Thursday, December 12, 2013

"I really WANTED to like it ..."

Hello All,

Every so often, as a writer or other creative sort I'd imagine, one does what one really ought not to do—that is, take the public's temperature towards the reception of one's work.

This is almost never a healthy thing for one to do.

A generation or two ago, as a writer there were only a few vectors to see what people thought of your work. Newspaper and magazine reviews, and I imagine letters mailed to you by readers. Or, I suppose, verbal assessments of your work at readings or wherever else.

Or on the street, even: Hey, you! I read your book and it sucked eggs! 

Or breathy late-night phonecalls: Your narrative transition on page 211 was atrocious. [heavy nasal breathing] You should be ashamed. What are you wearing, anyway?

Today, with the Internet, there are many ways for people to express their sentiments about a given work of writing, a film, a sculpture, a painting, a song and so on. And that's great and vital. But of course those places—amazon, goodreads, IMDB, etc, etc—now exist, and the people who wrote those books or directed or starred in those films or created that song or sculpture can go there and drink in the public's reception to their work.

Sometimes that quaff can be pretty bitter.

But again, that's just something you have to accept on a professional level. And most writers or other creative types I've spoken to do just that. It's the price of doin' business. People gave their time to sample your wares, and it's absolutely their right to weigh in.

But those of us who have been assessed have our little pet peeves, our little bugaboos, things that, over time, kind of get our dander up.

Mine is: "I really WANTED to like this."

It's become a common turn of phrase in reviews that pop up at Internet review sites. I don't think I've ever read it in a review published in a magazine or newspaper or an Internet site with any editorial oversight; I'm not saying it hasn't, I just can't recall ever having seen it.

It is invariably the first sentence and the review that follows thereafter can be, as one may've guessed, pretty scathing.

Why does it irk me? Well, I'm glad you asked!

First of all, I've never gone into a book, or a movie with that particular mindset. Why would I want to like it? That book never paid my mortgage. That film never donated a kidney to me. I have no specific cause to want to like it.

Now there are books or films that I've expected I'd like, based on the fact that I'd liked other books or films by that director or writer or star; I expect to like Stephen King's books, and Dennis Lehane's, and Alice Munro's, and Gillian Flynn's, because I've liked their work before and it seems reasonable I'd like them again. But I don't want to like them; that's the author's burden. To make me like it. And I won't know that until I've read it.

On a totally prosaic and somewhat selfish level I want to like all the books and films I read or view, if only to substantiate the time invested in them. I want those hours of my life to be worthwhile, to enrich me in some way, to make me understand the human condition more deeply or to simply take me away. But I feel that way with every single book or movie or what-have-you. I want to like them because that means my time was profitably spent; otherwise I could've been home counting the pennies in my penny jar or gazing moonily out the window, with no net loss.

I can't envision a scenario where I'd want to like a book before reading it. Maybe if the book was written by someone in desperate straits, like that Aaron Ralston book where he documents having to cut his own arm off to survive; I might want to like it, or be compelled by it, because the event it documents is pretty wrenching.

Or I suppose if a book was written by a friend of mine, I'd want to like it if only so that I could tell that friend I genuinely did like it instead of having to do an awkward dance of praise.

FRIEND: So, you read my book—what did you think?

ME: Ooooh, it was ... swell. Good. I'd definitely say, yes, good. Really good, even.

FRIEND: What part did you like best?

ME: Oh, all the, y'know, stuff. Lots of stuff happening. I guess I'd say that. The stuff.

In that case, I'd hope I liked the book. Which is different than want.

By the same token, I can't envision a scenario where I wouldn't want to like a given creative work. I mean, maybe I wouldn't want to discover that I felt a real emotional attachment to John Wayne Gacy's book of clown caricatures.

That leering clown, Finnegan, really speaks to me man! He's got secrets behind his eyes.

Or I could go my whole life without making the unhappy discovery that Charles Manson's scat poetry totally rocks my world. It hasn't, I don't even know if that whacko writes poetry, but the fact remains.

Those would be distressing, I'm sure, if only because I'd not want to find that my worldview was in some way aligned with theirs. But since being intrigued or fascinated by something written by a terrible specimen of humanity isn't, on its own, irrevocably awful, I don't even think I'd worry about it if were to happen.

Oh but I really WANTED to like this ...

When I think of someone saying this, the fervency of their emotion, I picture them with their eyes squeezed tightly shut, their knees touching and their legs slightly bent: the posture of a person who needs rather desperately to pee.

I really reeeeeeeally REALLY WANTED to like this ...

... but alas.

From my perspective, as a writer, when I read this I think: Okay, so for whatever reason you were predisposed to generosity towards this particular offering; and for whatever other reasons it fell so far short of your hopes that, retroactively, your antipathy grew exponentially stronger. The writer started from a position of strength, having already engendered a generosity of spirit from the reader's side, and s/he failed so cataclysmically that the reader's generosity curdled with every shoddy characterization and weak plot structure until they hated it. So the writer failed doubly. 

Which is a lovely thing to feel, I can assure you.

So, gentle reviewer, before starting your review with that particular gambit, ask yourself: Why, exactly, do you really want to like this film or book or TV show? Is it due to some personal connection with its creator? Did the publisher save you from drowning one time? Do you hold stock in the film company? If so, fair enough.

Or is it due to the fact you'd prefer that your time isn't wasted? If so, we all feel that way. Do you want to like it, or do you simply hope you'll like it? If it is the latter, then rest assured it doesn't need to be mentioned. We all hope to enjoy creative efforts. They have the uncanny power to entertain or transport us in some way. That's why they exist in the first place, I daresay.

Why would you "want" to like something? That's not your obligation. It's the creator's ambition, to make you like it, and if s/he does their job then perhaps you will.

Or perhaps they will have met their ambition—just not with you specifically.

In any case, carrying that mindset into a work doesn't make much sense to me.

Or are you saying it to stress how dreadfully it failed in some way? Not just you personally, but even the materials it was created with, the paper or celluloid or marble or canvas?

Are you saying that those materials could have been more profitably engaged as toilet paper, or paving stones or boat sails?

Do you want to convey that this particular creative effort failed the human race by sheer dint of its horrible existence?

If so, I suppose that's fine. But you may want to find a different way to express that sentiment.

Or not.

All best, Craig.


  1. I really wanted to like this post of yours. No pun intended. I thought "hmm, let's see why CD's pet peeve is when readers tell him they really wanted to like his work." I thought it would make for an interesting pre-nap read, cuz I enjoy reading what you write. Even though it's a tad contrite.
    But in the end, the post left me disappointed. That's it? So a reader's disappointment is CD's itchiest pet peeve? The author who brought us Rust and Bone, that mighty story of average epicness, of taciturn fighters and revolting despair, is irked by unhappy book closers? Oh, poor boo-boo. Somebody cuddle his mind a sec.
    Snap Snap. Over here buddy. Do I have your attention now?
    Good. So let me find a different way to express that sentiment.
    Let me ask you this: hasn't fiction overdone it with individual heroes and individual love? When are heroes' heroics going to stop being so self-centered? When is fiction gonna cut love some slack, and employ something else? Why is love the most exploited sentiment of all time? I mean, isn't it about time feelings unionized and banded together to get their fair share? Who's gonna stand up for hate? Who's gonna stand up for fury? Who's gonna fight for altruism no strings attached? Isn't love overworked, overwhelmed and absolutely useless in this age of reckless abandon? Everywhere I look nobody gives a fuck. And the few who care do so in silos. A bunch of Care Bears on roids, that's what they are. So what's the friggin point? Love? Please. Love is cheap.
    Singers chant it. Musicians note it. Writers ink it and poets rhyme it. Every goddamn story out there is about love. Give love a break will ya?
    And what about readers who couldn't care less about love? What good is love when I have no purpose? What's love to me when I don't know who I am? Or worse, what good is love when anything I do is useless, as any noise I make is confined to this green and blue ball endlessly floating in a sea of indifferent dark matter? Anything I do, tumble weed will still roll among the stars.
    What can love do for me when all I crave is inspiration?
    After all, love never paid my mortgage, never donated a kidney to me. I have no specific reason to want to like it. Unless I have a cause. A purpose. A compass. Direction.
    But please, don't shake your head in disapproval. Don't tell me you really wanted to like this comment because it was the first one. It was annoying right from the start.
    Even though, to be honest, all I really wanted to say was Hi, I like your work. It's smart.

  2. This ... this took me awhile to digest. It says many things, I must say, and I like the way it's written. I'm not sure it's a direct comment on what I've written, but at least tangentially so, and it's written well and I like it. I have no real comment on it other than that. I think it's really less a comment than a post of its own, so we can look at it as a PS to the main post, written by someone else. Thanks for writing it! I enjoyed reading it.

    PS: Love donated a kidney to me, once. Courtney Love. I declined politely. It wasn't hers and she wasn't really sure where it had come from.

  3. Craig, did you write The Ghost Lights? In subTerrain?

    1. Yes, I wrote that story. I didn't know the issue was out yet, but it's nice to know it's bouncing around out there.

    2. Truly harrowing. Read it three times. Thanks.