Is Our Culture Becoming Too Critical and Open?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Lately an author friend shared a snippet of a critical email she received from one of her readers. After reading the rather brash words, I was struck with the feeling of, "Wow, since when did readers become so critical?"

In my opinion the reader had a condescending tone and mentioned some nit-picky issues that had no bearing on the worth of the story. (In fact, I've read the book–which is excellent and has finaled in numerous national contests–and I didn't notice those issues).

As I thought about my friend's email along with some of the more negative reviews and emails I've gotten, I couldn't help but wonder, have readers always been so open with their thoughts or is this analytical honesty a growing trend?

On the one hand, readers have always enjoyed discussing the merits or problems they find in books–hence the popularity of book clubs.

On the other hand, I can't help but think we're seeing an increase in readers sharing their thoughts about books more publicly (instead of privately or in the confines of book groups). And hence with the increased openness, we're also seeing more negativity (as well as positivity).

And let's face it, when a handful of people start being brutally honest or saying exactly how they feel (without holding back), and other people read those comments or tweets or reviews, then it opens the windows for them to share just as openly too.

Obviously the growth of social media has changed the way our culture operates. Every TV show has a Twitter hashtag for live tweeting. Every star has a Facebook page for interacting. And every book has a Goodreads page for reviews.

People everywhere are voicing their thoughts and opinions about everything, without reservation. The windows are wide open, the bars are down, and people feel the freedom to say whatever they want no matter the repercussions.

In fact, when I was recently watching American Idol and browsed the idol hashtag, I was surprised by the level of emotion (even cussing) that people tweeted when their favorite contestant was voted off. And during the Survivor finale, I was taken aback by the number of blatant hate tweets leveled at one of the finalists.

Many were spewing out whatever came to their minds. And when so many are vomiting their every thought (whether critical or not), then that gives others permission to do the same.

Does that permission to vomit our every thought carry over into the reading world as well?

As an author, I admit, I'm usually a much more critical reader than non-writers. I can rarely read a book without my internal editor turning on. I analyze the writing mechanics, plot, characters, you name it. It takes a well-written and riveting plot to capture me.

But because I know this criticalness is a hazard of the occupation, I also tend to be gracious in my reviews. I realize that most average readers will probably like the stories that I don't. They don't have the same expectations that I do. Thus I'm careful to temper my reviews with grace.

I've realized that in a culture of openness, I don't want my subjective criticisms to negatively sway someone who may not have even picked up on the faults if I hadn't pointed them out. Why focus on the wilted petal on an otherwise beautiful blooming flower?

The other issue is that after being in the public spotlight with my own books, I've come to realize that no one is perfect. I won't be able to write perfectly and therefore I shouldn't expect it of others. If they have some faults in their book, I remind myself that I have just as many, if not more.

All that to say, sometimes I wonder if we're taking our public openness too far these days. For example, when people read scathing reviews on Amazon, does that make them feel that they have the permission to write the same? When readers nitpick a book, then does everyone begin to think a nit-picking review is the norm? Even going so far as to send nit-picking emails to authors?

Yes, I've thrown out a lot of thoughts for us to think about today! But this openness is an issue I'm still mulling over and trying to understand. My conclusion for today is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you're criticizing. If you wouldn't like it done to you, then why do it to someone else?

What are YOUR thoughts? Do you think our culture has become too open and thus perhaps inadvertently fostered an attitude of negativity? Or do you think the openness is a good thing?

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