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?


  1. I'm trying to imagine what would compel me to write to an author to nitpick about their book. It's been awhile since I've been disappointed with a book but, like you, I figure it's just not a good fit for me but that other people will love it.

    I think sometimes the combination of reality TV and social media breeds a false sense of familiarity. Because people with profile seem so much more accessible through various mediums we forget that we don't actually KNOW them. And we skip the part that most of what we see has been carefully cast, edited etc. to entertain and draw in big audiences.

    Additionally, social media is created for the "in the moment" emotion. In a few seconds you can click a few buttons and post or tweet or whatever without actually properly processing what you're saying or thinking about the real person at the other end of your brain explosion.

    Guarantee if people had to sit down, write and physically post in the mail all their tweets, FB posts and emails about public figures there would be a whole lot less of them and they would be a whole lot more courteous!

  2. Current culture dictates everyone's voice can be heard. It's easy to write a review on anything now, a book, a meal, a TV show, so people feel free to do so. Used to be when you were reading a review, it was from an expert in the field. Nowadays, anyone can write one. As a result of all the information the public has access to, the reviews may be well informed. But ease of posting means ANY one can write anything, which to my way of thinking, reduces the credibility of most reviews. I guess I stand by my mother's mantra: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

  3. While I respect and understand Liza's standing by the "If you can't say anything nice" mantra, I disagree slightly with that, NOT the intent, just how it's phrased.

    There are times (Whether in-person or online) when you HAVE to face hard conversations, that doesn't mean I think it's OKAY to demonize someone, be they an author or anyone else, but that sometimes you only grow from facing hard conversations.

    It can be an overall POSITIVE experience. It depends on who you're talking to, and what the context is. You're still being respectful, but honesty's always at the forefront.

    Whether that's chatting amongst your readers or people in the business. We too often confuse being professional with being just cold and rudely aloof.

    They don't HAVE to be mutually exclusive. That's what I believe, anyway.

    If the supposed truism "The Truth will set you free" is REALLY true, than not all honesty need be brutal and cruel, if we're not talking about seriously issues like domestic or sexual abuse, where there's a real gray area there.

    All in all, I think both lay readers and writers just need to remember "No one can write perfectly" and that while writers need to get their books all the tighter just to get READ by agents and editors via the traditional model (Not everyone can afford self-publishing, no matter what X guru tells you) and thus writers do need to read differently, BUT respect is key to lay readers as much as writers.

    I may not be a rabid paranormal fan, but I don't bad mouth those who are, or who write paranormal stories, certainly not eveyone loves animal fantasy as I do(If anyone's seen my blog, you know what I mean...) but I also know I'm not the only one (Over 5) who does.

    I think the real problem is we mistake being honest with being needlessly cruel and demeaning.

    Or confuse being "professional" with being "Too lenient" when writers read more into the overall construction of how a book reads than the average reader. But lay readers, try to understand, we writers HAVE to look at books in ways you don't, just to REACH you in the first place, okay?

    Whether we published indie or with a traditional publisher. You put up the money to buy a book, but we put up our money, time, and sacrifice to get the book in a readable state, long before you ever hear of it.

    You can be honest about what you don't like in a book and still respect the writer of the book.

    Otherwise we'd all be like those reality talent search show judges, and NOT everyone frankly NEEDS that crushing criticism, at least not at every dang turn. Period.

    I'm not saying to pretend you like a book when you didn't. But hacks aside, don't view all writers in that vein, please lay readers, or writers who publicly review books, don't.

  4. Time for me to weigh in-

    Jody, I know readers who don't write will not see some books as we do, which makes doing reviews dicey for us (I'm a writer, too), but we're still allowed to dislike books no less than lay readers(Who aren't writers or working in publishing) are, we just temper it, since when you do cross over from being a lay reader to writer, you just HAVE to read differently. Not every writer has this "Reader's Block" complex, as many "Authors" will tell you. But I DO face this issue and I HAVE to fight back the feelings of envy and inadequacy.

    The day I can't read a book I'd normally love (If I wasn't a writer) is that day I never write again. Dramatic as that sounds I'm DEAD serious, here, Jody.

    I have to separate it out at times to stay sane while still improving my skills.

    That said, I HAVE to turn off my inner editor when I read, ESPECIALLY books in my genre, because how hypocritical is it to be a writer-but can't read the books in your TRYING to write in the first place?!

    So, we instead use our blog topics to generally touch on our personal dislikes in books, without needlessly outing/insulting the author, and I think you have to take a leap of faith at times that the reader will understand what you're saying in context.

    On the matter of readers using the net as a great opportunity to be mean and nasty without cause, rhyme or reason, that's sadly true, but thankfully that's not all there is(Or no [Or FEW...] writers would stay online, no matter how loud the "You NEED to be online" push the industry preaches.

  5. I was recently asked in an interview, "What was the most surprising thing about being an author?" My answer was how brutal people could be in their reviews. There is a way to give feedback without being brutal or mean. I like this artical Jody, because I have had similar thoughts. We, as writers, are experiencing what society in general are experiencing. People are using texting and social media to express things that they would not say to someone's face. It takes some extra effort as parents, teachers, social workers to teach kids and adults that they need to be aware of how their actions effect others. Great article. I am going to put a link to it on my blog.

    1. Here is my post inpired by this one. Thanks.

  6. I just think there's a danger of so much anonymity. It's like driving in rush hour traffic and flipping the bird-- they don't know you and may never see you again. It's a permission to be rude. Having constructively critical thoughts shows thinking. Being unkind just shows a lack of manners and accountability.

  7. The internet is a mean, mean place. Read the comments on a news article and there are 50+ people judging, trying, convicting and sentencing someone on 10 paragraphs worth of information or even some person's one liner comment. Calling for people to die, telling them they aren't worthy to live, judging their intelligence or lack thereof, etc.

    I'm frankly amazed that so many people find the time to be trolls or don't feel remorse over saying these things "aloud" that the incidences go down over time because they decide to reform or get a hobby!

    But maybe these people have always existed in the percentage that's out there, but before when they spouted off at the mouth constantly, they had such a small audience and rarely to the person's face that all it did was affect them negatively for the most part. But now, a mother of a sick baby gets handfuls of "You should just let the baby die, you're being selfish to fight for his life" comments on her baby's picture from people she would never ever meet.

    But I think,with social media, this percentage of people have gotten more prolific, able to share their over-the-top mean criticism in all kinds of places and it's become their hobby. And the fact that they can say it as HoneyBooBoo1234 doesn't help.

  8. I've had deep concerns about some Christian fiction books I have read in recent years in which the hero and/or heroine seems to be acting/living in a way contrary to the teachings of the Bible. If the main characters clearly repent of their wrong-doings that's another story altogether. There's a clear lesson involved. The author seems to think that this behavior is not wrong; just not ideal. Those are the times when I have wanted to voice my concerns in a review. If other reviewers feel like characters in CBA books have crossed the line of morality (without repentance)I want to know that as a reader before I consider picking up that book to read. Does anyone else think that CBA books should be held to a higher standard of morality than books in the secular market? I hope I haven't gone off topic. This is just an example of when I think negative reviews and comments should be given.

  9. When I started using Goodreads, I was shocked to realize authors contact people about their comments. When I don't like a book, it's usually because I feel duped (the increasingly common abrupt cliffhanger marketing ploy to make me buy the next book in a series) or disappointed because I know that author can write better.I feel I should have the right to say a book only earns 2-stars and not be accosted by an author whining, "why?" I say the same things in public and private. However, I do think there is a lot of pointless animosity. Usually it feels like the poster hates himself and it isn't personal. Learning to let go of books and realize comments are about that specific book and not the author is important. Practice. It is accumulative and you'll be able to let go of more faster. And authors, do not email posters on Goodreads, it does not support your case.

    1. I wanted to add that while I am not published, I have friends who are and crazy people take the time to write really weird, sometimes scary letters on paper too. Social media increases the volume, but it also means authors are getting more praise they could hear than in the past. I post way more 5-star comments than 2-star on Goodreads.

    2. Good point, anonymous. Whereas the mean people have more outlets for their meanness, the nice people can share more prolifically too.

      I don't think there are more mean people in the world now because social media helps create more, I just think we hear them more.

  10. I think the fact that social media can be somewhat anonymous leads people to say things they wouldn't say to someone's face. I really dislike when I see people attacking an author's personality in addition to writing a negative review. Ok, negative reviews are going to happen, it's inevitable...but do they have to add the personal attacks as well?

    I agree with Melissa. I think we "hear" and "see" more negativity because of the large numbers of people who use social media.

  11. Excellent points here, Jody. I am critical of books too--just not online. I only post reviews of books I loved. Just trying to spread sunshine instead of rain!

  12. Jody,
    This is a great topic. As a former newspaper reporter, I find most online reviews lack two things: subject matter expertise and editing. Professional critics over a period of years develop an expertise in the subject they are reviewing, whether it is music, the arts, or literature. They can tell whether a work is derivative and can craft a well-thought out, reasoned critique. Online reviewers for the most part base their opinions on visceral reactions. They have no filter. When I was a reporter, all of my stories were subject to rigorous editing. Page One stories were subject to multiple edits. I find many online comments sections unreadable because of the vicious nature of the content. The anonymity of online critics is not helpful either. Thank you for raising this issue. I'm afraid you are preaching to the choir.

  13. The internet has definitely given a huge voice to the "vocal minority", and it allows negativity to multiply. I've noticed this on Twitter for example: if a high-profile person makes a seemingly innocent comment, people with very strong views will take offence and a huge flame war erupts. It's nasty and horrible. Even if I don't like a book, or I don't agree with something someone posts, I would never direct specifically negative feedback at them on the internet (or email or whatever). I feel a lot of pity for anyone who has to endure these attacks.

  14. Love all your thoughts today, everyone!! What a great discussion! Thanks for chiming in! :-)

  15. I'm late but this is a great topic, Jody! I have two seconds before I need to go speak in some foreign language (no idea which one and how I'm going to pull it off) for my daughter's Immigration Day.

    I wanted to write that I do feel people have lost a sense of accountability online. They lose the sense that their words and opinions still have sticking power. I hope that this conversation continues and as we pride ourselves on becoming a more evolved species, we'll become so in this arena as well.
    ~ Wendy

  16. Wow, good article, very thought-provoking. Yes, as a writer it IS harder to read a book without noticing more "flaws." But you're right in that we should understand we can't focus on just the flaws, or even publicize negative comments. Leave those for book clubs and emails between your writer friends. I love your reminder that people aren't perfect. We should stop expecting books to be, also! They're creative works of art. Let's concentrate on the beauty, truth, emotion, etc. of those things!

  17. > For example, when people read scathing reviews on Amazon, does that make them feel that they have the permission to write the same?

    Yes.... and there's absolutely NOTHING wrong with that. Similarly, good reviews make people feel they have permission to do the same. Because they DO have permission, which makes this question rather odd.

    Imagine for a second if you replaced "scathing reviews on Amazon" with "Christian fiction"... now suddenly the question is offensive and bordering on supporting censorship. Yeah, exactly.

    Without critical reviews, positive reviews would be meaningless. And as an author myself, I know that positive reviews sell books, so it's important that their integrity remain intact. "Permission" to write negative reviews is something authors should be avid supporters of.

    Honestly, I'd commiserate with any author who receives a nasty email. No matter that she or he is a professional, it still hurts and is arguably uncalled for. But a bad review? If you don't like reading them...well, don't.

  18. I've only just now started to actually review things on Amazon and as of yet, I haven't yet reviewed any books, and I've read plenty. My perspective of this one is mostly as a reader and not a writer because while I am working on a novel, it isn't yet published so I have the luxury of not having been publicly reviewed yet.

    Personally, the last time I relied on reviews on Amazon to buy a product, I was disappointed, and this was a product that got a lot of positive reviews. I was disappointed because I really hated the cell phone once I bought it and I bought it in a large part because of its 4.5 star rating on Amazon. It was this experience that prompted me to make my first review on Amazon, and as you can imagine from what I'm saying here, it was a critical review. (I gave the cell phone one star.)

    I honestly don't think most readers care about authors feelings when they're making reviews, but other readers. If they really like a product, they might go and make a review to encourage others to buy it. If (as above for me), they hate it, they'll encourage others not to buy it. This is a much more personal process with a book than with a cell phone since books are labors that often take more than a year's work. Because it's so time intensive to write books, authors may feel personally attacked by negative reviews. I'm sure there are times when reviews are personal attacks, but I doubt this is common with the exception of works that are somewhat controversial like, for example, someone writing a novel about gay rights, if someone who isn't in favor of gay rights reads it, then they may well make a personal attack in a review.

    I know this kind of thing does happen, but far more common, in my opinion, are people voicing their pleasure or disappointment at books. Some books are controversial, others aren't. Either way, you're not going to please everyone. I really hope that when I get the novel published, I'm able to look on critical reviews on my work as suggestions for improvement rather than attacks. After all, these are people who read your book, they're likely disappointed because it wasn't up to their expectations. If you're strong enough to learn from your critical reviews, I imagine it'll make you a better writer.

  19. I'm inclined to analyze books that invite it, for instance checking the accuracy of nonfiction (especially revisionist) books and looking more critically at literary fiction. I think as long as readers pick a level of accuracy that isn't going way past the surface, they should be able to be critical.

    In general nitpicking has a negative connotation so I'm not for that, but I do think we should be taking advantage of the ability to crowdsource ideas. If a reader with expertise in a subject matter reviews a book, their thoughts do add value.

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