Lichen Craig, Smashwords

A Point To Ponder: How Much Should One’s Personal Bias Affect A Review?

***WARNING: SPOILERS***

Or should it?

I just recently finished reading a book that has given me pause and really made me reflect upon how much my personal bias against the subject matter is affecting my ability to be impartial to it, to look at the merits of the writing, the strength of the premise, and the development of the characters rather than how much I disagree with the way the author, Lichen Craig, chose to resolve the conflict in her book Gentlemen’s Game, the story of a man who commits an unforgivable atrocity, never has to answer in any way for it, then, in the end, gets everything he ever wanted handed to him on a silver platter.

Okay, to be fair, that’s not the entirety of the story, but here’s the issue; that’s what it all boils down to for me. Why? Because the author devised a conflict so impossible for me to overcome that it completely obliterated any good that had happened before and negatively influenced my opinion of everything that happened after. So, how much should my personal feelings weigh against my objectively reviewing this novel? Of that I’m not certain.

This particular book deals with some controversial subjects: infidelity (what is and isn’t considered breaking one’s marriage vows), what does and doesn’t define being gay, group sex, as well as a brutal scene of rape and torture, which, I might add, is NOT mentioned in the book’s blurb on Goodreads, which is the blurb I read. The proper warnings are noted on Smashwords, however. As you can well imagine, the author did not set out to make this book a light read, and she succeeded spectacularly in that regard.

The plot of this novel revolves around a trio of affluent men–all married, all successful–who, on occasion, get together to play cards, break bread, and have sex with one another. None of the three men see this as infidelity because, hey, it’s just sex; nor do they consider themselves to be gay. They don’t even consider themselves to be Bi because none of the three of them find other men (men outside of their group) sexually attractive. This secret relationship they share is simply a “Game” between friends, nothing more.

This scenario is introduced when one of the men, Scottie, befriends a young playwright he’s helping to find a haven to which he can escape from the madness of New York City, a place where he can write and enjoy the peace and tranquility of the countryside. Greyson is not gay either. Though he was at one time engaged to be married, the relationship ended before the wedding and he’s remained single ever since, but Greyson, like the other men, is attracted to women. Scottie invites Greyson to join him, along with friends Colin and Jack, for their next Game day–the details of which Scottie fully discloses to Greyson, so at least he doesn’t go into the situation uninformed. Nor does Greyson go into the situation uninitiated, as he and Scottie have sex before Greyson is introduced to the group.

Scottie, Colin, and Jack have a bit of an understanding, that being they never pair off to have sex and exclude the other members of the group, but that unspoken rule was bent when Scottie had sex with Greyson and shattered entirely when Jack and Greyson meet and their attraction to each other ignites a spark that becomes so much more. The two men begin a love affair that both excludes and includes the group, though Colin and Scottie don’t come to understand the depth of feelings Jack and Greyson share until much later.

Jack is the only one of the original three members of the group who is unhappily married. His wife is a faithless shrew who has cheated on him time and time again over the course of their sixteen year marriage, but the final and unforgivable transgression comes when their teenage son walks in on his mother and her current lover, in flagrante delicto. Jack and Greyson, by then, have more than consummated their relationship, have, in fact, moved on to planning a future together. When Jack sues for divorce and full custody of his sons, Jack’s wife comes out, claws and fangs bared, and exposes Jack and Greyson’s affair, playing the ultimate sympathetic victim in the media–the high society wife whose husband has left her for another man. Not only that, but she also publicly accuses Greyson of pedophilia, an entirely unfounded accusation, which made me wonder why Greyson didn’t sue her for Defamation of Character, but that’s neither here nor there. I guess. Just another niggle for me to add to the list.

As the stress of the public mudslinging and the very real possibility Jack may lose any chance of gaining custody of his sons begins to weigh heavily on Jack and Greyson’s relationship, the final straw is placed upon the heap when the four men get together for their usual day of indulgence, and Jack’s demons finally catch up to him. Drunk and warring with the jealousy and sense of betrayal that have accumulated over years of playing the cuckold, Jack watches Colin and Greyson having sex, an event that, coupled with the drink, finally breaks his fragile hold on his emotions and self control.

Before I go on, let me just say this: Yes, I disagreed with the author’s justification of what does and does not constitute infidelity. I also think the author pushed the “I’m not gay” envelope into the realms of “methinks he doth protest too much,” but really, these two things paled in comparison with what happens between Jack and Greyson when they return home from their night with Colin and Scottie.

Jack violates Greyson, violates him emotionally and physically, brutalizes his body, rapes and tortures him; in short, Jack robs Greyson of his very humanity, strips him bare of everything he could once count on in himself–his ability to trust, his decision making abilities, his ability to write, his safety and security, his peace of mind. Everything. This scene was not written as an incidental event. No, this scene was written in great detail–the lacerations, the bruises, the tearing and bleeding of Greyson’s anus, the fact that Greyson loses control of his bladder, the residual nerve damage to Greyson’s wrists when Jack, in his drunken stupor, leaves Greyson tied up for hours–no detail was spared in just how broken and bloodied Greyson was. The author gives the reader a very clear picture of how much Greyson suffered that night and in the subsequent days, months, and years of his recovery.

And here’s where the issue lies for me and my ability to review this book objectively. I have never been the victim of any sort of crime, let alone a violent crime against my person. I’ve never had to relive a nightmare over and over again in my mind, nor have I ever suffered at the hands of someone I love. I have never been debased and humiliated, violated and tortured, and I hope to God never to be. But my sense of empathy and my ability to imagine what enduring something like that would entail is strong enough that I cannot, not even in my wildest imaginings, believe that a victim would return to his abuser, regardless of how much the aggressor repents, how much his friends vouch for his character, how much he begs for forgiveness and promises it will never happen again. That’s something I simply couldn’t buy into. Does someone who has been victimized, has recovered, and has succeeded in moving on really buy into a book in which the victim returns to his abuser and they sail off happily into the sunset? I can’t say, but I think fair warning should be given to its potential readers.

So, the only defense for Jack’s egregious crime is that he was drunk. He doesn’t remember what he did, so while he can feel remorse after the fact, it seems as though he’s getting only a sideways view of his crime. It’s like murdering someone in your sleep–sure, you know you did it, but do you feel the same way about it as you would if you were in the moment, present and aware of your actions? If I get blind drunk and get behind the wheel of a car, then maim or kill someone, am I partially absolved from responsibility for my actions because I was drunk? Absolutely not. Should I be expected to answer and pay for those crimes to the fullest extent of the law? Of course. But Jack has an out here. He was given a pass because, well, he had no idea what he was doing, and that was horribly unsatisfying for me. He should’ve been held accountable for his actions and punished accordingly. But maybe that says more about me and my need for justice. I don’t know.

At what point does forgiveness become excusing the abuser for his behavior? At what point does pardoning the abuser’s sin give him a pass on his culpability for his actions? At what point does the victim sacrifice more than a little bit of my sympathy for what he’s suffered? I’ll tell you when: at the point that he returns to the man who nearly destroyed him. And that’s the point where it feels as though the author is re-victimizing the victim; at the point where the author stripped me of my ability to respect Greyson and his choice to return to the man who raped him and robbed him of his free will.

And this is why I’m having such a difficult time deciding on how well this book worked for me. Looking at it from a writing standpoint, the author does a respectable job of telling her story. It’s not flawless but it’s self-published, so I can forgive some of the editing issues. I was along for the ride, in spite of some minor misgivings, up to the point of the crime. From there on, things were hit and miss for me, mostly miss.

I didn’t need every single action and reaction in this book to be justified for me, but I did need for the author to do a better job of helping me believe and buy into the choices that were made, something that may have been a truly impossible task, given the subject matter.

For burrowing into my psyche and really making me think, this book gets high marks. For drawing me into the story and the lives of these characters, the book did just fine. For making me believe that there was a happily ever after that could be carved from the detritus of rape and torture–that, simply put, was a fail for me.

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9 thoughts on “A Point To Ponder: How Much Should One’s Personal Bias Affect A Review?

  1. PD Singer says:

    Thank you for making your reservations clear; it’s done what a good review should do, and allows readers to make up their own minds with more information.

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    • Hi Pam,

      You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to step back and try to set aside my personal feelings about a book to keep it from clouding my judgment and to keep the focus on how well it was written, but this is the first time the issue has come up in the case of rape and torture being the conflict between the couple. That is, at least, where it was the partner himself who has committed that horrific betrayal.

      I mean, there’s betrayal of trust in cases of infidelity, which happens and couples work through it and can come to a place where they heal and move forward. But then there’s rape and torture and the violation of everything that’s supposed to signify love and intimacy and faith between two people. How does a couple recover from something like that? How do they continue in a sexual relationship and regain that close physical bond when something so utterly heinous will always between them?

      That’s hard for me to reconcile. I was angry at Greyson for going back to Jack, and I was incredibly angry because Jack got away with his crime and it really cost him nothing in the end. He got his sons, he got Greyson, he got everything he ever wanted but didn’t deserve. :-/

      I suppose, as books go, though, this one still has me thinking about and discussing it, so maybe it’s not a bad thing. :)

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  2. As described the drunken rape goes far beyond what I could ever forgive of a lover in a novel. I don’t care how drunk, how hurt or how angry the guy was the fact that he could do something so inhuman to someone he believes he loves is frightening. Very well crafted review, I always let my emotions get the better of me ;)

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    • ::nods:: And for me, it wasn’t only the fact that Jack debased and degraded and defiled the man he supposedly loved–using alcohol as an excuse, no less–but then heaped on top of that is that Jack never had to answer for the crime, and was rewarded in the ended by getting everything he’d ever wanted. It was so emotionally unsatisfying and, dammit, just didn’t make sense to me. LOL.

      It feels like the author included this big, impacting, and tumultuous scene for the sake of dramatic tension, but never once stopped to look at things from a victim’s point of view. It all just sat terribly wrong with me. :-P

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  3. Hi! I really want to thank you for this wonderful review of my book! I’m serious! I wanted to make people think when I wrote it – and it seems to be succeeding. I am fascinated reading your thoughts. It may interest you to know that the book came about because I was frustrated at the growing trend in “fanfiction” to glorify rape. Young writers like to use S & M, and more disturbingly rape (which they blithely call “non-con”) to titillate. I counseled rape victims for many years, and I wanted to paint a picture of what it really looks like. I find it interesting that you keep using the phrase “rape and torture” – I know that you meant physical torture – when to me, all rape is torture. Also, all rape destroys. You talked about Greyson’s psyche being destroyed. That is the aim of rape. It isn’t about sex, it’s about the destruction of someone’s soul. That is why it is so ugly.

    The forgiveness issue is interesting. I think you need to read chapters 15-21 over again when you are calmer about it. Jack suffers plenty. His suffering is quiet, but it is there. Looking at yourself in the mirror and finding a monster is the most torture a person can suffer.

    As a general comment, I have noticed something interesting as reviews come in, and that is that the older a reviewer is the more able they are to understand the forgiveness aspect of the book. Perhaps as we age we come to understand that Life doesn’t wrap things up in a neat bow. People don’t always “pay” in the ways you think they should, but sometimes they pay in other ways. People are shades of gray, not black and white. As is Life. I have dealt with hundreds of rape victims through the years, and some of the cases were things I’m sure you can’t imagine. Are some things unforgivable? I don’t know. I would like to think that there is always redemption. It depends upon the understanding the rapist has of his crime. I think Jack understood it perfectly well in the end, and that is what mattered.

    I have to say, I sympathize with your dilemma. I have read well-written books that I wanted to pitch into the fireplace they made me so angry for reasons of personal bias. It is very hard to separate isn’t it? One’s feelings from one’s objective reaction. :) I struggle a lot with that.

    Oh – one more note: the book has been thoroughly edited at this point. It was posted electronically before final editing. Until you write a book, you cannot appreciate the difficulty of catching all the errors before it “goes to print”. At traditional editing houses, they use a “three person” rule”: three editors read for errors because they eyes of one person just won’t do it. This book is being considered by two publishing houses. But because of its lack of genre and tidy niche, it was first independently published – which is becoming more and more common. That is not a reflection on the quality of a book as it was 20 years ago.

    Thanks again for your comments and for reading the book. :)

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    • Hi Lichen,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment on my post. :)

      Yes, this book has truly made me think. I’ve looked at the story from several different angles–asking myself if my opinion of Jack’s actions would’ve been the same (or even stronger) if Greyson had been a woman, asking myself how I’d feel about the situation if Greyson were my son, and it all boils down to the fact that what Jack did was, for me, not only inconceivable but decimated any amount of sympathy I’d had for him prior to the moment he so utterly defiled the man he said he loved.

      I’m 46 years old, have been married for more than 20 years, so I’ve been around the block a few times. If anything, I think my age has contributed even more to my inability to have any empathy for Jack. Though I freely acknowledge his actions weren’t in any way premeditated, it was the catalyst for his actions that didn’t justify the enormity of his crime for me, and yes, I see what he did to Greyson as a crime for which he should’ve been punished. Emotional distress neither justified his actions nor was it a satisfactory reason for his redemption in my eyes. And that’s the problem, when it comes down to it: once Jack did what he did, he became no different to me than any other monster who would use sex as a weapon to punish and defile someone they love. It’s egregious enough when it’s a crime between complete strangers.

      To me, rape and physical torture are unjustifiable and irredeemable actions, but again, I’m looking at it from a woman’s point of view. I can only say that if my husband ever violated my trust and faith in that way, it’d be a cold day in hell before I forgave him. It’d be easier for me to forget him first. :)

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  4. I’m glad Ms. Craig responded. It is good to know why she wrote the rape in the way that she did and I think it is actually an important point. I’ve also noticed “non-con” to titillate although I tend to stay away from those types of books. I’ve also wondered if they don’t confuse things a bit for young people. (I have the same stance on violent video games so I might just be too rigid) I was gratified to see that Jack was not instantly forgiven and I actually do understand Grayson still loving him despite the violence. I have seen in before in abused women and wonder Why oh why do they keep going back. Why do they keep falling for the whole, “I’ve changed” speech. I understand that in a romance, a HEA is required but this is one instance where I wish there had been none other than the HEA of learning to move on.

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  5. Nicole says:

    This will all be VERY SPOILERISH! You were warned.

    Gosh! Great review, Lisa. This line …”the story of a man who commits an unforgivable atrocity, never has to answer in any way for it, then, in the end, gets everything he ever wanted handed to him on a silver platter” genuinely hurts when I think about how right you are. It is very wonderful that the author stopped by to comment, I like when authors do that, but I must say I am in complete agreement with you, Lisa, Jack did not suffer enough. And if he did, even if I reread chapter 15-21, I know I still wouldn’t find what I need. I needed, as a reader, to see more of Jack’s suffering on page. We needed to see him prepared to throw himself over his yacht because of his anguish, and staring at the blood on the floor, vomiting his guts up at the mere thought of doing that to someone he loved. I wanted to feel his reaction when he learned more of what he did. I have seen more and better groveling and remorse for way less than what Jack did. In my mind, to violate someone like that, that violently, I think there is no way a person who has the qualities Jack is “supposed” to have would ever do that. It was so out of character. And maybe the kids should have gone with the family in London.

    Oh god, when Jack touched Grey’s scars and his reaction comes across in the pages as a whimper of anguish… I have nothing to write because I am bereft and can’t convey my hatred for that moment. But we got to feel Jack’s intense emotions when he was scared for HIS OWN well-being, that was portrayed loudly.

    Maybe it was the inability of the writer to adequately convey the deep remorse that I believe needed to happen in order for me to keep some respect for Greyson, Jack’s friends, and Lisa (Jack was lost to me, but it was losing Grey that killed me the most while reading), that causes this reaction for me. But the ending was so unsatisfying.I sat at dinner tonight and told my husband that I couldn’t stop reading because I wanted to see if and how the author could bring this novel back from that, and she just couldn’t for me. It sucks so bad too, because I was really hoping she could. I have seen redemption done well, just read Special Forces by Aleksandr Voinov (have you read it, Lisa?).

    Your review was great, by the way!!!!!!!!

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  6. Hi Nicole,

    Thanks for stopping by. I can’t tell you how much I love that you become as involved in your reading and the lives of the characters as I do. :)

    It’s been months since I read this book and let me tell you, I still think about it from time to time. I must say I have to give Lichen Craig the proper respect for writing a book that has resounded so deeply with me, and for so long.

    There was a point in the rape scene where Jack could’ve gone just far enough to anger me but still be redeemable. There was a point of no return in that scene, as well, and not only did Jack cross that point, but he left it little more than a speck of dust in his rear view mirror because he crossed the line from human to monster in my mind and once that line was crossed, there was no going back.

    There was so much attention afforded to every detail of the brutality and heinousness of Jack’s crime, so much attention paid to the slightest of details of Grey’s suffering and recovery–but I just don’t think there was nearly enough detail offered to try and help me understand and come to terms with Jack and what he did. Being drunk wasn’t enough for me to excuse his actions, nor was his emotional torment enough to redeem him in my eyes.

    I wanted to see his life stripped bare of everything that ever was important to him. I wanted him humiliated, I wanted him to lose everything that had made him who he was, and wanted him to start over and rebuild himself from rock bottom, to be forced to make himself into someone different so I could attempt to separate him from the man he was when he was violating the man he supposedly loved. Then I wanted him to do it all over again until he’d suffered as much as Greyson.

    You did a fantastic job in this paragraph:

    “Oh god, when Jack touched Grey’s scars and his reaction comes across in the pages as a whimper of anguish… I have nothing to write because I am bereft and can’t convey my hatred for that moment. But we got to feel Jack’s intense emotions when he was scared for HIS OWN well-being, that was portrayed loudly.

    of summing up the measure of Jack’s character and integrity, and it was sorely lacking.

    I think the bottom line for me is that his crime was just so entirely vicious that there’s nothing he could’ve done to overcome my feelings for him.

    Like

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