Feedback (1998 essay by torch)

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Title: Feedback
Creator: torch
Date(s): July 28, 1998
Medium: online
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External Links: Rant table of contents; Feedback
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Feedback is a 1998 essay by torch.

Some Topics Discussed

  • ego
  • feedback done for guilt
  • flames
  • there is never enough feedback

Excerpts from the Essay

Feedback seems to have become a guilt issue. Well, maybe it always was, but recently I've noticed a trend in the feedback discussion that's really made me think, ooh, *guilt*! And, admittedly, *feel* guilt as well.

There's a lot of slash available on the net, and a dedicated reader (or a fandom slut, like me) can go through vast quantities of stories in a relatively short time. Most of those stories include clear instructions on where to send feedback. Most dedicated readers will not send feedback on all these stories.

And then, at some point, the readers will come across what I think of as the Feedback Guilt Mail, and they will start to feel uncomfortable.

Hell, *I* start to feel uncomfortable when that happens. And I agree with most of the opinions usually expressed in the Feedback Guilt Mail. I'm in no way trying to slam the people who compose and post versions of this mail. On the contrary--as I said, I tend to agree with a lot of what they're saying, and the effect of said mail is usually that I get a couple of feedback letters, which makes me a happy bunny.

Slash writers write out of love and enthusiasm, sharing their work, in zines or on the web with others who are just as... focused... as they are. The only coin they get paid in is feedback, so it's a good idea to send a line or two to keep the writers encouraged and happy, to let them know that there are readers out there who are enjoying their stories. It doesn't have to be ten pages of advanced literary criticism. Most writers are perfectly happy to hear 'I liked it' or even just 'I read it.' (Although those ten pages are certainly appreciated with they do appear.)

I agree with all of the above. If you like a writer's work, let her know.

However, not too long after the Feedback Guilt Mail, someone usually counters with the Into the Void Rebuttal. Writers can't expect feedback as an automatic consequence of posting a story, cannot demand it as their right. Posting a story is a gamble; you toss it out into the big bad world and hope that someone will read and like it, but you can't count on that. Nor do readers have the time or interest to comment on everything, and they shouldn't feel obliged to.

And I agree with all of that, too.

As a writer, I'm a feedback junkie and I want more, more, *more*. Lots of it. All the time. As a reader, I'm extremely lazy, and can never think of anything intelligent to say about the story I've just read. As a writer, I'd be happy just to hear that someone read my story even if she didn't like it. As a reader, I feel stupid at the thought of making a comment like 'I read your story with a certain indifference.'

Seriously, though, I can see both sides. I think people should send feedback. I don't think people should feel guilted into sending feedback.

I think people should send feedback to *me*. Never mind all the other writers.

Feedback can be a touchy issue and engender a lot of jealousy. Discussions about whether writers feel that they get enough feedback are often couched in very cautious terms. How much is enough? Five feedback mails for a single story, or fifty, or five hundred? Writers don't feel comfortable mentioning actual numbers because it seems too much like participating in a popularity contest.

The answer to the question of whether writers get enough feedback is always no.

[hurt me, baby] Feedback doesn't have to be positive. 'Your story is the worst thing I've ever read and I'm afraid I'll have nightmares' is feedback, too. ('You're an evil bitch and will burn in hell for what you do' is not, strictly speaking, feedback, it's delusional nonsense.) So is it a good idea, the reader wonders, to send that oh-my-god rant that has been building ever since she started reading the story? Well, that depends.

Many writers seek constructive criticism, which includes comments like 'consider not switching POV in the middle of a sentence' as well as 'it would have made more sense storywise if it had been Scully who walked in on Mulder and Krycek at the end instead of Skinner, considering what happened earlier with the carjackers.' Constructive crit is a good thing that can help the writer get a new perspective on her own work and tips on how to improve it; comments on style, plot construction and so on usually fall into this category.

However, comments like 'it would have been better if it had been Mulder and Skinner that Scully walked in on instead of Mulder and that stupid rat bastard Krycek' are not constructive criticism. It's no use trying to change a writer's personal taste like that. She has chosen her pairing and the reader will have to live with it or stop reading. Gentle questions such as 'have you ever contemplated the possibilities of...' can work quite well, but a writer who gets told for the twentieth time that she favors the 'wrong' couple is a writer who will go out and kick small animals.

[no flames please, we're slashers] 'Send feedback, please, but no flames.' I've seen this a lot and I don't understand it. A flame is a rude, mean-spirited, unreasonable attack. I don't imagine that people who make rude, mean-spirited, unreasonable attacks will refrain from it just because they're asked nicely. But then I'm no expert on flames and flamers. The closest I've ever come to being flamed was a recent comment made in my main guestbook by a young woman who states that if she ever becomes a TV star she won't give the time of day to perverted fans like me. This devastating threat has made me decide to swear off slash forever.

Anyway, flames. I mentioned my confusion about the 'no flames' request to a friend, and she suggested that 'no flames' could be the code for 'no negative comments' and that this is what causes breakdowns of the type I mentioned above in the communication between writer and reader. I don't know if this is true, but it would certainly explain a lot. Confirmation or vehement denial, anyone?

[vending machine syndrome] Sometimes writers aren't grateful for the feedback they get, even though it is, in its way, positive. 'I love your story, when are you posting the next one?' is encouraging in small doses, but when it's all you hear it can get to be a bit stressful. And when the writer gets feedback letters like that the day after posting a novel that took months to write, it's time to call the SPCA again. It's nice to feel wanted, it's nice to feel loved, it's not so nice to suddenly have a mental image of yourself as a prize cow expected to deliver a certain amount of quality milk at regular intervals.

When writers whine about this, are they being spoiled prima donnas, or are their complaints reasonable? Well, different people react differently to these things. There are writers who thrive on the interactivity and the 'gimme gimme gimme' of web posting, and there are those who come to feel really frazzled by it. And then there are those who don't hear this at all, who don't hear much of anything from the readers and think it's a luxury complaint.

Personally, I dislike being asked about sequels, because I'm easily stressed, but I try not to take this out on the person asking, who presumably doesn't know that. Being asked is a compliment. Being *told* is annoying. 'You have to write a sequel to this, and this and this and this has to happen!' Oh, yeah? 'I like your writing but you should change to fandom X instead!' Don't hold your breath. And so on, and so forth. I really wish people wouldn't do this, and I fully understand the writers who are seriously disgruntled about it.

[i'm not an addict]

Although it matters less to some than others. 'I don't write for feedback, I only write to please myself.' Well, we all write for different reasons. Me, I like to hear from people, or to at least know they're reading my stuff--if I didn't care about that I wouldn't post my stories to start with. However, I agree that feedback is the icing on the cake, not a god-given right, or something on which to hang your entire self-esteem. Few things are as embarrassing as writers trying to blackmail their readers by saying 'let me know if you like this and I might write some more,' or any variation thereof. If someone's only reason for writing is to get people to say nice things to her... well, no one can stop her, actually. A fair number of people will find it annoying and rant about it, though, which is counterproductive if what she's looking for is an ego-boost.

Fan Comments

[Katcinlee]: My views on feedback come as a dedicated reader and admirer of all those talented people. It's hard for me to give feedback - I keep on wanting to say something intelligent, but analytical thinking is not my strong point. I often find myself resorting to the "I liked it a lot" form-letter. Having said that, when I do write encouragement, I really appreciate hearing back from the author. Now, I don't mean to stress any authors out. I understand that they're busy writing wonderful things for me to read and I shouldn't complain, BUT when I do get a thank-you note it 1) encourages me to continue writing feed-back, 2)gives me a feeling of connecting to the writer and slash community, and 3) makes me happy for the rest of the day. I think one of the strengths of on-line fandoms is the ease with which writers and readers can communicate and bond, and IMHO it works best as a two-way street. [1]
[Dawn Sharon Friedman]: As a writer, I know there is *never* enough feedback. (What would be enough? Well, if every intelligent person on Earth read my story and wrote a paragraph of thoughtful praise about each and every sentence in it, that might be enough.) As a reader, I love to blather about stories, but it has to be very easy to do, because I don't have much energy or time to play with -- and I assume that people who are in better shape have more to keep them busy, too, so they're not much better off than I am. For example, I wanted to send feedback to Courtney Gray about her latest story on the ArchiveX archive. Well, lessee, is there an email box to click on? Nope. Does anyone named Courtney Gray have a web page listed under Authors' Pages? Nope. Could I eventually figure out whether she has an email address and what it is? Yes. Will I remember anything about the story beyond "I liked it" by the time I track down her address? Nope. Hell, I don't even remember the title by now. So: authors whose fiction I read on their pages, or in a mailing list, or posted in atxc, often get feedback; others may not, even when I have a lot to say. There is also this evil selfish feeling that if I'm going to go to the trouble of sending detailed feedback about the good stuff, I ought to have the release of snarling about the bad stuff, *somewhere*. Maybe there's no use in asking the author, even politely, "What have you seen Scully do in canon that makes you think she'd be sobbing in fear at this point?" And we could get into an endless argument about people who post stuff that's never been beta-read, even, apparently, by the author herself. After all, no one is forcing me to finish the story, and it would be petty to say, "The three-and-a-half sentences I read of your story were horribly run-on and full of typos," wouldn't it? But I want to tell *someone*. I miss the Hall of Shame desperately. (And what a funny website I've chosen to talk about bad fanfic!) Yeesh -- I've written all this, and I haven't actually read the guestbook lately. I guess I'll sign and then look. dsf [2]
[Laura Buchard]: Oh, Sharon, I am so *with* you on sometimes needing a place to dump negative feedback. A few weeks back there was an atxfc thread on Playing for Keeps, and someone chirped that it was their *favorite* Scully, and I was so completely horrified that I desperately wanted to start ranting. Given how completely the Scully sections were botched in an otherwise perfectly good novel. I did mention to one of the authors that maybe they should get someone who was good at writing a difficult Scully (RivkaT! RivkaT! Rah rah rah!) because they obviously didn't have a clue. Okay, I didn't say that last part, I was much more polite. And I held back from ranting on the newsgroup, too. But at great psychic cost! Same way, there's a recent atxfc story that had people drooling all over it, and left me cold (basically, Mulder does Something Awful, but unfortunately the author doesn't connect it at all with some of the ominous things we see about Mulder in the show, so it's like another character walked in in the middle of the story, and I was going buh? rather than having any particular emotional reaction.) I kept from saying anything there, too, but oh my fingers wanted to. I do try to write positive feedback, but I'm not very good at thinking up more individual things to say than "Man I really liked that." I think it's because the best stories to me are so holistic that you can't tease out a detail -- the characterization is so dead on you don't *notice* it, the writing is so smooth that it's like air, utterly necessary and completely invisible. It's so much easier to pick apart a flawed story then a perfect one. For the perfect ones, my only real compliment seems so weak -- "This isn't just good writing, it's polished to a professional level." What I'm really saying is that not only is it as good as what I see on the bookshelves, it's *better*, because I think a lot of what shows up on bookshelves isn't that good; not only is the writer of saleable quality, they are up there with the people I look forward to seeing on the shelve s -- Bujold and Vinge]], Pratchett and Hobb... but it seems so bloodless comparatively. There are only a few fanfic writers who I think achieve this level, and generally only in some stories. Torch is one, and so is Anna Childe. What was the Hall of Shame? [3]
Te: You suck! Sorry, really couldn't resist that. I really enjoyed your feedback wishy-washiness, mainly because when I started writing, I never *quite* loss my inner reader. That ravenous, oblivious, obsessive creature who devours all slash (well, almost) indiscriminately... but sometimes forgets to feedback. Sigh. If I beat her down and read as a writer, I'm quite virtuous in sending comments... but I don't have as much fun. Enough blither. [4]
[Lisa Hall]: Hello, my dear torch - Boy, have you hit a mark with this topic! I'm right in the middle of it, currently. I admire you for being able to fairly present all sides. Generally I can see the sides clearly, but still gotta take one over the other. For what it's worth, here's what's going on regarding my own feedback experiences. As you know I've written quite a bit (though not as much or as well as you, m'dear!) and I've got a rather large file dedicated to nothing but feeding my ego. I'd say that 95% of everything I get back is positive and I treasure that - from the "gee, i liked it, thanx" to the 10 page whopper you described. I also value feedback that helps me write in the future. For example, in my latest effort there's a huge and rather embarrassing error that I had no idea I had made. I've gotten... ahem... quite a bit of feedback on it. *grin* I'll fix it eventually, and I learned something new and overall it's been a great experience all the way around. I'm mortified I did it, of course, but very grateful that it was pointed out to me, usually with a sympathetic grin or pat on the back thrown in. But then there's the other kind of feedback. I'll site two instances just to illustrate. The first is probably a "you just had to be there and in my head" kind of thing, but I'll never forget it. I got a letter from an individual who admires Mystery Science Theatre 3000. This person assured me that my writing was so bad that it was the perfect material to be spoofed as an MST3K (and no, I'm not talking about one of the Brat Queen's spam spoofs here). If I would only allow this person to use my writing on their page, they were certain that eventually my style would improve. Note to the fans - generally letters like this will not endear you to writers. But I'm pretty sure most of you know this. The other type of letter that I, personally, can really live without is the type that begins with "I read your story and I liked it but..." This helpful reader then goes on to describe in minute detail each and every thing they hated about the story, often prefacing new thoughts with "No offense, but..." or "It's obvious you're not qualified to..." or "If only you seek help from..." Frankly, this doesn't help me. I enjoy constructive critical feedback - I really *have* improved my writing style because of it. However, what I just described here has always seemed to me to be the worst type of personal attack imaginable. These stories mean something to me. They take time and thought to create - I only put stories up that I'm proud of. The only thing I can equate this type of letter to is someone going up to a proud mother of a new baby and saying something like "What a wonderful baby! What a shame he's horribly ugly and obviously too stupid to amount to anything. But I just love babies anyway!" In short, there *is* a difference between helpful critical advice and thoughtless attacks. A little consideration goes a long, long way. Thanks for the forum, torch! *HUGS* Lisa [5]

[Rhi]:

On the subject of feedback: No flames, to my mind, is a warning of 'I will happily take constructive comments, but nastiness may get what it deserves.' A few of the Highlander writers said that if I get a truly nasty flame, they'll help me compose the response so as to scorch. But, I've gotten constructive criticism on characterization, plot, etc., and been grateful for it. I now correspond with those folks and two of them beta when I look at something and think it's complete dreck. As to people who write saying, "When is the next one coming out?" Yes, it's flattering, but, please... give us a little time? It doesn't make me want to kick the cat, it makes me want to ask the person when I get to sleep, eat, actually take my husband to a matinee, etc. (Now, writing as an excuse not to do -housework- is another matter entirely.) Okay, that's my $.25 worth of rant. Thanks, torch. [6]
Well, this is where I go, oh, look at that, something about feedback. And look at this, another guestbook! And then I get ready to blather on petulantly about my own little opinion. I send feedback, I wait. And wait. And give up, become bitter and then get over it and then end up somehow in a chat with said author and can't be as cute and hyperactivly insane with them. and then I can't let myself love them as I had before. Except for Aries and Amirin who I bribed (*kisses Triniar's ankles*). *pouts and flounces skirts* so I'm burned and then I find myself posting in these pretty textarea contraptions my nonsense. And since one never can even expect a 'thank you' from a guestbook entry, they're embittered all over again because they KNOW they sent loving words of praise and never got a response. *quirks eyebrow* no, I know it didn't make sense. I don't often. ;o) hmm. umm. ok. so I love torch and all of her fandoms and her recs and other assorted nonsense and I'm wonderful at digression if anyone wants to talk for no reason. *eyes puppify* feedback on a guestbook entry too much I guess? *ambles back to her very own corner of webspace* ~Trar [7]
[Diana]: Feedback is something of a sore point with me, because I like to give feedback that's sincere and detailed. I never criticize because I never feel compelled to send feedback unless I wholeheartedly loved the story, or it touched or moved me. Criticism is rather useless, just because I think I don't have the knack of giving useful crit ("Write better, and less insipidly"). I read a lot of stuff, most of it on rec, and I'm picky so that I finish only stories that are above a definite standard of quality, and yet if I did respond to everything I read, most of it would go like this: "I liked your story, even though the writing was a little patchy sometimes and the dialogue stilted. Your characterization was very pro forma. It was cute/nice/amusing though." That's just not something most writers want, and I don't have the stones to offend that many people. Categorization is just necessary, much in the same way blurbs on the backs of books are - how else do we, the readers, make sense of the jumble. I do have to say that warnings and such are unnecessary, at least for me. I'm relatively impossible to offend, and if I do get turned off or grossed out, I just stop reading. I don't dictate on the stuff other people feel compelled to create, so I just ignore what I don't like. It's the mature person's response to the world at large. Plus, I've some kinks and twists that are definitely offensive/unsavory to others - don't judge lest ye be, blah blah blah. And criticism and review definitely, definitely belong on the web. Criticism should perhaps be kept private, as it is a function to improve, and apart of the writing process, between critic and writer. But I happen to approve of reviews in every other facet of my creative consumption. I read the movie reviews in my paper (mainstream & alternative), Ebert on the web and check out Pauline Kael's books from the library. I'm a film nut, and I don't like to waste my time and money (toss up between which I value more) on bad ones. I rely on the TV crit of my local rag to steer me away from bad shows (he's really quite perceptive). I flip through the book reviews on Sunday even though I don't tend to read the books that get reviewed (anything modern and literary is just not to my taste). And I read slash almost entirely on rec. In fact, one of the things that drove me to slash (and made me fall desperately in love) are the abundance of rec pages. The community should be self-critical and not so self protective in the interests of being better. And bad stories do drag down a community, no matter what. On the other hand, one of the sweet and good things about fanfic and slash is the acceptance new and inexperienced writers just automatically receive. Reviews are necessary, but they hardly need to be soul-crushing and destructive. Also, laying off newbies should just be a given. Attacking the big dogs - the meat of fandom. And as for authors' putting 'No flames, please' in their intros - that too has always puzzled me. It's not going to stop anyone who is offended enough to send vitriol, and it does seem like a cop-out way of saying 'only compliments.' *** Having said all that, I'll end this by say I've loved all your stories, and some of your latest work has just been something else. You've always been great, but "The Best Policy" is the best thing you've written. You've aged like fine wine. Please, keep writing. [8]

References

  1. guestbook comment, July 28, 2000
  2. guestbook comment, July 30, 2000
  3. guestbook comment, August 1, 2000
  4. guestbook comment, August 5, 2000
  5. guestbook comment, August 5, 2000
  6. guestbook comment, November 9, 1999
  7. guestbook comment, February 5, 2000
  8. guestbook comment, October 29, 2000