Friday, February 17, 2012

If no one loses, who wins?

Remember a few years back when youth sports decided to start a new trend? They decided not to keep score so no child would lose at the games they played.

While the idea of this is fine and dandy, and what parent wants to see their child’s team lose when they put so much effort into it?, why did it not catch fire and spread until no scores were kept for any games, big or small?

Simple. Who would keep watching? And more important, who would keep playing? Isn’t the point of a game to try to win? If you can’t win, why bother?

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit that most famous sports arena on earth: the Coliseum in Rome. Magnificent. These days you can see down beneath the “floor” to the maze underneath. You can walk around and imagine it full of spectators, fighting gladiators, filled with water for “sea” games. You can feel the power of the place.

Games used to be to the death. The one who lived won. Fortunately, they changed that and scores were kept instead. Still, the idea is the same. Humans are competitive. We have to be competitive in order to survive. It’s what keeps our skills sharp, our brains working, and our society improving.

Recently, I’ve read many comments by authors who say reviewers should never be publicly critical. If they can’t be nice about a book, they should say nothing about it.

I have to disagree. Why? Because if no one loses, no one can win, either. Just like in those youth sports games, when scores were thrown out, the fire to win diminished, if we veto any “bad” review, we veto the fire for authors to improve enough not to get those bad reviews, and we head into the idea of: Hey, the author put a lot of work into it, so it’s worthy of publishing and reading. Hm. No, I can’t buy into that. Kids put a lot of effort into winning their games, also. Sometimes they don’t. It’s a good lesson when they don’t. It tells them it’s okay to lose if you get back up and try again and try to figure out what you’re doing wrong so you can do better. It leads to improvement, to goals, to challenges.

Authors need to get honest reviews, good or not. They have to know when something isn’t up to par and when readers are not happy with their work. If they get a bad review, they need to take a couple of days to pout, and then they need to look again at the review and consider the points the reader made. Most often, there are valid points that can help the author if she will let it help her. Fine. Get back up and try again. Toughen your skin. Admit you’re not the most wonderful writer in the universe (if there is such a thing, and I tend to think there isn’t). Read books that are getting honest five star reviews and figure out why they are. And make the next one better, or revise the one that’s sinking if you can.

There will always be those nasty reviews that look like the reader didn’t even read the book and instead has some kind of personal vendetta. It happens. If it happens in a place the author can counter, maybe she should do that, politely!, with some such response as, “Interesting how you found something in the book that wasn’t there, but thank you for your thoughts” and then let it go. Or don’t answer it at all, which might be even better. Readers – those who love reading and aren’t looking to be nasty – will recognize those for what they are. Ignore them.

There’s also a penchant for authors to give fellow authors 5 star reviews for anything they write. I don’t do that. I almost never give any book a 5 star review whether or not I know the author. It has to be stand-out, hands-down excellent in both story and writing to get 5 stars from me. I do tend to give indie and small press authors more leeway in my reviews for the simple fact that they don’t have big time editors going through and helping to sharpen the way those pubbed by the big guys do. And I judge different genres differently, for the same reason you don’t judge classical music the same way you judge pop. Apples and oranges, as the cliché goes.

I do give 3 star reviews. Often. It means I enjoyed the book averagely well. It was worth the time to read. But there were either errors that detracted from the story or the story wasn’t as strong as I like. I always say why I give the rating I give. A 3 is not an insult. It’s average. And it leaves room for those who stand out. (I don’t give 1 or 2 star reviews to indies or small press authors. I’ll not review it instead. I will at times give them to big traditional pubbed authors who are widely read enough my opinion isn’t going to prevent sales enough to notice, and if it does, if I dislike it that much, I can’t care about lowering its sales.)

I believe in competition. I believe it’s what keeps us strong and successful as a whole. Those kids who learn how to fail gracefully and keep going will be successful adults. Those authors (and every other profession) who don’t succeed as well as they like with one book (or project) and keep going and keep improving will be successful authors. They will contribute excellent literature (or cool electronics or safer cars or….) to society.

Excellence matters. Learning how to get to excellence, or at least how to try to get there, matters more. We can’t do that if no one is allowed to come up on top.

When I point out in reviews, or otherwise, what I don’t like, it’s because I care enough to be honest, because I care about achievement and self-worth and the value of getting back up and trying again. Because I believe in the human spirit and in what we are capable of if we get enough encouragement to try.

"There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect." Ronald Reagan

”When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.” Thomas Sowell



Dorothy said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog, and agree completely.

Andra M. said...

And if no one gave critical reviews, how could we believe any of them?

It's a terrible disservice to children by not allowing them to compete, or worse, that to compete is some horrible sin. The workforce alone is the very definition of competition, especially in today's age when there's more people than jobs available.