I was contemplating the idea of feedback after reading the ‘review’ guidelines of a very popular (and, paradoxically, widely disliked) book review website. ‘We welcome your passion,’ they say. So far, so good. But a little later on, the review guideline specifies that they actually welcome: ‘Harsh critical statements that apply to the book or the writing in it, such as “This guy can’t write a lick,” or “This book is absolute trash.” …honest opinions about books are always going to be welcome and encouraged…’ These sort of ‘reviews’ are not, to my mind, passionate. They are a vehicle for personal attack and vitriol, and usually end up showing the reviewer’s true colours more than reflecting upon the reviewee (unless I’ve just made that word up!). Decent reviewers and bloggers are professional – I know a few now and they are lovely people who strive to find the best in everything they read, even if it’s not really their cup of tea. There are ways and means of getting that across to an audience, and some people lack that skill. My philosophy is not to engage. I read reviews, but try not to take them to heart if they aren’t nice. I’ve had a couple of horrors, as my friends will tell you – because I rant to them, but I don’t involve myself in responding to comments (although I can do passive aggressive as well as anyone and sometimes absolutely long to respond.)
“Opinions”, someone said in my book group, “are like a*holes. Everyone has got one.” I agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and someone might even share that opinion. But I think there is a professional way of showing that in a public forum.
Anyway, I’m not here to go on about bad reviews. As I said, I was ‘contemplating’. I actually contemplated some of my very first bad reviews. And yes, they have mentally scarred me! But wait, I hear you say. Tell us more.
The first one was by my history teacher. I was twelve. She had set us an essay on Vikings. Now, I love history, and if you’ve ever read any of my books, you’ll see there’s a good basis in them of factual stuff, interwoven with fiction. My Viking essay was, to my mind, extraordinarily good. I went away and researched them, and I found they had passed through the village where I lived, and even had their own name for it. So I wrote a story about Vikings invading my village, but fictionalised it and put a bit of humour in. Big mistake. Mrs Nordmann came back to me with a massive D in bold on my essay and the lines, underlined several times in heavy, heavy biro “Do NOT try to be funny in a history essay!!!!!”. I don’t think she was impressed. I went away and wrote a bog-standard history essay and got an A for it but I didn’t enjoy writing it half as much.
Still stung from that, I thought I might have better luck in English. Surely, I could be creative in my English class? I did two years of ‘normal’ English stuff, then branched out when I was about 14. Mr Flaherty took us at that point. I’d always had really good marks from him, so being a bit braver, I did a story about two girls who got lost in the fog on their way home. They ended up in a house with a lady who kept cats. It was a strange house, and it wasn’t there when they went back the next day. A timeslip, right? My speciality. Ghosts, mystery and strange things happening. Not according to Mr Flaherty. “You started off well, Kirsty,” he raged one day at me in front of the class (I hated being the centre of attention so it was bad enough that he’d singled me out without ranting on top of that), “but then you went off on a one and ended up with this fantastic story of a mad woman who keeps cats!” I glaked at him for a moment, confused. Fantastic is good, yes? It means really good, yes? Nope. In Mr Flaherty’s class that day, it meant, weird, bizarre and unbelievable. I burned up under a sullen teenage blush and stared at my pen. I wouldn’t look at him for the rest of the lesson and sat with a face on me for the next half hour. He probably didn’t give a toss. I felt good, though. My tiny act of rebellion.
I could mention my Geography teacher, Mr Dolan, putting a huge cross through the first page of my brand new exercise book when I was twelve as well and making me rewrite it as it wasn’t neat enough. To add insult to injury, he made me sit next to a boy who hated me and who I hated just as much back. The boy had hit me in French one day and I have a long memory. And then there was the physics teacher who said I was noisy. Mr Linsell put me off physics for life, which is a shame. And my poor art teacher, Mrs Godwin, who just despaired of my laziness and my self-assurance that of course I would pass my exam. I didn’t, by the way and she must have wanted to throttle me.
I think what I’m trying to say, though, is that feedback counts – and done well, it has a lasting effect. Done badly, it does the same. I can, now, look back and say, yes, I can see my teachers’ points – but at the time it was painful. Mrs Nordmann did teach me the correct way to write for an audience. Mr Flaherty told me to aim for consistency and a story that flows. Mr Dolan, at a push, did teach me that editing can make things better (not that I would ever choose to put myself next to someone I hated though) and Mrs Godwin taught me that you’ve got to apply yourself if you want to succeed in anything. Being accused of being noisy is one I can’t quite get over, however… but Mr Linsell did seem pretty upset when I said I wasn’t taking it at GCSE. Maybe that was me cutting my nose off to spite my face. He had clearly thought nothing of the comment, and had not persisted in our mutual stand-off – but I did, which I can see now is pretty pathetic! A lesson, perhaps, in not taking things to heart or holding feedback-grudges.
I do think it’s amusing, though, that the things I was pulled up for are the things that I enjoy writing and that people seem to enjoy reading – my interwoven fact and fiction, and the ‘fantastical’ timeslip genre. I’d so love my teachers to see this little screen shot – those fact/fiction fanciful fusions today hit number 1, number 2 and number 3 in the Amazon chart. In fact, they jostled for position all day, knocking each other off the top spot.
It’s possibly, in part, thanks to my teachers that I had the courage to write them anyway. It was kind of something I needed to prove to myself and to them in a warped sort of way…and one day, I’ll resit my Art exam and pass it.
One more recent piece of feedback from a creative writing tutor on my Masters does make me giggle, though: ‘Why do you feel the need to identify all your heroines with cake?’ wrote the bemused lecturer. My very grown-up and professional answer to that one would be: ‘Why ever not?’
But then, I chose not to engage!