Three years ago, I reviewed the animated film Coraline for the weekly newspaper I used to run. I didn’t review a lot of movies, but I was a big fan of Neil Gaiman, who wrote the book on which it was based. So I went to the preview screening, watched the movie, and spent the entire next week digesting it.
As often happened back then, I didn’t get around to writing the review until late in the afternoon of the day the paper was going to press. My workload was pretty insane in those days, especially on Thursdays. I did double-duty as both Editor-in-Chief and Arts and Entertainment Editor, which meant I planned, assigned and edited our A&E section (which could include something as menial and time-consuming as writing event listings, if an intern didn’t show up) in addition to steering the ship safely toward publication. We had a very small editorial staff—three editors, including myself; a part-time copy editor; and a handful (and I mean less than five) of college interns. I also wrote a Letter-From-the-Editor column each week, which despite my best efforts I never even started writing until late in the afternoon on (you guessed it) Thursday.
So we’ve established that Thursdays were a blur, filled with intense bursts of adrenaline and long periods of drudgery. And as the captain of the editorial part of the ship, it was my duty to read every single page, some of them over and over and over again. And it so happened that I cranked out my column, rushed through a short (less than 250 words) Coraline review, and dove back into a towering pile of pages that needed proofing before they could be sent on their merry way. Meticulously reading every word of every story, keeping track of all sorts of tiny details: page numbers. Phone numbers and website addresses. Photo captions and credits. Headlines and widows and orphans and on and on. And saving my own writing—my column and my review—for last, well past the time most everyone else had gone home.
You can see where this is going. My eyes glazed over my own stuff, and an error made it through. I’d generally liked Coraline, although to me it felt an awful lot like a Tim Burton movie—which wasn’t surprising, given that the director, Henry Selick, had directed The Nightmare Before Christmas (which bore the name of Burton, its producer and co-writer, in the title) and James and the Giant Peach (on which Burton also served as a producer).
What was surprising to many readers (including myself, a couple of days later) was the review itself. Where I’d simply meant to state that Coraline adhered to themes and an aesthetic often found in Burton’s work, I sloppily and unintentionally ended up implying that Burton had played some role in the creation of the film.
Not my finest moment. The following Monday wasn’t my best day, either, as I opened my inbox to a stream of emails pointing out the screw-up. But the worst part was that Gaiman himself had stumbled across the review, and posted it on Twitter, where he shook his head and dismissed me as a “twerp.” And I received a few more derisive tweets as the day wore on, thanks to one Gaiman acolyte who went to the trouble of hunting down my Twitter handle and posting it on the writer’s feed so that all his million-plus followers would know exactly whom to eviscerate.
I quickly tweeted an apology and a clarification to Gaiman himself, who graciously accepted, apologized in turn for his fans, and even noted that the point I’d tried to make—that Selick’s finished product bore a more than passing resemblance to the films of his former collaborator—had also shown up in the New York Times.
After that, I considered the matter more or less settled, despite the sour wrenching in my stomach that didn’t abate for another week. The earth kept rotating. People lived and loved and died. Life went on.
And then, today, I opened up a browser, called up Google, and typed my full name into the little bar at the center of the page and hit the SEARCH button. And there, five links down—below my Twitter feed, a link to this site, my Facebook profile and a random page from my old Shaking Through website—were six little words that brought it all back: Kevin Forest Moreau is a Twerp.
The post itself took about as much thought and time as the title. The whole thing weighs in at 187 words, and roughly half of those are mine. The post itself isn’t even that harsh, as online criticism goes. Obviously, the author, a gentleman identified only as “Brendoman,” dashed off his thoughts on the subject, hit “Update,” and promptly moved on to contemplating something else. No one commented on his post, and I’m sure he forgot all about it.
I’d like to do the same. But there it is, the fifth thing that comes up when you type my name into the world’s most popular search engine. I don’t even want to think about the implications of the fact that it pops up so high in a Kevin Forest Moreau-related search. It’s enough to know that it’s there, a tiny but indelible black mark on a hard-won reputation.
I don’t bear Brendoman any ill will, and I don’t hold a grudge against Gaiman, either. I know that if I ever had the good fortune to have a book turned into a movie, and the movie was halfway decent and stood to make me some money, I’d be defending it against any and all comers. (Although honesty compels me to admit that I haven’t been able to read anything of his since—even Sandman, which I love—and I’ve kept Coraline out of my Netflix queue ever since, despite my wife’s occasional “I’d like to see that.”)
Too few of us really stop to think of the power of our words. That goes for me, as well. I’ve made a substantial part of my living as a critic over the years, and I rarely stopped to think about how the subject of a negative review would feel if they happened to read it, even though I knew full well that many artists have long memories and thin skins.
(I remember interviewing a musician with a popular New Orleans funk band who pointedly said, “Yeah, I remember you didn’t care too much for our last album,” and an independent comic-book creator who lashed out at me for a review I’d posted on Shaking Through. And then there was the time I ran into all four members of a young pop-rock group one Sunday night coming out of a Queensryche show at the House of Blues 10 or 11 years back, exchanging pleasantries as a trickle of sweat ran down the back of my neck, because I knew the local weekly was being delivered all over town at that very minute, bearing a snarky review of their new album.)
The point is, in this fire-and-forget world of Facebook posts and Internet commentary, it’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that a derogatory comment tapped out in the heat of the moment can live forever, nestled right at the top of one’s online reckoning. We’d all be better off if we stopped to consider that once in a while.
Especially the subhuman doodoo-head who posted my Twitter address on Neil Gaiman’s page for everyone to see.