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If you can't say anything nice ...

So this week has been one filled with comedy.

Specifically, uC and I went to see Russell Howard at the Riverside Studios on Sunday night and Reginald D Hunter at the Riverside Studios on Wednesday night (with mR kindly providing a taxi service to the Tube station).

Both comedians are probably best known from their appearances on TV panel shows in the UK - Russell Howard is a regular on Mock The Week and has his own BBC 3 show Good News, which is easily the best thing on that channel. Reginald D Hunter has been on Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week and is getting better known.

Of the two shows, I preferred Reginald D Hunter's because it was more polished. He was going through his material for a series of appearances at the Edinburgh Festival so there was a good flow there, he knew what he was doing and he worked unexpected things into his routine (e.g. a woman left to go to the loo or bar while he was talking about Nelson Mandela having a new job of blessing white people, and he was able to riff on her walking out).

Russell Howard was trying out new material (which he was open about up front) so sometimes the routines seemed to stutter out as he changed his mind. Plus he'd injured his leg, which I think stopped him from doing some of the more physical gestures he incorporates into his act. There were some great moments (his story about masturbation and a burglar had me falling about laughing, as did a joke about ear buds and blow jobs). However, he ended up finishing by having a thumb war with a 16 year old boy, which went on for a leetle too long and which he took way too seriously.

However I've got to admit that my enjoyment of Howard's show was curtailed by the fact that I started coming down with the beginnings of a tension headache while uC and I were on the Tube to Hammersmith and as the evening went on it worked its way up into a migraine (which was so bad that I ended up having to stay home from work on Monday so I could whimper in a dark room).

I'd definitely go to see both of them live again though and they're both doing tours - check out their websites for details.

Anyway, the purpose of the heading for his blog entry comes down to something that Reginald D Hunter kept coming back to as a theme in his show - the fear of causing offence.

I'm particularly interested in how people use offence or fear of causing offence as a way to silence other people's opinions and how we in Britain are becoming so hung up on it that it's stifling legitimate debate and discussion. Note - I am not saying that there aren't lines. Going around telling people that they should kill [INSERT RACIAL/ETHNIC/RELIGIOUS/GENDER/SEXUAL GROUP HERE] because they are [INSERT RIDICULOUS SUPPOSED MORAL JUSTIFICATION], to me (and I would suggest, to a lot of people), clearly crosses the boundary of what is acceptable.

What I am talking about though is people who don't want you to be critical of someone or something because it might hurt their feelings. Reginald D Hunter made the point that it brings us down to treating different groups like children who can't stand up for themselves and I think it's right. We don't have a right to not be offended. In fact, if you believe in freedom of expression, then there is always the possibility that you are going to see or read something that offends you or which you profoundly disagree with. That's how societies grow and develop. Talking about offensive things challenges preconceptions and forces you to re-evaluate your beliefs. Sometimes it strengthens them, sometimes it changes them. But it is an integral part of any liberal (or supposedly liberal) society that such things be allowed to be said.

To bring it down to a more micro level, the reason I'm interested in this is because something that I've come across more and more in the last few months and particularly in writing and reading groups that I belong to, is the idea that if you don't like someone's published work, then you shouldn't say so in a public forum.

There seem to be a number of rationales for this:

1. Being openly critical of a published author will result in you being blackballed by the relevant author/editor/publishing company in some way, thereby negatively impacting on your own writing career.

2. Being openly critical of a published author will see you regarded unfavourably by other published authors so that if you are published, no one will want to read and blurb your book.

3. Being openly critical of a published author just isn't nice given that a lot of work will have gone into producing the book.

4. Being openly critical of a published author will lead in turn to people being openly critical of your book if and when it comes out.

5. Being openly critical of a published author might upset and/or offend them.

Now, I read a lot of books and I keep a separate review LJ at quippe where I set down what I thought of each one and I cross-post those reviews onto Amazon UK and a number of LJ book review communities. To date I've read 86 this year alone (although I'm hopelessly behind on reviews) and given that I'm currently doing a 3 hour commute each day to the office, I'm expecting to finish around 150 by the end of the year.

I do not intentionally go out to buy, borrow or otherwise receive books that I'm going to hate. In fact, the vast majority of the books that I've read this year have been ones that I've enjoyed and recommended to friends and strangers. However, there have been a few that I either didn't like or thought were merely okay.

I have a pretty good idea of how much effort it takes to write a book. I know how hard it can be. I know how much of yourself gets invested into your words. Consequently, I do not sit down and think about how I can hammer someone's book if I don't like it. I do however going to set down what I didn't like and why I didn't like it. I try to do so in an even handed way and where things did work for me, I'll make a point of saying it.

Nor do I make allowances for books that are written by members of my Flist. Some people on my Flist have written books that I've enjoyed (and reviewed accordingly), some have written books that didn't work for me (and which I have reviewed accordingly). I operate on the basis that I'm not going to write anything different on the internet to what I would say to a person's face and to date (with the possible exception of an anonymous commentator holding themselves out to be G. P. Taylor) no one has taken offence at what I've written.

Now some people refuse to be critical of books purely because they're just not comfortable with doing so. I can understand that and I don't have a problem with it because at least it's honest.

I do however have a problem when people use any of the 5 rationales I set out above as grounds for holding their tongue. I don't doubt that there's some truth within each of those rationales - e.g. I do know of one case where a bestselling YA author refused to read someone's book for blurbage purposes because that person had written a critical review of a book written by that YA author. Personally, I think that anyone who resorts to that kind of behaviour though isn't particularly professional themselves and that kind of tit-for-tatism usually backfires.

Overall though, what bothers me is that rationales like that are essentially playing on fear to silence criticism. It's a form of bullying and I find it hypocritical - not least because while people might not criticise in public, they sure as hell do in private. Believe me.

It is okay to have opinions. It is okay to express those opinions openly. Don't let anyone try to intimidate you into thinking otherwise.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 1st, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
There is no way I'm going to go through life without thoroughly mocking the Twilight books.
Aug. 1st, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
But you've missed the greatest comedy moment of the entire week! The moment when, walking to the theatre for Reginald D. Hunter, I got hit in the head with a football!
Aug. 1st, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
Reg Hunter is also a regular on QI; I really like his stuff.

All the rest of this: extremely interesting. Will ponder.
Aug. 1st, 2010 08:11 pm (UTC)
I'm with you on that one. Although I prefer to read reviews that explain why the reviewer did or didn't like the book, because that might indicate whether I'll feel the same way or completely diffeently.
Aug. 1st, 2010 09:53 pm (UTC)
I agree. There's reviewing a book in less than glowing if it's for valid reasons such as plot, use of language and I think if it's don't in a relatively constructive way then that's fine. I fully admit that I've found my dislike for an author personally has spilled over a little to their books.
Aug. 1st, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
I have that same fear as well, not that I expect many people to stumble across my livejournal. Part of it is, though, that I very rarely write completely scathing reviews, unless it's really, really bad. I always try to even it out and point out strengths and weaknesses, even in a book I did greatly enjoy.

Echoing the above commenter, at times the author's personality will colour my views of a book. Example: Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. He is the Ayn Rand of the fantasy world, his books are not THAT great, and he goes around spouting that he doesn't write fantasy, as if writing fantasy is something beneath him, even though his books are about bloody wizards and magic swords. Come. On.
Aug. 1st, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC)
P.S. Adding your book review journal. I used to read around 150 books per year, but I found that writing a lot more greatly got in the way of reading. Need to balance it out more, methinks.
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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


Caroline Hooton

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