Saturday, March 11, 2017

Flirting With History, Browsers and Other Kinds

What is the legacy you want to leave behind? As a person, you can hope your family will remember you. As an artist, you usually hope for a little more. If you're ambitious, you crave a lot more.

I began to reconsider this question as I walked from The Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco this week. I was among several hundred lucky people who got to see the first open dress rehearsal of the mega-hit musical Hamilton. We didn't have to pay, because the production wanted an audience to warm them up for their extensive run.

Before the show began, Director Thomas Kail introduced himself, and asked us not to Tweet or Facebook or Instagram our experiences. Because offering opinions about a show before it opens is just bad form.

But Kail also expressed that the experience of seeing this live production (a beautiful one, by the way, but don't mistake that for a review) was a shared experience that cannot be recreated through social media.

Hamilton Director Thomas Kail

And he was right. Happily, no one talked or crunched candy wrappers or snapped photos during the show. But immediately afterward, I saw people turning their phones back on as they walked up the aisles, before they'd even left the theater. The need to share their experience, to brag about it (Hey, I didn't even pay! Hate me!) was visible.

One comment caught my ear as a couple walked from the theatre behind me. A woman mentioned the probable artistic license the show's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda took in telling the story. Her boyfriend commented that it was like "flirting with history."

It didn't matter so much what happened in that mysterious meeting where the Federal Bank was created in exchange for moving the nation's Capitol to the South. What mattered was its success, its compromise, and the legacy of its creators.

As artists, we rely on the opinions of critics and the public for publicity, sales and notoriety. and while raves about every production of Hamilton are common, and similar fan and critic lauds are expected, I couldn't help but think about Miranda's incredible inspiration for the show.
Alexander Hamilton

To share a forgotten story of a great, yet troubled Founding Father, whom most people presume was a president (Hey, he's on a ten-dollar bill, but he wasn't a president), was a risky proposition, let alone to make it in the contemporary form of Hip Hop music with a racially diverse cast.

I wondered, with all the raves, the hundreds of fans who hang out outside the theatre in New York, the many who wait for bargain tickets via a daily lottery, could there be a critic or patron who didn't like the show? And do people pay attention to them?

But more important, what about Hamilton's actual personal life? In the show, as in Hamilton's life, he was blackmailed by the husband of his wife's sister, with whom he had an affair. Apparently, the whole thing was a cruel setup meant to destroy Hamilton.

But what did he do? Instead of cowering in fear, he publicly self-published an announcement about the affair, owning his own indiscretion. It almost ruined him.

Tracts and attacks
What are the boundaries between public and private lives when it comes to politics or art?

This quandary comes up when I get a random negative review of one of my books. I even got an inane bad "review" from an alleged "reader" of my second novel, Monkey Suits by an apparent rightwing gay man who used his Amazon "review" as a place to unfurl his snide distaste for working class "liberals" who should just get a better job if they didn't like being cater-waiters.

Of course, this person completely missed the point of the book, which I'd bet he didn't even read. And that what's so stupid about dismissive reader reviews. An author, or any artist, is at the mercy of any random consumer, no matter how warped or ridiculous their opinion.

What's irritating is that the book was loosely based on my own life experiences. So, tangentially, the rightwing "reader" was making a baseless personal attack on me, as well as my book. I had a great time being a cater-waiter, until I didn't. Then I turned my disapproval into a political act, and a proud exit, which is given various fictional versions in the novel through multiple characters.

What's more odd are the recent reviews –actual ones– that dismiss my first novel, PINS. I put my heart and soul into that book for ten years, started my own press before self-publishing became as easy as a few clicks on CreateSpace or SmashWords.
I considered that work done, proven by dozens of published reviews in reputable media.

It seemed self-evident; this is a good book, and a groundbreaking work before dozens of romance-themed novels had been published that try to grasp the strange inner world of high school wrestling. I've read a few recent ones out of curiosity, because it's more accessible via ebook versions. Back when the book was only in print, people sought out my book, which almost guaranteed a better response.

Some people just seem to love hating. Author Nathan Bransford ponders the excess of hateful reviews on his blog. And here's a funny comprehensive guide to terrible GoodReads comments.
PINS feature in an Ohio publication, 2000
But when I've read what are clearly mediocre or bad books, specifically ones in my genres, I haven't post reviews, because I considered, for example, some of the wrestling stories so off-base and uninformed about the sport, let alone the art of literature, that my opinion was beside the point when dozens more people "loved" such books while never reading mine, or they dismissed mine because it wasn't an easily-digestible romance. 

And who am I to criticize romances, when my own fourth novel won a Lambda Literary Award in that category? We're told not to respond to hateful reviews, specifically on GoodReads, where viciousness is endemic, so much so that, as Pavarti K Tyler wrote, the website administrators finally acknowledged the problem.

"Readers and reviewers have been displaying some mean-spirited behaviors as well, resulting in one case where the author decided not to publish their book at all thanks to the cruelty of reviews appearing on her book page pre-publication, including actual threats to her person and calls for violence."

Dylan Geick

Grappling with Critics
But back to wrestling, and gay wrestlers in particular. 

When I published PINS in 1999, there were no out gay male athletes in the sport that we knew of. Yes, a few of my teammates in the Golden Gate Wrestlung Club had been state champions, but none of them decided to make a public media statement about it. 

Now, a few have come out publicly, and one in particular seems to have such a savvy grasp of social media, it makes me a bit envious.

Dylan Geick has enjoyed a bit of fame for recently coming out in high school. This is leaps and bounds of progress when you consider it. Geick's coming out among his high school pals went viral, because he already had a busy social media presence.

So, imagine my surprise when a friend alerted me to a mention of PINS in a thread on DataLounge, a gossip site, about Geick, who, apparently began to participate in the discussion about him. He dodged some ridiculous questions, replied quite quickly to nasty comments about him and his body, his love life, even his penis length. 

Geick also verified through his multiple social media applications that it was indeed him, because that gossip site is notorious for assailing and impersonating celebrities, a few of whom have stood up to the online "trolls." Of course, Twitter has become a big hatefest, from the lowest troll to our deranged President.
PINS mention on DataLounge

I admit I used to visit DataLounge, and join in on nasty discussions about celebrities. My own dislike for the Kardashians and other media-saturated non-talents was shared anonymously. I defended celebrities I'd interviewed, without linking my own interviews, because I'd then be accused of being a "shill," or some other derogatory term for someone who did not join in the hatefest.

But then, I just got tired of it. What good was it doing to vent about someone I'd never met, and hopefully would never meet? Similarly, what good is it to respond to a negative review, when all the while a withering reply echoed in my head?

And yet, here is this teenage wrestler, almost a third my age, diving in head first and coming out victorious every step of the way, in a space where pervy comments attempt to dismiss his success. 

In Hamilton's self-published confession of adulterous misdeeds, he owned his flaws and emerged victorious, if not in his life, then later through his legacy, posthumously proven by his eventually forgiving wife.

As a gay single artist, I don't have the fortune of a steadfast partner to defend my legacy. I won't have someone to testify to the merit of my body of work.

What I definitely don't want to be part of my legacy are random snarky comments made by me that diminish my accomplishments. What I hope for are informed reviews of my work, and hopefully, after I'm gone, a way to keep my books alive.

For now, I can only hope that you, dear readers, will be kind and thoughtful, and write a review or mention my books, or if you don't like them, that you give them to someone else who will.

I'm certainly not expecting to change a nation, nor am I going to dig down into replying to a hateful review, except here, of course, in my forum. It's a dilemma that we as artists have to endure, finding a place to speak our minds, not caring what others think, while at the same time needing public approval to succeed.

Of course, a hundred years from now, if this blog or my books are still readable, and our world isn't underwater or on an off-Earth post-catastrophe moonbase, I should be happy to have anyone notice my writing, even if it's some chronically depressed android who gives me a one-star review.

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