Constructive Criticism, Negativity or Feud?

by Stephen Agar

Excerpt From Ethil The Frog No.14 (1978)

By John Piggott

So what is my motive in reviewing a zine? Simply, I aim to tell the reader something about the zine, and to give him a guide as to whether he would enjoy it or not. I do this in the best possible way (some would say it is the only possible way), by saying whether I myself like it, and if so why, and if not why not. Then, knowing my prejudices, the intelligent reader can make up his own mind. In this respect, an unfavourable review can be more useful than a favourable one. For example, readers of Time Out will have read the work of one Dave Pirie. Pirie is literally the most unperceptive film critic I’ve ever come across, and if I feel like going to the cinema the first thing I do is to look out the Pine reviews of the films available and use them to narrow down the list. If Pirie likes a film, it must be rubbish! This is an infallible guide -unfortunately the reverse is not always true, though it is a good 90% of the time.

It’s obvious that for a review to be of any use at all, the critic must tell the truth about his feelings, so that’s what I do. I praise the things I like and I damn the rubbish. Unfortunately a lot of rubbish is produced in this hobby. I also attempt to outline ways of rectifying the faults I find, if I can think of any, even though few editors pay much attention. (Funny thing, but the ones who are shrillest in their demands for “constructive criticism” are the least likely of all people to act on good advice when it’s offered.)

Did someone mention “kindness”? It has its place, and that place is nowhere near the public prints. To receive kindness is a privilege, one which a man who thrusts himself on my consciousness by sending me his zine has foregone. Yes, the truth can hurt – terribly – which means that sensitive people shouldn’t expose themselves in public, right?

There is another way of writing tine reviews besides the one I use. Here, the critic, fearful of bruising the poor editor’s feelings, confines himself to humming meaningless platitudes and, where he finds he really doesn’t like something, either ignoring the fact or maintaining that he actually doesn’t mind it, really. Some would call it kindness – I wouldn’t, for it devalues genuine praise, which is a very, very cruel thing to do. More significantly, it involves telling lies, which sakes it worse than useless to any readers (not that there are likely to be many, of course; most people feel the same way as I do about criticism, because it is, after all, something one need only attract by choice. The low profile has many adherents among those who would rather watch).

Friendliness – A Look At “Constructive” Criticism (1980)

By Torbjörn Ström

“The thing that has impressed me the most about the postal hobby, aside from the fact that the game itself is sheer hell, is the general atmosphere of helpfulness and friendliness I’ve found”, Bruce Linsey wrote in his first issue of Voice of Doom. This is certainly true for the US part of the hobby. Everyone who takes an initiative there, whether it is to start a new zine, or doing something else, is met with friendliness. The new editor will find that his fellow editors give him plugs, advising their readers to write for a sample, ending the plug with the words: “If he gets the support he deserves I am sure his zine will turn out to be a good one”. For instance, if Steve Agar had started his zine Here We Go Again in the USA I am sure everyone would have helped him, writing articles, as well as given him positive plugs; instead of writing letter expressing their pessimism about the magazine, and giving bad plugs before the first issue was published, as actually happened in England. Now the question whether there is such a friendly atmosphere only in USA, and not in England arises. Let’s try to find out by listening to some words of wisdom expressed by Mike Allaway in his zine Pyrrhic Victory. What he says is all very true, but I want you to look at a certain thing:

“If you start a zine one thing you shouldn’t do is take too much notice of what other editors say. You will almost certainly find several editors that don’t like your zine, that’s their opinion only. If you have a circulation then that is the vindication for you starting a zine. It’s the paying customers that are important (though don’t pander slavishly to their tastes) and if you keep them happy it doesn’t matter a toss what other editors think of your fine.”

Did you notice that it is almost taken for granted that a person starting a new zine in England will receive negative criticism for doing so? Well, if a person is prepared to take up perhaps 25% of his spare time producing something that is mainly aimed at making it possible for others to enjoy themselves playing a good game, the last thing he needs is such criticism, especially since he is likely to make an economical loss on the venture. Instead everyone should wish him good luck and try to help him to get things going. Negative criticism isn’t the way to encourage people to take initiatives, and it is no wonder that there is a steady decrease in the number of zines in UK.

What I can’t understand is why the critics use a scale ranging from +2 to -8, when it as perfectly possible to let ones readers know how good I consider a fine to be by using a scale from +1 to +10. Even if I say that all zines are good when I review them (and all zines are good in some respect) it is perfectly possible to let my readers know how good I consider a certain zine to be by the degree of “positivism” I use. The difference will be that the new editor which I review won’t feel as if his effort ain’t appreciated.

Now no one should accuse me of not seeing the value of constructive criticism when it comes to help others improve their zines. Constructive criticism is all very good, but why say “it is bad”, when one can say “there is room for improvement”? To use a negative language is not my way of being “constructive”. Another fault of some reviewers is too only point out the bad sides of another zine, and completely omit the good ones. One can’t get a fair picture of the reviewed zine from such a review. Do you get the right impression of Megalomania if one only mentions the bad games service?

It may look as if I think all UK editors are guilty of this “negativism”. Of course this is not the case, the large majority doesn’t condescend themselves to this sort of behaviour. Most of them are of course in this hobby to play the game and have fun, in a friendly atmosphere. However, there is a little “elite clique” who believe that the most important thing for a zine is to be literary perfect. An intellectual style is more important than a fast turnaround for them. The main motivation for these people being in the hobby is to boost their egos, impressing other by displaying their “superior” intellects vis-à-vis persons who aren’t as good as they are at writing or arguing. To them the game of “arguing” (for the sake of arguing) which they run in their zines is more important than the games of Diplomacy, which are mainly included to get subscribers. My advice to new publishers is to ignore these people, don’t let them stop you from running an efficient zine, which may not be up to their standards when it comes to literacy, but most certainly is far better than theirs when it comes to creating a friendly atmosphere, which keeps your subscribers happy.

Editorial From Acolyte No.60 (1984)

By Pete Tamlyn

Well, as many of you will no doubt have read in other ‘zines over the past few weeks, this is the last issue of The Acolyte. It is not a hoax, this ‘zine Is folding.

OK, I know I said last issue that I wouldn’t fold even though I was a bit pissed off with things. However, it didn’t take much to convince me that this had been a gross mistake. Those of you who sub to other ‘zines will doubtless read several stories in the next few weeks purporting to reveal “The Reason” and there have certainly been a few unpleasant incidents. For example, if you have a GMing dispute and discover that several editors seem determined to make the player concerned a national hero and continue to spread deliberate lies about how you handled the affair long after it has been amicably settled by all concerned… well, it makes it very difficult to run games in a fair and honest atmosphere, does it not? However, sad as it may seem, this sort of thing is inevitable. There will always be a few anti-social idiots around the Hobby and the more well known you become the more of a target you are. A year or two ago I would probably have shrugged all this off and carried on. Now? well, you know. The real truth of the matter is that I simply no longer have the patience, enthusiasm or thick skin needed to do this Job. Having realised this, it was a very simple decision for me to recognise that I ought to stop now whilst most people would remember Acolyte with reasonable affection rather than try to carry on and get more and more irritable and get to the stage where people are telling me that I ought to fold.

So, the decision is final; please don’t write and try to get me to change my mind. Indeed, with the news having, been given to various people in good time for them to make the necessary arrangements, I’ve already had quite a few of those and have not been persuaded. Equally I’ve had a few people parading the crocodile tears and continuing to rub salt in any wound they can find, and two pages of abuse from Dolton saying how much he despises me and how lucky the Hobby is to be getting rid of me. These I shall also ignore. I will not be subscribing to any zines, even though I will miss several of them, because I have no wish to see what is said about me after I have gone: it will either be unpleasant or embarrassing. As with many other editors, I may well be back at some time in the future, but for now I would just like to forget about things for a while, OK? Thanks.

Are Diplomacy Zines Killing The Diplomacy Scene? (1998)

By Nic Chilton

Although it seems an absurd idea, if you look around the UK zines it all proves to be the case. I have a few runs of zines that were around in the 1980’s and they seem to be supportive of the postal hobby, where as today’s counterparts do not seem to be. The best way for the hobby to progress is for the “readership”, and by that I mean people who subscribe to zines – not editors, to see more zines. If you subscribe to just one zine then you are missing out on a rich seam of interesting zines that are around. Most people rely on what editors say about other zines as to whether to bother sending off for a sample, this is because most editors see a wide variety of zines available.

However, the current “trend” is to give negative reviews of other zines, taking any opportunity to put the boot in. Is it any wonder then that players don’t subscribe to more zines? Unfortunately this also means that if the current zine someone subscribes to either folds or ends up not being to their liking, so they don’t renew their subs, then the reader is more likely to leave the hobby completely than to go through the process of trying to find a replacement. Maybe it is in the nature of the hobby for editors to back stab each other and make catty remarks (hence last issues cover), but it does cause great detriment to the hobby. Indeed there has been more than one zine that has folded as a result of attacks from fellow editors. If the hobby is in the pursuit of making itself extinct, why protest. Say goodbye to postal hobby it could well be dead by 2010.

Stephen Agar

The above are only a small selection – I could have reprinted equivalent comment from every year since 1972! By my own confession in all these things I have been poacher and gamekeeper, aggressor and victim. There is a certain irony that one of these pieces uses criticisms made of me (in an earlier incarnation and at the hands of Pete Birks, I think) as examples of the sort of negativity that the hobby often suffers from. Yet, many think of me as someone who does not lightly miss an opportunity to do another editor down. I believe that the truth is that this subject is a lot more complicated than some people would have you believe.

“Genuine constructive criticism”

However genuinely such criticism is meant, this is usually taken by the recipient of the criticism as hostility because zines are like one’s children, you criticise my zine and you criticise a part of me and all too often such “genuine” criticism is wrapped up in bitchy or patronising language. Whatever they may say in public, all editor’s take criticism of their zines personally, even if they say they do not. Indeed, the “constructive criticism” may even be motivated by hostility, but the editor concerned hasn’t got the nerve for simple vitriol. It may be possible to take constructive criticism from a teacher – but the teacher/student relationship does not exist in this context, where editors are generally seen as belonging to the same peer group. Similarly, it may be just possible to take constructive criticism in private, but harder to swallow when it is all too public.

People like Torbjörn Ström, above, claim that constructive criticism is OK – but if you have criticism of any sort in Dip zines then things quickly degenerate into sulks, feuds or bankable grudges to be repaid when the opportunity presents itself. After all, how many of us would appreciate a house guest offering constructive criticism of our newly decorated living room? Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is adverse comments about an editor’s zine which hurts far more than comments about him as a person, so it may be that “constructive criticism” is more likely to lead to hostility in the hobby than anything else. I certainly don’t agree with Torbjörn that you should leave a reader to guess the bad points of a zine by taking account of what is not said (much like leaving a jury to work out that a Defendant has a criminal record by the fact that no evidence is called as to his/her good character – silly). Unfortunately, negative comments are far more interesting to write (and read) than good ones – witness this brief review of Albatross from John Piggott: “It’s a depressing thought, but the first issue of Albatross was undoubtedly the best; it’s gone steadily downhill since then, if only because it’s been getting longer…”

Being antagonistic to get attention

Antagonism to attract attention is a tactic of long standing in the postal Diplomacy hobby, and often successful. I used this tactic myself back in SpOff No.3 when I deliberately attacked various long-standing zines for being “dinosaurs” which were stuck in a rut etc. etc. As a result I had letters from no less than 12 editors in the following issue commenting on my position (mainly negatively) – excellent feedback, all of which lead to the newly launched SpOff making an impact (something any new zine must struggle to do). On the Internet, when someone expresses an opinion they don’t necessarily hold (at least to the degree it is expressed) in order to get a reaction from others, the piece in question is called a “troll”. There is quite a bit of “trolling” in the postal Dip hobby (e.g. the piece from GAME printed above).

Being antagonistic to foster a reputation for acerbic wit

Being antagonistic does carry with it some risks – if you are too bitchy you will just alienate the person/group you are being bitchy about, who will treat it as hostility. This is especially true if your purpose is simply to provoke. A good example of this, from probably the most provocative editor the hobby has ever seen, is John Piggott’s numerous digs at Roy Taylor – a particular vivid one being:

“And just to emphasise my point about blunders, Roy, I’ll draw your attention to the final report for NGC 173 (Jigsaw No.43, page 4). In this so-called regular game the board evidently contained 35 supply centres in 1906. By 1910 this had diminished to 33, but in the final stages of the game the number grew again: there were 35 centres in 1911, 37 in 1912 and when the game ended in 1913 there were 40!! And these are facts Roy. They were typed by your own fair hand on pristine duplicator stencils (I can almost smell the aroma of the wax, so vivid is the image in my mind). You yourself smeared these stencils with the very best ink money could buy, and you then proceeded to drag them over many sheets of paper. Facts, Roy! And what have you to offer in return? Paranoid fantasies, no more. And my own, private fantasies are more interesting than yours. Roy baby, when you’ve got some facts, let me know, huh? Then I’ll listen to you.”

Quite a tirade over what amounted to a mis-typed SC chart (something it is very easy to do) – there was no suggestion that the game had been GM’d badly. This, and other digs, led to the following editorial in Jigsaw No.44:

“…what I have just read on Ethil the Frog’s front cover has managed to send me into a complete rage, enough of a rage in fact that, if John Piggott had been within distance he would have found himself in hospital after being on the wrong end of a martial arts two fingered punch to his eyes, which is, I admit, rather a stupid admission on my part because he wrote it with the sole intention of provoking some form of letter from me…”

And as we know from recent exchanges of letter in this zine, after all these years the hurt is still felt. In extreme cases this tactic can backfire an even generate a bit of a backlash against the publication doing it (e.g. Mark Wightman’s recent description of GAME as a “sterile pile of rehashed shite”).

Sniping (in fun)

I think this is the area which has got me into the most trouble. I feel I can take the piss out of people I know and like, especially if we have some differences between us. However, what seems like a humours dig when you type it, may not be read as such by the subject. For example, Duncan Adam’s zine The Laughing Roundhead used to have lots of typing errors – so when I referred to it in SpOff I often deliberately mistyped its name (something which I though amusing) – but I subsequently learnt that I was really pissing Duncan off, as he felt sensitive about the quality of his spelling. Similarly, when I patched things up with Toby in late 1997, I felt that sufficiently relaxed about things to make several good-natured (or so I thought) jibes at his expense – but he construed it as pure hostility. In email there is a convention of using a J when you don’t intend something to be taken seriously, and recently I have found it a useful device from time to time. In a similar vein (I hope) it is rare that Richard Sharp does not make some dismissive comment or other about me in Dolchstoß; but I treat that as a great honour, as Richard gets out so little these days it is a privilege to be noticed by him. A good example (from issue 240) is:

“Oh, John, it’s always such a relief to find I disagree with you. It’s almost like the “Agar Test” – if you agree with Stephen you know you must be wrong, and check back over your reasoning. Quite useful, really. I know you aren’t quite that batty, but similar principles apply.

Great stuff.

Misrepresentation (selective memory syndrome)

This is feud territory, often generated as a result of someone attempting constructive criticism, but maybe adding just a bit of caustic wit and the person on the other end interpreting it as aggression. Feud’s usually involve some disagreement as to some facts or some interpretation of facts; as each party to the feud restates their position they “elaborate” on the position of the other in order to demonstrate the weakness of their position etc. etc. This can be quite entertaining if you see both zines and appreciate the degree of “spin” which is going on, but a subscriber who only sees one half of the argument is in danger of taking too much at face value, and consequently over-estimating the degree of hostility involved. I have always thought that Richard Sharp is a master at this sort of thing.

Many feuds can be good-natured, but on occasions can get out of control, spiralling into personal dislike, especially if one or other party starts to believe there own propaganda (in such things, who was actually correct does not really matter in the end). I have had too many feuds while editing Diplomacy zines to keep track – but Peter Calcraft and Toby Harris certainly spring to mind (while I have certainly crossed swords with John Colledge, Kim Head, Chris Palm and Iain Bowen). One well known feud which almost ended up in violence was that between John Piggott and Eric Willis – John made constant and niggling attacks on Eric’s zine, Leviathan (which was a poor zine delivering a poor service), causing Eric to approach John at a hobby meet and threaten him. An ugly confrontation ensured with Eric eventually backing down (to John’s relief – Eric is over 6 feet tall).

Pure hostility

This is surprisingly rare, and usually only a final reaction to what is described above. At the risk of offending Roy Taylor, I think that several of his descriptions of John Piggott in Jigsaw were examples of this, but this rather tame one from Jigsaw 45 will suffice:

“Piggott, I’ll tell you is a prize prig, he will never give in, he’s something akin to John Stonehouse whom, you may remember, had the gall to falsify company books, deaths, passports – you name it – and yet, in his own eyes he was guilty of nothing; he and his fellow prigs make me bloody sick.”

Indeed, there are other excerpts I could print, but this is a family zine. In my opinion, John’s own attacks on Roy don’t fall into this category – not because they weren’t very cutting – but because hostility is a strong emotion, and John saw such sparing as an exercise in itself; he didn’t actually care enough to feel that strongly about what he was arguing about. I could contrast this with John’s anti-Eric Willis tirades (e.g. describing Eric Willis as “a truly repellent blob of protoplasm”) where it did seem that he might just be starting to get emotionally involved.

There is a case for saying that Toby’s piece on me back in 1997 was pure hostility, but I subscribe to the fact that it was sniping in fun which, when combined with alcohol and a touch of an inferiority complex (brought out by the alcohol?) just crossed the line. My original reply to Toby’s piece was certainly pure hostility – but I though better of it before I printed it…

False indignation syndrome

Worth mentioning, because it is fairly common. Once editors get involved in a slanging match (at whatever level), one way to close the debate down and try to retain the moral high ground is to complain bitterly about negativity in the hobby and how horrible people are. On occasion such complaints may be justified (I feel that Pete Tamlyn’s complaint above probably was), but all too often the person doing the complaining has been quite content to indulge in fisticuffs themselves (E.g. Kim Head’s comment in the last editorial in Life’s Rich Pageant that “I could do without the juvenile and sometimes quite unpleasant mentality which appears to be rife in the hobby at the moment…”). However, given the reputation of John Piggott, who can resist a chuckle at this review of Howay the Lads:

“For a time last year I had high hopes of this zine; alas, these hopes have been dashed. A callow, whining editorial posture is combined with bitterly vitriolic attacks on hobby members… it’s a very surly zine, and while they probably don’t feel an insane hatred for their enemies, it’s hard to escape the impression that they do.”

It’s easier to be agin’

Someone has a new idea, pour cold water on it. Someone has an initiative, tell them it won’t work. But never come up with new ideas or initiatives yourself (after all, others may be hostile). We’ve all seen it, and as a knee-jerk reaction I don’t like it – “though constructive criticism” of such things is OK… The history of the hobby is littered with good ideas which were slammed from day one and so never saw the light of day. Indeed, you have only got to propose that the hobby needs some sort of a front organisation to recruit (something I still believe) and you can hear the knives being sharpened.

So how much of the above is justified? For what it is worth, I think any hobby which avoids constructive criticism is just going to be so self-congratulatory and boring that anyone with any spirit will desert en masse or die of tedium. However, constructive criticism leads inexorably to feuds and sniping. I don’t like genuine hostility, which rules out (I would rather retain that for people who do hurtful things that matter in real life), while moralising about how terrible it is to have arguments in print is often hypocritical (though sometimes convenient). Just being against everything is just depressing, and one reason why this hobby is dying so quickly. But no doubt for as long as this hobby continues to exist we will have the full range of negative emotions on display, and it has always been so.