Over at Junkee I’ve written about Making a Murderer, examining how the series manipulates viewers and how, ultimately, those manipulations are in service of a good cause – reinforcing the presumption of innocence.
Generally, this is where I’d conclude a repost here on ccpopculture; a quick gesture to the piece which should theoretically speak for itself. But this is a little different. While this article has only been up for a little while, it’s already attracted somewhat of a negative reaction on social media. No torches and pitchforks, just a generally dissatisfied reaction from readers.
It’s easy to brush this off, to dismiss negative feedback as signal noise from a narrow-minded commentariat. After all, “don’t read the comments” is a saying for a reason, and it’s fair to assume that it goes double when you’re talking about your own piece, particularly a comparatively provocative one.
The thing is, an opportunity for legitimately honest feedback is comparatively rare for a writer like myself. Comments on blog tend to be largely positive, either because people reading my site already know what to expect – give or take – from my writing, or because they’re fellow WordPress bloggers operating with an implicit quid pro quo (that is, if you want other bloggers to read and like your stuff, you’re probably not going to charge in and tell them that their work is rubbish). And I can hardly hear the reactions to my writing that’s published in print.
Junkee, on the other hand, has a broad readership unlikely to pull any punches in their assessment of an article. Oh, sure, some of them are idiots; I’m not going to give too much credence to the numbskull who commented “Junkee is a try hard of the socialist left leaning rag publisher FairHacks.” Nor am I particularly interested in the opinion of the handful of commenters who were clearly responding, as is common online, to the imagined premise of the article rather than its actual contents. And it’s worth remembering that of the 4,000 readers, only a half-dozen or so responded negatively.
But, still. The general reaction seems to indicate that the article is, for many readers, a “feel bad” experience, and it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to reflect upon why that’s the case, and whether I can take a lesson away from this reception. My first attempt at the article was less assertive in its rhetoric and more generally contemplative; it eased up on the “Making a Murderer is manipulative” point in favour of digging into how the show acted as a necessary reinforcement of the presumption of innocence.
The piece I submitted, though, had been substantially rewritten to adopt a more consciously provocative approach. The first half of the article is designed to get the reader engaged by emphasising the series’ manipulations, which is somewhat disingenuous given that I conclude that those manipulations are totally fine. That kind of rhetorical whiplash is, I suspect, in large part to blame for readers’ disgruntled or disappointed reactions.
So why be provocative? Because Junkee is the kind of site that’s about provocation. It’s updated regularly enough that a balanced, contemplative piece – like the kind I might publish here or for Metro Magazine – would get lost in the shuffle. I want readers to read my article, so I’m trying to create the sort of reaction that gets them to share it, that gets them to talk about it. In other words, I’m drifting closer and closer to clickbait.
It’s also worth acknowledging that the editorial contributions of Junkee play a part here. My initial piece didn’t mention the futility of the petition to pardon Avery until an (admittedly, overlong and repetitive) conclusion, and provided a more balanced presentation of extratextual evidence. Combined with the headline, the accompanying ‘tagline’ and a crucial sentence added by my editor – “But why is it that we, the citizens of Netflix, consider ourselves such experts on the matter?” – the net effect is even more provocative than my submitted draft. It suggests to the reader that the sympathy they might feel for Avery is, well, wrong, positioning me as an authority in a way I didn’t consciously intend (see this comment from a reader: “This article is treating viewers like a bunch of absolute morons”, which is probably fair). The headline also seems to have led many to expect an article arguing for Avery’s guilt, which was never the intent of the piece nor its provocative opening paragraphs.
None of this is to shift blame to my editor, who did an amazing job tightening up and focusing the piece. I can’t blame her for gearing the piece to attract audiences – that’s her job – and I don’t absolve any responsibility for the published piece, which I was asked to read over before it went live. I didn’t pick up any of these potential issues – if they even are issues! – in my read through. And at the end of the day, I was the one who choose a piece that pivoted away from its original argument to surprise and – in many cases – frustrate the reader.
Am I unhappy with the published piece? Not entirely; to some extent, it’s a piece that calls out for negative reactions, because its intended to make people think critically about the arguments presented before them. If people chafe against my purported issues with Making a Murderer’s manipulations, then of course, that’s great. But at the same time, viewers who have already identified these manipulations – and they’re hardly subtle – are justified in feeling a bit condescended to be the tone of the article as it stands. I suspect the biggest problem is that the provocative rhetoric overwhelms my central point, which isn’t perhaps substantial enough to avoid the resulting imbalance.
As a writer, what’s my lesson going forward from this? Mostly, it’s to be careful when taking a provocative – or, less generously, “clickbaity” – approach to writing. I think it’s good to get people excited or to get people angry, but it needs something solid behind it. To provide a counterexample, I was actually happy with the negative reaction to my Marco Polo review over at Game of Thrones website Winter is Coming, because that reaction came from those unhappy with the feminist themes I wove through the article. I don’t really give a shit about those people; but I do care about the intelligent people who might have been annoyed by the rhetorical shortcuts I took in the Making a Murderer piece.
Given the subject of this post, I’d be really interested in your feedback, as a reader or a writer. How did you find my Making a Murderer article – am I overthinking things, or are the flaws I’ve identified worth addressing? If you’re a writer how do you – or have you – responded to any negative feedback you’ve received? Do you dismiss it, does it stick with you, or do you attempt to engage with it?