META/POLL: The Purpose of Criticism

Lalo Martins lalo.martins at
Sun Feb 17 22:10:33 PST 2008

Also spracht Tom Russell (Sun, 17 Feb 2008 18:23:50 +0000):

I write mostly for my own fun; my secondary goal is "practise" (get used 
to writing a large volume per month again; after about 5 years out of 
professional writing, I'm so rusty, I don't think I'd have been able to 
do it again if I got a gig last May, but today I feel much more 
confident); and #3 is writing something other people can have fun with.  
Now, it's not about quality and it's not art; I'm not practising writing 
the absolute best I can do, mostly because, this environment -- "boss-
free", so to speak -- allows us to play with writing that would probably 
not fly professionally.  Specifically, I've been having fun with satire 
and homages of the sort that would probably get me sued if done "out 
there" ;-)  But here it's fair game; it's one of the prime ingredients of 
the LNH, after all.

So, erm, anyway.

I think point #0 I'd like to make is: it's always encouraging to have 
"proof" that someone is actually reading what I post.  Whether it's 
Russell's Reviews, EOM, or just Martin answering the post itself with 
some witticism, the FIRST thing through my head is a rush, "ooh, someone 
actually read it!"

> 1. Is this basically how feedback can and should work?

As a matter of fact... there are two kinds of reviews, and I've never 
thought about it that way before.  Your "reviews" are akin to what you'd 
get from an editor (whether because you're working for a given publisher, 
or because you hired an editor yourself), or a professor, or -- maybe 
more to the point -- a colleague in a writing club.  The way they differ 
from what we usually think of as "reviews" (the sort you'll find in 
newspapers and magazines and websites) is the target.  Reviews "type 1" 
are targeted primarily at the author, and secondarily at other writers 
with similar interests.  Reviews "type 2" are targeted at *readers*; 
their goal is to either (a) recommend a work, giving the reader a few 
examples as arguments to "prove" it's worth reading/watching/...; or (b) 
warn people that a given work is best left in the shelf.  Occasionally, 
it falls in a third case: "you absolutely want to get this one, but it 
has a few serious flaws that you should be aware of (...)".  I suppose 
I've done my share of case (c), specially in the case of translated 
works, where the original is awesome but the version is awful :-)

Oh boy.  Did I digress again?

Maybe I'm exceptionally thick-skinned, but I do find the format very 
effective.  Yes, sometimes I do stop to remind myself that that's all 
Tom's "IMHO", and sometimes I even disagree.  But it works.  In 
particular, I enjoy reading Russell's Reviews because they're also 
entertaining themselves; I've laughed more about your investigation of 
"wuxia on acid" than I did about the original joke.

(Yes, I laugh about my own jokes.  Weak, I know.  But it's a gauge; if 
something doesn't make me even smile, it's not worth putting on the 
issue!  Non-Lalo readers will probably like it even less...)

> 2. If not, how should one provide feedback?

No no no, wrong question :-) telling you how to write reviews is exactly 
the same thing as your reviews telling us how to write.  We can give you 
"IMHO", but in the end, you write the way you want, and we either read it 
or we don't.

Now... to address Martin's bits :-)

Reading a criticism from Tom stated as fact is immensely less "offending" 
than one from a professor.  That's because the professor is supposed to 
be recognised as an "authority"; if he says I suck, then I probably 
suck.  If Tom says I suck, we'll have to agree to disagree.

Would it be nice if it was littered with "I feel that" and "IMHO"?  
Well...  hmm.  Actually, no :-) It would get boring pretty soon.  If you 
really want to be PC, maybe add a header or footer, something like, "The 
opinions expressed herein are just that, Tom's opinions, and don't 
represent the official position of the Universe or any existing or non-
existing deities."

> 3. Is offering suggestions and alternatives, and pointing out flaws,
> tantamount to attacking a work or author?

It could be; I don't think it is, the way you usually do it.  Not to add 
lumber to an old flamewar, but: any sentence you write that has "Jesse 
Willey" in it can be used as a reference on what it really means to 
attack a work or author.

The problem with offering suggestions and alternatives, and I think this 
is the sticking point for Martin, is that it can "feel" like you think 
you know better.

Maybe I come from a different background.

I've written for a magazine.  The way this is different than writing 
books professionally is, you have no say about what ultimately goes 
published.  You deliver your copy, the editor reads it.  In a big 
magazine, he'll return the copy with comments ONCE; in a smaller 
publication, not even that.  Then you submit the final version, and he'll 
probably still make a few changes.  Sometimes you don't agree with them.  
Tough luck.

I'm also a Free Software advocate, and have been a developer for years.  
So I also appreciate that for someone to give me a patch, or even a bug 
report, said someone doesn't need to be a better coder or know my project 
better than I do.  On the contrary; a fresh pair of eyeballs is one of 
the most valued resources in our community, because it examines our work 
without all the baggage of understanding what every single line is there 
for.  It's one of the main forces that moves Free Software forward.

> 1. Authors whose work has been under review, do you find "Russell's
> Reviews" to be mostly helpful or unhelpful?

Let's talk about one specific instance.  I was unsure about my decision 
of adding "previously in 58.5..." to the top of the issues.  Then two 
issues before the first one that was supposed to have the recap, I read 
in Russell's Reviews: "it would be nice to have recap boxes".  Well, that 
answers my question, doesn't it?  :-)

Also... this is not RR, but: a friend of mine "discovered" 58.5 and read 
it from beginning to #20.  Then she told me I was underusing Bonnie; I 
said, "wtf, it's one of my favourite characters, co-leader of the team, I 
use her everywhere!"  And then she went: "Yeah, and she's Storm in the 
first two X-Men movies: we're told she's co-leader, and all she does is 
pilot the plane."  Now, could that be seen as offending?  I suppose it 
could.  But it rang true.  I couldn't address it yet, because I already 
had a bunch of issues written or planned by the time she told me this, 
but I did insert a scene that *directly* addresses the issue, and I tried 
to dig into Bonnie's personality a bit more in the latest issue.

So, um.  What was my point again?

If you tell me, say, Blur, or Manhandler, or Clara, or pick-whatever-
Workolips-character, isn't "deep" enough, I'll say, "yeah, ok".  Make 
mental note of the fact, and shrug.  But in pointing out that Bonnie was 
shallow, she informed me I was failing in something I had actually set 
out to do; Bonnie is dear to me, and one of the main characters, I don't 
WANT her to feel shallow.  And I would probably not have noticed it if I 
didn't have a fresh pair of eyeballs to tell me.

                                               Lalo Martins
      So many of our dreams at first seem impossible,
       then they seem improbable, and then, when we
       summon the will, they soon become inevitable.
GNU: never give up freedom    

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