you to compliment your sister, and you say "Well, you're not as ugly today as you were yesterday"). Suffice it to say that that quote is one of my most regretted acts as an author. Regardless of how carefully I chose my words, I was still endorsing a book that I hated. And when people pick up that book, and they hate it (as I'm sure they will), then they'll see my name on the back and say "That Robison E. Wells sure is a shill."

(Incidentally, I'm not referring to your book Kerry.)

So I guess my point is that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. And if you can't say anything nice and true, then you probably ought to shut up, too. If not for your own integrity, do it for your book sales.

Although now that I think about it, pretty much only Mormons are going to be reading my books, so I guess I have a free pass to mock any other religion -- they won't be buying the books anyway!

Seriously, Zoroastrians: what's the deal with those guys? Am I right?

Thanks folks, I'll be here all week!!!!


At 5/09/2006 1:54 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5/09/2006 2:10 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

I appreciate the parenthetical aside. I admit thinking, "Et tu, Brute?" while reading the paragraph that preceded it.

On the other hand, since I am basically paranoid and vengeful by nature, I am going to call Covenant to see if you really did blurb another book. If you didn't, beware the Ides of May, Robison E. Wells because the E will stand for Eliminated! You won't be here all week, you won't even be here all day. You will be SO dead. (And I don't mean metaphorically Mystery Dinner dead, either.)

On the bright side, my nefarious scheme to orchestrate your demise WILL give the conspiracy theorists on your brilliant websites even more to talk about...

PS - I didn't mean to delete this post the first time. Apparently I issue meaningless threats much better than I navigate a blogspot.

At 5/09/2006 2:25 PM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

Does this mean Scientology is up for grabs? Because I have a whole lot to unload about Tom Cruise.

At 5/09/2006 4:54 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Okay, Robison E. "E stands for Wise Guy" Wells, that does it. Kerry, when you call Covenant to ask if Rob really blurbed another book, would you tell them that I'm retracting the blurb I gave them for Rob's upcoming release? Tell them I have a new quote I'd like them to use instead.

As to the topic at hand, I have strong opinions on LDS fiction, but I make it a policy never to criticize another LDS novelist's work on a public forum. If I do refer to what I felt were problems in a book, (as to illustrate a point in a discussion about writing), I don't name the book or the author or give specific, identifying details.

At 5/09/2006 5:28 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

While we're on the subject, here's a question: is it possible to produce quality art in the absence of quality art criticism?

It seems like the only times LDS novels are critiqued is when the reviewer really likes them.

Is this good? Bad?

(Yes, I realize that there's a lot of blanket criticism of the genre -- I'm talking about specific criticism of individual books. It doesn't seem to happen in the LDS market.)

At 5/09/2006 6:41 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Apparently your writing doesn't draw any criticism, Captain Marvel, but let me assure you (from personal experience) that it IS out there. Does it sting? Sure. Does it make you a better writer? Absolutely.

For example, Jennie Hansen (reviewer extraordinaire for Meridian) wrote that my romantic angle in "Digging Up the Past" was weak and unbelievable. But then she explained WHY. I learned volumes, and I'm sure Jennie's remarks saved other writers from falling into the same plot pit. Jennie, and others like her, are raising the bar in LDS literature.

Another source of generally valid, helpful critique is the Association for Mormon Letters. I've been called to account there, too, but have been grateful after the fact. Kind words are nice and might keep you going as an author, but candid, well-intentioned "criticism" is what keeps you growing.

But I'm wondering. . .since I've clearly received my share of criticism -- and apparently Rob's share as well -- shouldn't that "quality art" be flowing from my keyboard any time now? What's up with that?

At 5/09/2006 6:48 PM, Blogger Mean Aunt said...

Just think Stephanie, now people can google your name and stinkfest and this post will come up!

Better watch out Wells, who knows what Stephanie's middle initial stands for?

At 5/09/2006 7:25 PM, Blogger Sweebler said...

Dear Robison,

I was this THIS close to buying one of your books, but now that you've insulted Zoroastrians (my chosen religion), I'm just not going to.

So there.

At 5/09/2006 8:37 PM, Blogger Darvell Hunt said...

New back cover blurb for Robison Well's new upcoming book, The Counterfeit:

"I absolutely loved this totally awesome book. I liked it better than any LDS book I've ever read. In truth, it is the best book I've ever allowed my eyes the pleasure of reading, aside from canonized scripture, of course. I don't know how any author, let alone an LDS author, could ever come up with something so brilliant, yet so poignant, that this amazing writer so masterfully does in each and every one of his novels. If you buy this book, you will never need to buy another book again in your lifetime, as it's that good."

What do you think? Does that sound, too, well, too counterfeit to you? I hope not. It's my first cover blurb ever. Feel free to use it.

Fred Googemheimer

(Um, please don't use my real name, by the way. No sense conjuring up unnecessary regret later. Also, please send me a free copy for my trouble so I can actually read it sometime.)

At 5/09/2006 8:54 PM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

is it possible to produce quality art in the absence of quality art criticism?

The problem as I see it with the lack of criticism is the high amount of subjectivity involved. One man's suckfest is another man's reading nirvana.

I also think when you have reviewers that write a certain genre, you run into problems having them critique an author from a different genre (unless you're Jennie Hansen who writes in all the genres and is therefore qualified to critique them all :) ). Stephanie's mentioned in the comments some no-nos for writing that are pretty prevalent in romances, and expected by the audience. So when she reads my book she'll probably be rolling her eyes a lot. :)

Plus, I don't ever think there will be a consensus on what makes great LDS art, thus making it even harder to criticize and qualify it. There's not a consensus on what makes great regular art. People usually don't decide on it until after the artist has been dead hundreds of years.

But I do see what you're saying - I wish desperately that I could contact some LDS movie producers and offer suggestions on how to improve their movies, but as you've noted, such a thing is apparently not allowed. Unfortunately, the movies do not improve (I'm not talking about you, Richard Dutcher. You rock) because no one is telling them how to fix it.

I sent my line edits back today and discovered that I did wacky things in my manuscript that I wasn't even aware of. Editors are a wonderful, wonderful thing and the criticism is immensely helpful. I've found that it doesn't bother me when my editor says something's bad, but as Kerry noted, it stings when someone else does. Huh. I wonder why that is.

At 5/10/2006 10:04 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Too much to respond to...

Kerry, yes I've had my share of criticism. Imagine my horror when the New York Times said my writing was more akin to Steinbeck than Hemingway! I don't think I'd ever been so embarrassed.

Sweebler, you Zoroastrians make me sick. I wouldn't want you reading my book anyway. Good riddance. And all you Amish: stay off of my website!

Darvell, couldn't you at least pretend to like the book? Seriously, are you always this callous?

Sariah, I very much appreciate your use of the term "suckfest". It made my day (and I'm not kidding here -- it seriously did).

But more to the point: yeah, I know there are reviews out there, but I just wish there was something more comprehensive and consistent. Jennie has told me that she only reviews books that (1) would recommend to people, or (2) are "big enough" that everyone really wants to read the review (such as Orson Scott Card's Women of the Bible books). AML is more likely to post negative reviews, though they're not really what I'd call comprehensive either -- they post a lot of reviews, but not according to any kind of time schedule I can figure out. (Plus, they post them on the listserv, and it's often hard to dig them up again.)

Kind of what I'm envisioning is something like the national book reviews: publications that review the major books from the major publishing houses upon release. Jennie's column is certainly the closest thing to this, though I still wish she'd review every book she read, not just the ones she likes. (I realize that she'd never have time for this. I also realize that part of her reviewing philosophy is based on what Meridian requests.)

(Wow. It sounds like I just really want to hear negative reviews, and that's not really my point. I just want to hear comprehensive reviews -- reviews of all books, good and bad.) (Sariah, why don't you do something about that. Get readin'!)

At 5/10/2006 1:42 PM, Blogger JWH said...

Rob -

I grew up in a home opposite of you, although it was run soley by my mother, so I do not know how much it would have changed if there had been a male influence there. I agree with some of your views, as a writer myself. I would love to have an honest opinion, of my up and coming - currently still working the first draft - inspirational LDS book. It sounds like you would be the only person I could get a thoughtful and comprehensive review from. So I'll have my manuscript to you sooner or later.

At 5/10/2006 3:10 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Oh heavens. I by no means meant that I have a corner on the "thoughtful and comprehensive review" market. In fact, I think there are any number of people who could do a better job.

I'm happy to look at the manuscript, though. Let me know.

At 5/10/2006 11:50 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Oh dear, Rob, did you read my review of Orson Scott Card's Women of the Bible? Some folks were ready to tar and feather me over that one. A little birdie, maybe it was the frog, told me I should take a look at your blog comments today 'cause you were taking my name in vain. Anyway, I'd be delighted to write reviews of every book I read, if you can figure out a way for me to make a decent living doing so. That would be my dream job after I'm through writing books. And if you want negative criticism, just wait until I get my hands on Counterfeit! I haven't read a book yet I couldn't find something in it I could criticize.

At 5/11/2006 10:19 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Well, let's not get hasty. By no means was I asking for negative criticism of ALL books -- just of Stephanie's.

And Jennie, you can't fool us. We know you're fabulously wealthy and don't need to make any more money. (I've heard the rumors about you and your solid-gold computer.)

(And seriously, I think I've been misunderstood. I'm not trying to say I want reviews to be more negative. I just want to see reviews of all books, not just the good ones.)

At 5/11/2006 11:14 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Leave me out of this, Felix Hazard. You're the one who wanted artistic criticism. All I want to hear is: "If I were stranded on a desert island and could only take one novel, I'd take yours." Of course, that would involve getting my mother to become a book reviewer.

Maybe the reason there aren't more reviews is because there aren't enough LDS fiction readers and book buyers out there to support a comprehensive review journal.


Post a Comment

<< Home