On Criticism and Online Fiction

I’m not sure if this is even a trend, but I’m beginning to think that online criticism follows rules and social norms that aren’t obvious in traditional, offline book criticism. This may not be a good thing. I’ve been actively looking around the blogosphere for the past couple of weeks, and I have to conclude that nobody criticizes via comments anymore. Consider: online works – be it novel, short story or photostream – are very rarely criticized on the creator’s own turf. I have yet to see a full blown review of a person’s writing on said person’s writing blog, nor have I seen a full-blown review of a blook (by a reader) on the blook’s actual site.

I believe the main reason for this to be that people now attribute ownership to a creator’s online channel. They don’t criticize you on your blog the same way they won’t comment on your (bad) taste when they’re visiting you at your home. Two photographers I follow – Olivia Bee and lightsongs receive  praise – and only praise – every time they release a photo on their Flickr photostream, and I must say that it gets pretty annoying after two or three months, to scroll down and see a whole heap of amazing! piled upon them – upload after upload after upload.

There’s also the possibility that these people filter out their comments, and only approve the positive ones – but I don’t believe that to be the case. I wonder, though – how likely is a reader to post a negative review in an overwhelmingly positive comment thread? A creator’s loyal community is the best defense against trolls, but it also a deterrent from negative commentary on the creator’s work. And – if this is true, and it’s true for all creators – then wouldn’t the Internet be the ideal home for the narcissistic writer?

Note that this trend doesn’t seem to apply to Novelr, nor to any of the non-fiction idea blogs you have out there. People have no problems with arguing against ideas they don’t agree with. It’s the fiction – the creative work – that suffers from this dearth of online critique, and this means that the writers who blog for improvement aren’t likely to find it … not unless they ask for it, and ask for it regularly. There is one exception, however, on the Internet: writing forums and communities not clustered around the writer are good places to ask for writing feedback. Which means, then, that the trick to getting C&C isn’t to ask for opinions from the community clustered around your blook, but to ask for it at other places – neutral ones – where people do not feel that they’re intruding on your digital turf.

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Category: Learning To Write · Writing Web Fiction
  • Jan Oda

    Way back when I was still posting some of my amateur art on deviantArt I suffered from the same problem. If I could get people to comment (which was hard, because let’s face it, deviantART is a popularity contest in which it is nearly impossible to get noticed) the only stuff I got sounded like “Nice Work!!” or “Cool” and the best were along the line of “Nice colourwork in your faces”.

    I was a big amateur, so those comments weren’t any help at all. So I dove into the forums begging for constructive criticism and failed miserably.
    I think it has to do with the effort it costs to argument what and why you don’t like something. If you don’t like something it’s easier to click away instead of staying around and criticize.

  • http://scarymary.sahunter.net S.A. Hunter

    I think what you said, “That people now attribute ownership to a creator’s online channel,” is correct to a point. I don’t know if it is so much about ownership as purpose. A story site is a story site. People aren’t going to go to the story site to read a review of the story. They’re going to go to a review site. Criticism and feedback is the same way. You need to go to sites where that is the purpose. I don’t really think I’ve seen a story site that actively asked for deep criticism of the work. When a writer posts a story, I think the perception is that the writer is confident enough to share the work with the worldwide web and don’t want ‘schooling’, but you’ve probably visited more story sites than me.

    As a sidenote, I’m leery of feedback and crit sites now. I’ve been involved with a few, and they seemed to veer to the over critical, some of them to the extreme. It wasn’t personal attacks or flame wars, but almost like they had to one up each other with telling writers what was wrong with their piece.

  • http://poncy-mclean.net Duane Poncy

    Eli, glad to see you back to regularly blogging. You have caused me to once again give some needed thought to this important area of reader feedback and criticism.

    @S.A. Hunter: You are correct, I think, about the story space thing. I think that there is a third reason to add, although I don’t know how much weight to give it. That is that most of our readers are writers, also, and many of those writers are amateurs with fragile egos. They, themselves, aren’t ready for harsh criticism, and many don’t know how to critique in a productive fashion. Because of this, I think a culture of mutual praise has evolved: I won’t say anything bad about you, if you won’t say anything bad about me.

    Unfortunately, for us more thick-skinned writers, this is not good. It’s not good for the newbies, either. Most helpful would be some good guidelines for constructive and respectful criticism.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    I don’t think of the comments of my site as the place to go for criticism in any case. That’s more the place of a critique group.

    I don’t mind when people tell me what I’m doing right or wrong in their opinion in the comments, but I tend to use what’s been written as I might use a focus group instead of a writing teacher.

    As in, if things come up consistently (even if they’re not phrased as criticism), then it’s something I should look at.

    That being said, in many cases, people have been willing to write surprisingly long things in response to my posts, causing me in one case to rewrite half the post.

    I know that personally when I’m writing a response to someone’s story, I don’t say anything particularly critical. It’s not because I’m trying to be nice as much as I don’t have my “editing hat” on. The only thing that will start me thinking about what they’ve done wrong is something jarring enough that it throws me out of the story.

    If that happens often enough, I probably won’t leave a critical comment. I’ll just stop reading. It depends on how invested in the story I am.

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  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    I find myself tired of the blogosphere, or whatever we’re calling it this week. On my original No Man an Island site there was a small community of readers and writers who not only critiqued what they were reading (both positives and negatives) but also hung out on each other’s sites. I learned a lot about my strengths as a writer, and how to make them stronger, and improve the book as a result.

    That has mostly dried up. A lot of people have gone offline, busy with the “real world” leaving behind a few strong commenters who are largely positive, and helpful with some speculating and questions. But it happens less and less. And most stories that I would be critical of, yeah, I just stop reading. I don’t have time to do much more, and have virtually stopped reviewing because there’s not a lot out there that seems worth spending time on.

    Is it just internet burn out?

  • http://clarekrmiller.digitalnovelists.com Clare K. R. Miller

    Sheesh, I came here to say “yes, and” but find myself just able to say “yes”! I agree particularly with S.A. Hunter and JZ.

  • http://allantmichaels.digitalnovelists.com Allan T Michaels

    I have to agree with Gavin. As one of his readers/commenters, I’ve noticed a severe drop off in the amount of comments and sense of community online. I can go several updates without a comment, and as a writer, I really appreciate getting them. If nothing else, it’s a nice reminder that people are reading and that those numbers in Google Analytics aren’t just spam-bots trolling the site.

    But I also think Eli has a point. And I agree with Jim. Yeah, you don’t see a lot of criticism on the person’s site. But I’m also not sure it’s the proper forum.

    Especially for those just starting out, of course they can improve – Lord knows I needed to. But at the same time, a heap of criticism can be discouraging right out of the gate. And let’s face it – unlike the offline world, the anonymity of the internet can lead to much harsher criticism than one would find in an offline review of work.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Jan: I think you’ve struck a chord there with ‘nice work’ – which I seem to see everywhere these days. And I agree that after the novelty of arguing on the Internet has worn off, it is easier to agree, and to agree using a short, generic compliment.

    @Steph: point well taken, about site purpose. In my experience writers don’t generally ask for reviews within the site, true, but the serious ones do usually email and follow up on off-hand remarks from readers. Gavin does that, and so does Chris/Lethe … and a few other writers that I can’t really remember at the moment. These are generally old-school, and serious about improving their craft (as pretentious as that sounds – I know – but it’s true).

    On your point about writing crit groups: I … don’t know what to say, really. It appears to me that the Internet brings out the best in us, or the worst in us; and that it’s also hard to create and maintain a community culture that is just right – not too harsh, not too soft; always friendly.

    @Duane: glad to be back. =) Your third factor matters more, I think, at sites like WFG where you get a high concentration of (writing) peers. And I can understand exactly what you mean when you say mutual praise – it’s something everyone is tempted to do, sooner or later, if you’re new, in a community, and you want to be liked.

    @Jim: When I comment on your stories I comment on the characters, and treat them as actual people sitting right beside you. I try to do the same when I’m commenting on other serials now, too. As for critique … I think it’s still possible at sites, but in those cases it’s rarely done in public … I’ve a feeling more writers receive C&C via email than we can tell.

    @Clare: Hey, I came late to this comment thread, too, and I’m all out of things to say in response to what this bunch have already covered. ;-)

    @Gavin, Allan: I’m feeling a bit of that, though I wonder if it’s a result of being out of it for so long. I was struggling with Novelr and with the direction of the medium for sometime – it seems to have lost it’s … newness, it’s excitement. Maybe because we matured as a community, I don’t know. I’m fighting to reclaim that passion that got us started. It’s important.

    Burn out? Maybe. But I think I’ve rested enough.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    Oh, I’m not accusing you of burn-out, Eli. I was speculating on the possibility of my own.

    In the summer of 2007 it was thrilling to discover Tales of MU. I had never thought about the possibilities of writing just fiction on the Internet. In fact, I was doing research about the feasibility of comic books, with built in search functions. I discovered a ToMU ad on a webcomic site. The rich psychological complexity of AE’s characters, combined with her subversion of traditional fantasy tropes, and willingness to explore niche topics, convinced me that online fiction could go places traditional literature couldn’t.

    That was a tremendously exciting time for me. I’m primarily a prose writer, so I set aside the comic book idea and went for my preferred style, and just wrote fiction. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been online with No Man an Island since October 2007, and The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin has been going strong for a year.

    Stories like Alisiyad and Queen of Seven were rich in characterization, and comparable in quality to anything published. The Mutants and Fiction Murdered? played with traditional ideas in new ways. Hanging out on these sites, getting to know these authors, led me to Novelr and to the emergence of the Web Fiction Guide. We have developed the medium quite well for a two year span.

    But now I feel like we’re spinning our wheels. ToMU has been online for more than two years, and only two months have passed in the life of Mackenzie Blaise. Important plot points (Two summoning a demon, for instance) fall by the wayside because of the relationship soap drama that dominates the text. And which goes around and around in circles. It is extremely difficult to maintain an emotional connection to characters over a two year span when all they do is the same thing they did last month and last year.

    And the promise and potential of WFG, to expose us to new fiction, has somewhat fallen flat. I’ve given up reviewing anything about magic or vampires or zombies, because I don’t care to see another revamp of overdone cultural and traditional creations. I want something original and fresh. There are a few notable exceptions and experiments that attempt to push into new territory, but overall I feel like a lot of the fiction is amateur quality, and not something I want to spend time reading.

    We’ve always said that the best things about Internet fiction are the possibility for community and experimentation. Well, the community has been pretty dry lately, and the experiments seem few and far between. I personally need something to get me excited again, the way I was with the originality of ToMU’s early days, and the chance to share NMAI’s unique structure.

    I have big plans for Diggory, the “Not your Average Hero” and “Unexpected Tangent” stories hint at the possibilities of my character. But I want to be excited about fiction in general, and right now I’m not. Of my first online friends, only Eli, Jim and Allan are still updating. Sarah and Sonja have been on hiatus awhile, and even Chris Poirer has been slow to update lately. It just feels like the driving forces behind the excitement and growth have gotten tired, or maybe it’s just me.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    One thing that might contribute (at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere) to a feeling of malaise is the whole summer slump. Early in the summer, readership and participation goes down online. I had a little of that early this summer and numbers recently just went up to pre-slump levels. It happened last year too.

    I’m not saying that’s all of it, but it probably contributes to a lack of comments (or short ones) at the very least.

    Of course, the fact that this has changed from being a new thing to a “not quite so new” thing probably contributes too.

  • http://webfictionguide.com Chris Poirier

    I’ve been sick for a while, which is one of the reasons I’m not writing. I’m also re-evaluating my priorities. I haven’t done any open source software development in the last year, since I started writing Winter Rain and running WFG, and that’s not a good thing.

    However, I have to agree with Gavin. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this publicly, but most of the stuff we get at WFG is not worth reading. That was one of the reasons for the policy change to not reviewing everything, and why we set the default rating to just under 3 stars. Recently, most of my decisions have been about whether it is worth the time and angst to mark things down to 2.5 or 2 stars, where most of the recent listings belong.

    That’s not me saying I think my own work is brilliant, BTW — I don’t think it is. To be quite honest, I think Winter Rain is overrated on WFG.

    I have a fairly low opinion of online crit groups, to be honest. I no longer spend any time in them myself. I think they are worthwhile when you are just starting out, but only if you spend your time *writing* critiques for writers better than yourself. The stuff you get back generally isn’t very useful, because people don’t generally critique “down” — ie. most of the feedback you’ll receive is from people just as lost and confused as you (and often moreso). Personally, I’m far more interested in hearing how my readers *felt* while reading something I’ve written, than I am in hearing how they think I should change it. Then, at least, I can tell if I achieved my own goals, and that helps guide the development of my craft.

    Also, I’m finding my conversations with other writers are changing my perspective, and helping me nail down exactly what it is I’m trying to do. All in, I’m finding myself caring less and less about online fiction. I’m growing bored and jaded about the whole thing. I mean, I intend to keep writing online, and I’ll always be happy to have people read and comment — but, really, I’m caring less and less about trying to advertise or grow my readership. I’m writing for my own sake, not anybody else’s. And, as for reading, I’d rather spend my time on a few stories I really enjoy, than sifting through tons of crap.

    Eli: your idea of the Shelves project — where only good stuff gets in — may have been the right choice all along.

    Chris.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Gavin: You don’t need to accuse me of burnout – I know I was suffering from just that. =( I also didn’t do much to correct it, to be honest – instead of observing, and thinking, and writing I took up a temporary job over my break … one that left me with very little time to do Novelr writing.

    And, yes, your comment left me smiling. That time when we were all new, and we had just met each other – that was an exciting one for me as well. I think for all of us. What changed in the months since?

    I would disagree only on the point of community though – the community is still strong, and still out there … whenever WFG loads for me I always make it a point to check the forums, and I’m always encouraged by what I see there. Writers helping each other, writers with zany humour, writers asking for commentary, for critique. And I’ve just linked to an online fiction book club – which is itself an alliance between 5 writers, spread out in all corners of the globe. Maybe what we have lost, they have gained, and the joy of our partnerships have merely moved on to the newer members of the online fiction fraternity.

    Is it us? Or the medium as a whole? I’m not sure. But I’d like to think that it is us, because I’m a believer in being able to change what we don’t like. And this is something that I don’t like. Things can be better. I’m working on the how.

    @Jim: Possible, but I’m not inclined to think so. Chris (Lethe, not Poirier) became jaded with the whole process – like us – many many months ago, before summer began. And I can say confidently, too, that my … lethargy began in January, after coming back online to a landscape vastly different from when I left for exams (big companies! ebook wars!).

    @Chris: I’ve already told you this, but I pray you get – and stay – better. =) But anyway. When you did a rollcall in the editors forum a couple of days back I responded because I’m still invested in WFG – even if it doesn’t seem so. WFG rarely loads on my end these couple of days – along with a LOT of websites – but once I’m in Singapore, with an ISP that at least practices some degree of network neutrality, I intend to go back and contribute. WFG imposes structure to the loose ecosystem that is our medium. I admit: it may not be as good for finding quality fiction today, and there are flaws with the way it filters the fiction for the new reader – but our medium would be two years backwards if WFG were to completely fall.

    I understand where you’re coming from, though, and I do – myself – feel jaded and miffed at the sheer amount of tosh we have to sift through just to survive. The effort to benefits ratio isn’t worth it. But then again, looking back at all the work we’ve done – getting members together, talking and planning and reviewing … wouldn’t it be a waste to let it die?

    It’s been slow, launching Shelves, but I’m convinced that while Shelves may be the right answer to helping readers into online fiction … WFG is more critical for the medium’s health. Then again, we may not be right people to maintain and curate a directory/backbone/archive – important as it is – of online fiction.

  • http://webfictionguide.com Chris Poirier

    Hi Eli — you don’t have to worry. I won’t be walking away from WFG any time soon — I take my responsibilities seriously. Just wish there was some better way to organize things, and the reduce the workload both for me and for our readers in the way of finding good stuff to read. Guess I’ll have to add that to my list of things to think about. :-)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    For all of us to think about, Chris. You’re not alone.

  • http://benwhite.com Ben

    Even if you look at online publications that allow comments (and many that boast of thousands of visitors a month), a story may only have a single comment or none at all. People are busy–perhaps there isn’t a strong motivation to critique fiction in the same way online. If a reader has the time to spend, there’s always more to read.

    More importantly, when something isn’t up to snuff, most people (especially lurkers, who make up the majority of all site’s visitors) simply move on. Time and energy are not limitless. With nonfiction, people get riled up, want to argue, inspired to action. Mediocre fiction doesn’t do that.

  • http://allantmichaels.digitalnovelists.com Allan T Michaels

    See, Gavin? This is why we’re friends. :) I’ve actually got something in the hopper that (I think) is fairly original, and I’d like to debut it in the near future. Also have another Dash and Regina tale knocking around in there, working out its kinks. I’m hoping to start it up by August 15.

    Over at WFG, I mentioned again something I proposed on the old forums here – Wovelcon. I was just throwing the name out there because we were talking about key terms for StumbleUpon and I used wovel which someone hadn’t heard before.

    I mentioned over there that we’d need a critical mass before something like that could even be considered. But when I see 300 entries on WFG in under a year, and traditionally published authors, like Cat Valente, going the webfiction route, I’m wondering if we might not be closer than we think.

    I think a con on our own is too big an idea right now. But perhaps reaching out to large conventions with a lot of cross-over might not be out of line – see if we can get a panel or two. ComicCon has opened its doors to webcomic artists. We’re a logical next step.

    Maybe, if I get motivated, I’ll call the organizers after this year’s con is over, and see if maybe they’d be willing to host a panel and invite some of the bigger names in webfiction to speak.

    I’m always open to the thoughts of the community.

  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    @Allan If you happen to be in Michigan around the time of Penguicon, that might be worth checking out. It’d be near enough to Ann Arbor that it might not be too out of the way.

  • http://allantmichaels.digitalnovelists.com Allan T Michaels

    @JZ Sadly, I have less than a week left in Ann Arbor. But I have friends in the state. I’m not above coming to visit again.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    I’m still excited when I come to Novelr. I’m still excited when I drop by Jim’s In My Daydreams for the Legion of Nothing. I laugh when Allan posts a new Supervillain diary. I get tired when I see that Sarah and Sonja are still on hiatus from Queen of Seven and the Mutants. I get worried when my own health problems keep me from updating on time, and I worry about Chris when he’s not updating Winter Rain because I know he has a lot going on.

    These people are my friends, and I like seeing them creating. I like knowing we’re not in this alone.

    My burn-out is over web fiction in general because, yeah, there’s 300 stories on WFG. But I have no idea how to find the gems, and no interest in slogging through the rest. I still believe the original format had its merits, even though I like a lot of the redesigned elements. I would put the stars back on the main listing pages again, regardless of how authors feel about them. But that’s just me.

    Maybe I’m a jerk for having high standards, but I want to read something new that makes me remember that fiction can startle and amaze me.

  • http://webfictionguide.com Chris Poirier

    Gavin: you aren’t the first person to complain about difficulty finding stuff on WFG, unfortunately. I’ve started drawing up some ideas on how to take back the home page from the slushpile. Yes, yes, I know — not very charitable. Still, I think it’s accurate. And we really should do something to make it easier to connect with the good stuff.

  • http://allantmichaels.digitalnovelists.com Allan T Michaels

    It is tough to do. And honestly, I don’t read a ton of webfiction, largely because of that.

    I read stuff that people recommend, but even the stuff that is universally adored isn’t always my cup of tea. But it’s like any recommendation from friends. I trust their recommendations, and if I don’t like it, I chalk it up to my personal tastes, because the stuff that is being recommended is technically good.

    But yeah – with 300 stories, it is hard to find the really good stuff out there. And with demands on my time, it’s hard to take time to look.

    Best of luck to Chris on figuring out ways to separate the wheat from the chaff (and some of my early work certainly belongs in the latter category). If there’s anyway I can help, don’t hesitate to ask.

  • Sonja

    I felt like I had more to add, but I really think I just agree with the posters above me.

    @Gavin Would this be a bad time to say that I’ve resolved to step away from writing online fiction (though I do plan on taking a breath and taking the plunge to reading it once more)?

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    @ Chris — you have done an admirable job with the forces I’m sure you try to balance on the WFG. Meeting the needs of writers and readers while creating a new format (which you continually improve upon) is no easy task. I just wouldn’t be charitable. It might piss some people off, but if there was a direction I wanted to go and I had the position to do something about it, I’d start heading there.

    (But of course it’s a hypothetical position for me, whereas for you it’s your actual concern, which I can only imagine. Hence the respect.)

    @ Sonja — You have no idea how glad I was to see your comments show up on Diggory yesterday. There almost wouldn’t have been a community on NMAI without your influence — I met the entire WFG editorial board because of you. Arguably I’d have some network of friends because of Pages Unbound before its demise (I think that’s how I found Allan) but it wouldn’t have been the same.

    Hearing you’re not writing online right now is a bit of a disappointment, considering how much I loved Fiction Murdered? and the characters of the Mutants. I’m sure you have your reasons. You’re a writer — I’m sure you’ll continue with that when you’re ready, whether it’s as a hobby, online, or in publishing. I’m patient, I am. (It took me a decade to finish NMAI, and I was in no rush. I still think about changing some parts.)

    Just glad you’re back online!

  • http://vjchambers.com V. J. Chambers

    I just stumbled across this blog in google search, and I’m happy I did. I have a story (shameless promo: vjchambers.com/breathless.html) up on the Web Fiction Guide, and I’ve done essentially nothing there. No trying to find readers, no connecting with the community, etc.

    After reading this article, I popped over there for a second and tooled around for a bit. And I realized, even as I was scrolling through some glowing reviews, that none of them actually made me want to read the books.

    When I go to the library to look for a print book, I expect there to be glowing praise from somebody on the cover somewhere. Glowing praise does not make me pick up a book.

    Instead, I think I search for the things about fiction that I know I love. Themes like forbidden love or one person’s struggle against an oppressive society. Web fiction is very easy to dismiss. I can close a book and stop reading it, but it still sits on my nightstand, reminding me that it’s in my possession. Once I close a browser window, it’s gone. I sometimes wish, when I’m looking for fiction to read online, that there was something short and quick–something that would get to the heart of the matter. Something that would tell me, “This is why this book is worth reading. This is what it wants to tell you, or discuss, or posit.”

    I feel the same way as some of the others do above me. Every time I sit down to try to read a webfic, I audition about four, am unimpressed with each, and then give up for some different reading material. This is depressing to me. I am writing webfic, and I would love to connect with other authors who are doing so as well. I don’t want to seem “snobby.” My own story is a YA romance-thriller, and, while I’m proud of it, I’m sure it has its weaknesses.

    I know there is outstanding online fiction out there. It does just seem tough to find.

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