Reviewing the situation

One of the benefits of having written an awful lot of reviews is that I have a fast idea of when I should pay attention to people reviewing me and when I shouldn’t. It is astonishing how many reviewers haven’t read the book, heard the audio, seen the play or whatever that they are either decrying or praising. It is also surprising just how rapidly you can tell this.

You’ve got be thinking that I’ve just had a stinker of a bad review but no. I haven’t had reviews in a while now, good or bad, and I do miss them a little. But I’ve also waited until now to discuss this with you specifically because I haven’t had a bad review and I know you haven’t either.

I know you’ve seen bad reviews – bad as in just not well done, not bad as in unfavourable – because you use the Internet. An author mentioned recently that she came close to crying over a 1-star review someone had given her novel because they hadn’t received it yet. They have some delay in the post from Amazon and they’re off leaving 1-star reviews.

Then look on App Stores: you can’t go by the five-star reviews as they may have been posted by the developer’s mom and you can’t go by one-star reviews as they were probably left by the competition. So you’re left looking at the mid-range three-star apps and there’s no ready way to differentiate between them.

Then you get the nutters who buy a book about birdseed and complain that they would give this a zero-star rating if they could because it didn’t also cover Formula 1 motor racing.

You can argue that people are dumb and you have plenty of evidence but I’m going to be generous and assume that it’s a different type of ignorance. People who do not know that they cause damage to sales through pratting about trying to look good. The thing is, you can say that about some professional reviewers as well as Numpty99 on Amazon.

I have been a professional drama reviewer and while I hope the emphasis was on the word professional I have got to have made mistakes and misunderstood and leapt to fast conclusions. I’m not proud of that, of course, and it’ll keep me awake now thinking of it, except for one thing.

That eejit one-star book reviewer may do some damage today. The Formula 1 fan may not have seven brain cells to rub together today. And I may be just a stupid man today. But none of us matter.

This is really why I picked this topic today. I read a thing about Marie Curie and how apparently she was so reviled and decried over some trivial scandal that Albert Einstein wrote her a fan letter in support. I can barely hold the detail of the scandal in my head, but I still recommend you have a read about it. That’s chiefly because I read it on Brain Pickings which is a simply fascinating site.

But it’s also because of the last line on that site, which concludes: “She endures as one of humanity’s most visionary and beloved minds. The journalists who showered her with bile are known to none and deplored by all.”

Damn right. I’m not knocking how much you learn from reviewing, but I am knocking people who only review. Go make something.

Everything that’s wrong with The Rocky Horror Picture Show

There’s nothing wrong with it. Sorry for the come-on title but there is nothing wrong with Rocky Horror – I just don’t like it.

This is only you and me talking away here so I can say to you that I don’t like it and you can give me that look. I’ve seen that look a lot over the years. Sometimes it’s just a little bit of disbelief. Most recently when this year’s big stage revival was happening, one woman looked at me with an entire library of reactions. There was certainly surprise there but I think chief among them was a teeny bit of pity.

Only, you and I are talking over a blog. Why we don’t just phone each other is beyond me, but we’re here on a blog and some day, someone is going to Google the words “what’s wrong with Rocky Horror”. If you don’t believe me, try googling something like “wrong with” and the name of a film. I just tried it with Star Trek and the top result is “Everything Wrong with Star Trek in 5 Minutes or Less” –– and then there were just under 17 million other results.

So people are writing this stuff and people are searching for it so some day, someone will end up here with us. Hello. You know it’ll happen, I just think it will happen because the internet has stopped us having opinions – that we keep to ourselves.

Now you can’t just think something, you end up having to justify it. On Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs, if you tried to say you just don’t like something, you will get a torrent of people saying you’re wrong. How can you be wrong? It’s your opinion and it can be different, but what we get told is that we’re wrong. We’re wrong and because there are only so many ways you can say someone’s opinion is wrong, it invariably follows that you get called wrong personally. You are an idiot. You also know it gets worse than being called an idiot, but let’s keep this clean, this is a family show.

As this is Rocky Horror, you can also be told you’re an ignorant wrong idiot who is naive or maybe prissy or maybe repressed. I think I’ve had all of those over this. It’s not like it comes up in conversation a lot but I’m sure I’ve had the one where people think I’m shocked by the show.

I can’t say what people like about Rocky Horror because I don’t happen to get it. But if you’re out here in NotGettingItLand then the show seems to hang on about cross-dressing. I’m know there’s much more but it seems pretty dependent on you finding cross-dressing noticeable. Preferably funny, hopefully consciousness-raising, at least worthy of your attention. And for me, men wearing women’s clothing is a shrug. I don’t blink at women wearing men’s, I barely blink at it the other way around.

You can tell me that I am missing a thousand rich layers and I will not think you a wrong ignorant idiot. But I never see those layers because I never get to them and my attention is never held for long enough.

I just don’t see that as a criticism of the show.

It would be taken as such if we were on Twitter now and part of what troubles me is that I think what we do on social media is what I used to do as a critic. We judge. We don’t discuss and of course nobody ever actually debates, nobody is ever persuaded, we judge.

If I were still a critic and I’d been assigned to review this year’s big theatre revival of Rocky Horror, I’d be screwed. I cannot fault the show, I have no criticisms, I also cannot praise it, I have no interest. No engagement. If you think I’d write a piece saying that then thank you: I hope I would. But please tell me how many stars out of five I would give it?

You have to give star ratings in reviews. Just as Twitter and the rest rather force you into judging, most professional require a star rating of some description. I would say it’s pretty much impossible to measurably compare anything between Rocky Horror and Star Trek beyond their respective running times but somebody will give one of them five stars and the other three as if you can.

Disinterest is not allowed. It’s so much not allowed that the word has lost its meaning: people think disinterest means dislike. It just means no interest, nothing either way, nothing. Apart from curiosity about how it appeals so much to so many and a writer’s admiration for how it reaches so deep into its fans, I am disinterested in Rocky Horror.

We need more disinterest. I think Rocky Horror is marvellous and I know it is a marvel: I’m just not interested. And I’d ask you what you think of this or of my spending our entire chat insisting I’m not interested, but that would just be asking for it.

How about them Apples?

I do think it’s interesting and of course it’s newsworthy that Apple has just made more profit than any other public company ever. Weirdly, though, none of the many, many news reports I saw about this mentioned that it’s inspiring for writers.

Now, making lots of money could be inspiring for anyone, but I’m not actually thinking of the cash here. I’m talking inspiration and I’m thinking heartwarming. Seriously.

Apple just made $18bn, that’s £11.8bn and that bn is billion. Billion. I’m suddenly wondering if that’s a US billion or a UK one, but either way, it’s a lot. Doubtlessly, it is very easy to find the idea of lots of money inspiring if only because the idea of lots of not having to worry about bills is pretty great. Yet if you are driven by money, if you are drawn by money, you haven’t gone in to writing.

Here’s the thing. What none of the news reports really mentioned was that Apple nearly died.

There was a point when this company was within 90 days of going bankrupt.

Ninety days.

You and I are used to working under pressure but imagine being ninety days from bankruptcy while having thousands of staff on salary. As writers, our business is comparatively easy as we usually don’t have staff and we very rarely have any stock in warehouses. So imagine the staff and imagine having warehouses full of computers that aren’t selling.

This is where Apple was around the time that it brought back its co-founder Steve Jobs. So now imagine coming back to the company you made into a success and was ousted from in a boardroom fight by a fella you’d lobbied to bring in to the firm. No wonder there’s going to be a film about this guy.

Run the list with me. Immense pressure. Close to death. And deeply, personally invested in this firm. The degree and the volume and the sheer loudness of each of those must be more than any of us will ever face but we all face all of them. We all also have one specific problem that Apple did: our media and publishing seem to be these fast-paced worlds yet we know it takes centuries to make anything happen. Computers are this whizzy-fast technology revolution but pretend you’re designing fridges instead. It takes a lot of time, an immense amount of money, and with the technology available to you the very best you’re going to do is make a fridge that is slightly better than someone else’s. Then you have to get thousands of them made on spec and do everything you can to get those fridges in front of buyers.

Preferably in ninety days.

There was a lot that Apple could’ve done and there was a fairly infinite supply of advice from other companies and the technology press. They boiled down to two things. Sell the company or allow other firms to make Apple computers too.

What Apple did instead was hard and it was what writers need to do too. They simplified and they gambled on making something new that they thought was right.

The simplification was radical at the time. I don’t know how many different computers Apple had then but it was a lot. If you’ve ever asked a salesman or woman exactly what the difference between these six PCs are and they’ve recited something to do with gigahertz, that’s where Apple was then. A mess.

They dropped everything and instead planned to make just four things. A desktop and a laptop for consumers and the same again for professionals.

And for the consumer desktop computer, they designed the iMac.

I didn’t like it. The semi-translucent, brightly coloured, bulbous computer was garish but I admit that at least it wasn’t another grey box. Microsoft’s Bill Gates mocked it, saying that Apple was now the market leader in colours but he had a feeling PCs might just be able to catch up.

I don’t believe that Gates really thought that, I don’t imagine the man really missed what Apple had actually done. Yet he didn’t or couldn’t do anything then to compete with it. For what Apple had done with this (to my mind) ugly machine was to make it appealing. Computers weren’t appealing before: their audience already knew they wanted computers. Now Apple was reaching people who needed to be convinced to buy computers – and it convinced them. A lot.

PC stands for Personal Computer and this was suddenly personal. Apple put a handle on the machine not so you could lift it but so that you just instinctively understood that you could touch it. This was yours. And it was Apple’s: it wasn’t a commodity slapped together at a budget price, it was crafted and it was personal to them as well as to you.

When we’ve had umpteen rejections as writers, that’s what we need to do. Cut down on the number of projects we’re trying. Focus. And then write something new, something very personal, something if not with colour necessarily – this romcom needs more purple! – then definitely with vibrancy.

One more thing. That iMac was such a giant success that, yes, of course all other computer companies followed suit – or thought they did. They slapped a blue plastic bit on the front and waited for the money to roll in. They’re still waiting.

Apple isn’t. That ugly original iMac begat many variations and a couple of generations but then Apple chose to end it. They do this a lot. Make a hit and then kill it. Replace it with a better one. The brightly-coloured iMac became the plain white one and then iterated through I don’t know how many variations until it’s reached the beautiful one on my desk. I don’t use the word casually: this screen and this iMac are a pleasure to look at and since I might be looking at it 16 hours a day, it matters.

So there’s another thought. Write something you can bear looking at for 16 hours a day.

I like Apple products, I very much like their approach to design, but $18bn is so huge that I don’t think I can really imagine how much it is. Consequently I’m not that interested. Yet watching all those news reports, I really did find it heartening. You can be at death’s door and pressing the bell and you can turn that around completely by ignoring your critics and carrying on doing what you think is right.