Criticism and the Lost Art of the LOC
by Lorelei Jones
(Warning: Longer than a Kevin Costner movie, but hopefully more interesting)
Let me state right now that I don't believe in criticizing a story, especially fanfiction. Criticizing is negative and destructive, and helps neither the author nor the critic. However...
I love to comment on everything I read, most especially fanfiction. I love to critique and analyze plots, characterization, and dialogue. And being a "do unto others" kind of gal, I love it when others critique and analyze unto me. I don't write in a vacuum, and I hate posting into a void. I confess, I really don't get authors who don't welcome commentary on their stories, good and bad. Perhaps it's because I see writing not just as an art, but as a form of communication, and I want to know I'm getting through to somebody. I realize there are those who don't feel that way, though. In fanfic, as in life, it takes all kinds.
For as long as I've been a member of any fandom, the battle has been waged between those who think it only right and just they be allowed to comment on the fanfiction eating up space in their inbox or money in their checkbook, and those who feel that, since there really is no compensation for fanfic writers, they should not be subjected to the rules of literature imposed on professional writers. Now, most will allow that stories being published in a fanzine should be edited, proofread, and polished (though some argue this point, too), since people are paying for fanzines. As someone who pays for her web and email access on a monthly basis, I assure you, I am often paying as much to read the fanfiction posted to a list as I am the fanfiction published in a zine, so this argument really doesn't hold water. And honestly, do you talk to your associates about the movie you've just seen, the CD you just bought, or the book you just read, because you paid for it?! No, you talk about it because something in it sparked a response in you, and you want to share that. As an aspiring professional author, I can tell you that it is this response most of us are looking for. If we were in it for the money, we would've become dentists. All of which is a long way of saying that if you stifle people's comments on a piece of fanfiction, you are essentially destroying a part of the creative process as necessary to the completion of a story as the author's writing.
That said, the real question isn't actually whether or not people should comment, but should they comment aloud? Should they be able to be as public with their responses as the author was with her story? I won't touch the authors who don't even welcome private comments, because that's a point-of-view I will never see, no matter how hard I try. As for public commentary, that vote is split, with the majority swinging back and forth like a giant pendulum. On the one hand, it can be argued that it's a violation of the reader's rights to tell her she can't talk about a piece of fiction in the same forum in which it was published. On the other, it can just as easily be argued that the "threat" of such public scrutiny might discourage someone from posting, which would ruin her enjoyment of the forum, and enjoyment is often the point of many lists, websites, etc. Advocates of both sides range from calm and logical to passion! , belligerent, or downright nasty. Those opposed to commentary point out that you can always hit the Delete button. Those for commentary say the same thing. In this case, both are right. If you find a story you don't like, it's usually pretty easy to get rid of it. If you come across a critique you don't want to read, it can be trashed the same way. Either way, people end up with stuff in their mailbox they don't want, and they want someone to know about it.
Now, in the midst of all this controversy, we have an interesting phenomenon. Despite author's requests for feedback and readers' assertions that they want to offer their input, the number of Letters of Comment (LOCs) an author is likely to receive is alarmingly small. Some fanzines have adopted the practice of including a list of the author's email addresses, in the hopes that not having to snail mail it will encourage readers to send in their comments. I've been published in a fanzine that uses this method, and will shortly be published in another. Though the first has been about for around six months, I have yet to receive an LOC. Now, I really can't complain, because this is something I'm guilty of, myself. I may love a story or hate it, and I will email several of my pals to discuss it with them or warn them away from it, but I rarely share my feelings with the author. Why? Well, that's an interesting question, and it ties ! back into the whole question of public commentary. ("At last," I hear you cry, "a point!" Hey, I did compare this to a Kevin Costner movie;-)
In the rush to protect the fragile creative impulses of the author from public scorn, the equally fragile creative impulses of the reader/commentator have gotten rather stomped on. It's probably rather vindictive, but I know that one reason I don't write LOCs is because some small part of me is getting back at those in the fandom who cry "foul" when I go public with my opinion of apiece. I grant you, most authors who request LOCs are the sort who would welcome an actual list discussion of their work, but there are those who either limit you to responding to them privately or who only accept "positive" comments. Now, you don't have to abide by that, the author can't actually stop you from making public critiques or from pointing out flaws in their writing, but those who do such things often find themselves on the outs with the rest of the fandom, even the advocates of public commentary and healthy critiquing. As far as ! common courtesy goes, it's certainly better to bow to the author's wishes in such cases, and so most of us resort to that old maxim, "If you can't say anything nice (or, in this case, public), don't say anything at all." We feel we are punished with enforced public silence, and so we make the authors pay, even those who don't deserve it, by remaining privately silent.
My solution to this is ruthlessly simple, and extremely biased. I write fanfic, I edit a fanzine, I read fanfic and profic voraciously, I've submitted work for pro publishing, and I am working to become a pro editor for a fiction magazine one of these days. I cannot separate the various forms of writing and reading in my life, and I have no desire to. I find errors in grammar and spelling personally offensive, and glaring character assassination and plotholes have been known to throw me into screaming fits. I don't hesitate to throw away a professional book with these errors, and I certainly don't hesitate to share my distaste with my friends and family, warning them away from the offending work. If I know of a website on which I can post my assessment of the piece, I do so. The same goes for a book I absolutely love. I praise it to the heavens, to anyone in earshot, and I seek out a forum in which to post my praise that I hope reaches the author. I see no reason I should not be able to do the same, and expect the same, with fanfiction. When I buy a book, I am trusting that the author has already done his/her part to ensure I have the smoothest transition into suspension of disbelief as possible. If poor spelling or sentence structure keeps me from achieving that, the author has failed a vital part of the unspoken writer/reader contract. Perhaps I should not have such high expectations of fanfiction, but I do, and I feel I should have the right to express when and how the author has succeeded or failed in these expectations. Since I always mark my criticisms as such, I offer all authors the same choice they like to give me: If you don't like my work, you can always hit delete.