Far be it from me to tell anyone that they should refrain from criticism—being critical, professionally, is how I keep the lights on. However, I am often struck by how easy it is for many people to confuse plain old negativity for constructive criticism.
I noticed a particularly counter-productive example recently:
I was reading some coverage of “The Big Two” comic book companies1 and on several separate occasions, the various websites I was reading bemoaned the cancelation of a title or titles that had flown under the radar of the wider readership. They were angry at the company in question for canceling the title, and perhaps for not promoting it more heavily, but I found that strange, because over extended periods of reading these sites, with reasonably large audiences themselves, I hadn’t found any positive coverage of the titles from them. Indeed, going back, I found that they had been relentlessly negative about the company in question’s output. One angry article about a cancelation would be followed by little mention of what they were doing right, and then another article angry at a cancelation months later. Surely a little attention to what was good somewhere along the way, to highlight the titles that they liked before they were canceled, might have had a better effect than just piling on more “call-outs”? I can’t say for sure, but it seems likely to me. Certainly, the negativity didn’t help.
The propensity to focus on the problems with something (as you perceive them) or the ways in which it hasn’t lived up to your expectations is understandable, of course. The news suffers from it to an unavoidable extent, because “everything is fine” isn’t news, almost by definition. However, there’s a real danger of fostering George Gerbner’s2 “mean world syndrome,”3 especially when you have a larger platform than just your own voice (and individual voices are louder than ever, thanks to social media).
To briefly summarize:
Gerbner was a professor of communication, who founded “cultivation theory,”4 the idea that the more one watches television, the more one believes reality conforms to what one sees there. And “mean world syndrome” is the idea that all of those relentlessly negative images, specifically, make the viewer think the world is more dangerous and violent than it really is.
I don’t find cultivation theory and much of the research behind it to be very convincing—Gerbner didn’t distinguish between the pratfalls of Laugh-In and the brutality of I Spit Upon Your Grave, when it came to talking about “violence,” for example—but I do think that a case for it can be made when it comes to the 24-hour cable news cycle. One need only look at the “Summer of the Shark” to see it in action.
Back in early July of 2001, an eight-year-old boy had his arm bitten off by a seven-foot shark, followed by another shark attack in the Bahamas, then a third, near where the first took place, and then two more in early September. The attacks received copious amounts of coverage from the cable news networks at the time; Time magazine devoted their July 30, 2001 cover to it, which is where the “Summer of the Shark” label came from.
In the wake (no pun intended) of the coverage, a survey taken by the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland indicated that 70% of Americans believed sharks were dangerous; 72% believed shark populations were just right or too high. But that simply wasn’t the case: shark populations had dropped by half in roughly the decade prior. And 2001 wasn’t statistically exceptional—in fact, the number of attacks by and deaths from sharks in 2001 was down from the previous year.5
Of course, the shark attack story dropped off the news channels’ radars when 9/11 happened and they had bigger fish to fry (pun definitely intended). But there’s no reason to think lessons were learned, or the phenomena can’t still be found in full effect both in the news, and—to bring this back around—elsewhere.
It’s easy, when you’re angry (or scared), to want to scorch the earth, to say something simply sucks, or is the worst, or you hate it, and only villains would disagree. It’s so easy that it’s something of a trap; good criticism is not simply criticizing.
Now, this isn’t an appeal to blanket positivity, which is often used as a way to paper over real issues. But it is a reminder that relentless negativity can be exhausting, and have unintended, counter-productive consequences.
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It does not escape me that simply doing nothing beyond writing an editorial complaining about criticism and negativity is more than a bit hypocritical, especially when I have a modestly-sized soapbox myself. So here’s the important bit:
In my nineteen years in the field (so far!) I have had the pleasure of meeting an immense amount of people, both professionals and fans, and I am constantly amazed at all of the good, talented, smart people who work very hard to make something, be it a magazine, or a convention, or a story, or even their own costumes, simply because they love it and think it’s important. They make sacrifices, of time, money, and all too often, their own health, for very little thanks, and almost always for very little financial gain, when they could certainly be doing something else. Many people keep the field going, and they’re not all visible.
So take a moment, and open your laptop, or bring up your mail program on your phone, and send someone a note of appreciation. Write to Sheila at Asimov’s, or John at Lightspeed, or Charlie at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Lynn at Uncanny, or Liza at Locus, or John at Black Gate, or Troy at Fiyah, or Scott at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, or Wendy at Abyss and Apex, or the fine people at Escape Pod, or Fireside Fiction, or Strange Horizons, Neil Clarke, or the hardworking folks who put together your local conventions, like ArmadilloCon or CanCon, or any of the many, many more people than I can possibly list here, or, or, or. Say, “Thanks for what you do. I see your hard work, and it means something.” That’s it.6
Here, I’ll even make it easy:
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Of course, if you’re lucky enough to be in a position to financially support the institutions and people that you love or think are doing something important, please do. There are certainly more important things in the world that you could be spending your spare money on,7 but it wouldn’t go unappreciated, I promise. Buy a membership to your local convention. (The two I listed above are both great, if you’re close—you won’t regret it.) And if not, a kind word costs nothing.
As for me: my thanks, dear readers, for lending me your ears. In the words of TV personality, Presbyterian minister, and all-around good human Fred Rogers: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” Be kind.
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1 Anyone who read my editorial, “Captain America’s Bathroom” (September 2016) knows I have an unabashed love of superheroes, but this editorial isn’t about them. However, as the editor of a regular periodical, it’s hard for me not to see parallels between comic books and what we do here, in format and model, if not content. Bear with me.
I note this article with some irony, because CNN was one of the prime purveyors of “Summer of the Shark” panic.
6 For the record, while I know Sheila quite well, having worked for her for some time, everyone else on this list is either simply someone I’ve shared a friendly word with professionally, or even someone I’ve never met, but whose work I’ve noticed and appreciated from a distance. That’s it.
6.5 And please do note that there is usually a whole staff that makes these things run, who very much deserve an encouraging word every bit as much as the single person I named in each case above, for space purposes.