“Everyone who drives slower than me is a dumbass. Everyone who drives faster is an asshole.”
We were driving home from Christmas in the mountains, along a canyon road I know so well I could guide you down it with my eyes closed. Coming over the highest rise in the road, the car that appeared in front of us turned out to be going quite slow. Braking and passing, my dad sniped a frustrated, “Dumbass.”
Then he no doubt remembered he had three impressionable children in the backseat, and so he spoke those self-aware words. It was his way of apologizing for swearing, and recognizing that he probably needed to chill. But the truth behind the idea, the notion that our words can say more about our own perspective than they do about what we’re referring to, stuck with me, well over a decade later.
I hadn’t intended this to be my second ever blog post, but then there was a petition to un-anonymize Amazon reviews and now seemed a good time. I’m not going to talk about that, though. I’m also not going to talk about reviewers or authors mocking people’s appearance and using slurs and issuing threats, because these things are obviously wrong and should not be done in any circumstances and sometimes warrant police involvement. I’m not even going to talk about who I think acts rightly or wrongly in any of the many Authors Vs. Reviewers internet blow-ups, past, present, future.
I want to talk about why this fight keeps happening.
I’m talking about what happens when some asshole or dumbass comes along and trashes your book/your favorite book/your review, in a way that makes so little sense you just want to yell, “Did you even read this?!”
Sometimes it ends there. Sometimes we can’t help but react. And then more reactions pour in. It can get loud and absurd, a little thrilling and even dangerous, and so, reminds me very much of driving.
Stories and reviews are vehicles, a way to get ideas from one person to the other. But the rules of the road are far from static. Here the speed limit is 30, there it is 60; in this town there’s no turn on red, in that one turning on red is standard; some places even have you driving on the opposite side of the road than you’re used to. And then sometimes the rules of the road that you drive on every day change and you find yourself getting a ticket for parking in your usual spot.
Taking that into account, with each piece of writing, first you have the rules of the particular genre you’re driving on. And then you have the fact that everyone on that road has the rules they learned to drive with, which may or may not correspond with the rules of their current road, and which will certainly differ from the rules some of the drivers around them follow. And then every driver will have their own interpretation of the rules. To some a speed limit is truly a limit and they prefer to go five under; to others going five over is standard because the cops will rarely call them on it. And then there are those to whom a speed limit is a “was that blur we just passed a sign of some sort?”
So we’re all driving on a road where the rules are in flux and everyone holds a different set of fluctuating rules as the standard and no two drivers have the same interpretation of the fluctuating rules they hold as standard.
This is why the whole review scene can be such a shitshow.
Because to one person a book is a dumbass, to another it’s an asshole, and to a third it’s absolutely everything a book should be. And authors’ responses to these things vary as wildly as drivers respond to other cars not following their internalized Rules. When a dumbass is going so slow it requires braking hard in the middle of the highway, some complain about it to their friends later. Some swear loudly in the confines of their car, seethe, and move on. Some flip the driver the bird, which might inspire that driver to escalate things. And some follow the driver to the next light then get out and break in their windshield with a baseball bat.
In an ideal world, both reviewers and authors would remember that we’re all operating under different rules. This is not asking for objectivity in reviews, because that is as impossible and boring as asking for objectivity in novels. But consideration about our own critical perspective is important in understanding how we react to what we read (and how we react to life in general).
And when someone does respond with a metaphorical flip of the bird, clearly they are operating under different rules. Does it warrant a baseball bat? Should it be ignored? No response is perfect for all situations, but it’s worth careful consideration before using any of them.
Because there will be others who vibe right with your words, who on long road trips are sometimes in front of you and sometimes behind but always close by because your internal rules are synced. You are connected, and isn’t that what all writing is about? It’s a beautiful thing, and worth dealing with a few dumbasses and assholes.