I Must Break You
A friend I went to college with, Sybil Nelson, wrote a young adult novel called Priscilla the Great and I really wanted to review it for Pajiba. She had been getting a lot of killer reviews, and was saying folks were comparing her book to the Percy Jackson series, which I loved and still wince thinking how they irrevocably cocked up the entire genre of mythology for a long time between that and Clash of the Titans. So I got a copy of Sybil’s book and read it. And I really thought it was terrific. I wouldn’t compare it to Percy Jackson so much as I would The X-Men or Teen Titans. It’s about a preteen who starts to discover a series of superpowers: lighting her hands on fire and heightened senses. The story unravels really nicely, with a couple of extremely clever surprises. I know Sybil sold the movie rights, and in the right hands, they can do a bad ass flick in the vein of Sky High that one of us will nitpick the shit out of when it gets released in the coming years. My only reservation about reviewing it for the site was that I felt like it skewed a little young. But that’s also what’s so excellent about it. It’s a great book for preteens without relying on the PG-13 tropes that most young adult novels can fall into. Usually, children’s books neglect those kids who’ve graduated beyond chapter book but aren’t quite ready for the sexuality and violence ramped up in the teen books. This doesn’t, and I really admire her work. Is it a perfect book? No, but for the age group it’s aimed it, they’ll gobble it like candy coated candy made of candy. The only mistake I think Sybil made was selling it for movie rights. I don’t know what she’s planning on doing for the rest of the series, but the way she’s set it up, it’d make an astonishingly badass cartoon for the new Genndy Tartakovsky. Oh, Samurai Jack, you can’t come back fast enough. So if you’ve got kiddos in the right age range, snag a copy of Priscilla the Great because it’s a darn good book.
But. While Sybil was doing press for her book, she’s been checking out the reviews. And while most of them have been pretty stellar, she’s noticed that a few people have taken to what she calls “book bashing.” She wrote a guest blog at The Bookscape Report where she takes bashers to task for needlessly and viciously ripping apart a book. The brunt of her argument is mostly that if only we knew how hard an author worked to get published, all the blood, sweat, tears, and fast food gorging went into the years and years of trying to get published, we might be a little more civil.
Nope. Not a chance in hell.
We can be plenty mean-spirited in our reviews around here. We dish out some pretty fierce rebukes when it comes to our writing. And sure, there are a few things I’ve written that in hindsight, I do feel went a little far. Clearly, I don’t think Denise Richards deserved to be abused by Charlie Sheen. Clearly, I don’t think there are filmmakers who deserve to be shot out of a cannon and into the sun. Do I wish that some folks weren’t able to make movies any more? Well, yeah. Does that come out of jealous and bitterness and spite? Maybe a little. But it mostly comes out of wasting my time.
It’s not my place to offer constructive criticism. I’m not your teacher, giving you a grade. I’m just an asshole with an opinion. Most of the time, we’re selling a product. We’re entertainers. We’re also knowledgeable as fuck, in most cases. We try to be witty and amusing so you keep coming back. You expect a little fiery hyperbole. Maybe something isn’t necessarily as terrible we make it out. Maybe we go a little overboard decrying something as “a cinematic abortion that somehow crawled into the nearest butthole and spontaneously spawned.” But, we speak what’s true to us.
And that’s just on movies. With movies, we commit anywhere from 80 minutes to 3 hours our lives. I’ve got more free time than most, but still. That’s time I could have spent doing something better. Watching a better movie. When I read the synopsis of your film, when I watch your trailer, we’ve entered into a contract. You’re going to tell me an interesting story or at least tell it in an interesting way. If you don’t do that, you’re wasting my time. And that pisses me off. If I watch your television series, sometimes it takes a few episodes to get firing properly. Or sometimes I’ve settled in to watch a whole season. And you’ve changed it for the worst. Or it’s not as good. That’s anywhere from 6 to 22 episodes. That’s a lot more wasted time.
And with books? Holy shit. I’m a pretty speedy reader, and it usually takes me a few days to finish a book, if I can commit six to eight hours a day to reading. So when I read the back cover, you’ve promised me that you’ve written something interesting. You’ve made a deal with me that you’ve done your best to tell me a good story. And if it turns out to be bad? Then I’ve not just wasted a few hours. I’ve wasted days on you. Days I don’t get back.
So you want me to feel bad because it was hard work? It should be hard work, goddammit. It should be mind-breaking, finger-bleeding, ass-numbing work. It should be hard as hell. And it’s not just Sybil. This isn’t directed at her. This is directed at all the folks who’ve ever written in here telling us, you just don’t understand how hard these people worked. And you’re shitting all over that.
I busted my ass to make my student film. I had so many obstacles thrown in front of me. I was trying to be one of the first screenwriting MFAs at Boston University to qualify for the Sumner Redstone Film Festival. They changed the rules so many times, they should have just added number 12: Fuck you, Brian Prisco. I wasn’t allowed to use the cameras. I fought to get my hands on a video camera that I was only allowed to use over the weekend, from Friday night to Monday morning. I scrounged up a location, a karaoke DJ, and shot in my apartment. I didn’t have time to audition actors, so I just used my friends. I did my best. While all the film production students were shooting for thousands of dollars, I shot mine in two days for $137. Most of which went to catering a party at Pizzeria Uno’s on Commonwealth Ave for agreeing to let me use their basement. For all that work, it was a fucking Oscar winner.
But that’s not what matters. I don’t go up before every screening and tell people that. The film has to speak for itself. And it’s bad. Is it the worst film ever made? Not at all. It’s got some rookie mistakes. I can do better. I’d love to reshoot it. There are moments in the film that make me so fucking proud. But overall, it’s pretty shitty. I never screened it for the public. I didn’t want to waste people’s time with an inferior product.
And neither should you. If someone takes a shit on your book, or your film, or your play, or your television series, sit back and think, are they right? Chances are, they probably aren’t. They’re just one person. I know for a fact I’ve written negative reviews that inspired people to go see the film specifically because they hate my taste and think I’m always fucking wrong. Hell, I get attacked at least once an article. In fact, I expect to get attacked in this one.
So is it fair to annihilate someone’s hard work just to get some more page hits or just to make yourself feel better? Not necessarily. But it’s just as bullshit to waste my time with an inferior product. So I think Sybil’s completely wrong. But I also think she wrote a hell of a good book. So I’m glad that it took her years and years to crank out Priscilla the Great. Because that hard work paid off in the end product. And I’m really looking forward to her success with the film.
Which better be good or I’ll rip it to fucking pieces.