Friday, April 2, 2010

Everyone's a Critic

By Russel D McLean

Those of you who don’t know, as well as writing short stories, when I started out in the crime fiction world, I also did a lot of reviews. I still do, although my style of reviewing is very particular and rather detailed, so I tend not to go as fast as I did in the days before my own deadlines.

But reviews are funny things. When I first started out, I was very kind. I swiftly realised that even when you try to be nice, you still get in trouble. Like the author who wrote what was probably one of the most clichéd and appalling serial killer books I ever read. Who I was very kind to in the review (this was when I was starting out) all things considered, but took me to task because I said that her serial killer was no Hannibal Lecter. “He’s not supposed to be – he’s Ted Bundy!” came the outraged reply along with a piece about how some reviewers just “don’t get it”. Just as well I never put in the parts about the clunky dialogue, the unbelievable sentence construction and the horrendously clichéd plot. From any angle, these were problems with the work, but back then I was too young and timid to acknowledge that I was probably right on these matters.

Actually, this experience taught me to be more honest in my reviews, to find an approach that felt natural for me and to hell with people’s egos.

I approached the idea from a slightly academic standpoint. What I was taught during my postgrad in philosophy about reviewing was this: try and understand what a work is trying to do, and then argue whether it is successful.

It’s a maxim that informs all my reviewing. I have my personal tastes, but what I try to do is remain objective. I try to figure out what the author was trying to do and work from there, give over my honest reaction as a reader who wanted to engage with the text, to lose themselves in the author’s world.

A successful approach?

I like to think so. Of course, sometimes it gets me in trouble. A few people pulled me aside for a review I once gave that said the author was a fine writer but came unstuck with a frankly unbelievable conclusion to what had been a very grounded tale up until the implausible third act. I said, “But I fully admitted in the review that the book was well written, and the characters developed, but this ending just felt so out of left field and unlikely that it left a slightly strange aftertaste; I didn't believe it because of the set up that preceeded.”. But, no, I was being critical. And this, for some folks any criticism is a no-no.*

The truth is that these days I will rarely review a book I hated. Just because there’s no point. I will criticise novels, of course. I know – especially after that early experience – that trying to be relentlessly positive isn’t my bag. And I think if you wear your heart on your sleeve, readers - and its for readers that reviewers review, not neccasarily the authors - react to that, and know when to take your word and when they'll probably disagree with you. I have been emailed by a few authors thanking me for an “honest appraisal” of their work, and its true; if there are faults, I will point them out, but I try to remain balanced while doing so. The worst thing a reviewer can do is be spiteful. Yes, you can say a book is bad, but only if you can come up with genuine reasons why. One of the trends I hate in certain revioewing circles is the self-congratulatory put-down that is intended to show the reviewer's wit rather than honestly appraise the novel.

A couple years back a reviewer friend of mine got into trouble for doing a semi-negative review of a book everyone loved. Some nasty things were said over the review which was – while I didn’t agree with it – a valid review. It was not nasty for the sake of it, and every time a negative point was made it was backed up with examples and readings of said examples. Again, I didn’t agree, but I could understand the other reviewer’s point of view. But then, maybe you have to be or have been a reviewer to understand that. I am amazed by how many reviewers, at least in my circles, email each other asking, "Am I being harsh?"

Here’s the thing; if we can’t, as writers, take professional - or even semi-professional - criticism, how the hell are we going to deal with those readers who don’t like our work? The ones who post those incredible one star reviews on Amazon? Who shout from the rooftops (and the blogs) their insane unformed opinions? Or even the professional reviewers who are genuinely unhinged?** God forbid, how will we deal with editors, as in the ones who do their job?

Criticism is a necessary part of the artistic process, of the continuing conversation between artist and observer, writer and reader. It is not always going to be pleasant. But it should be informed, civil and freed from the ego of the reviewer. I am, of course, talking ideals here, and even I probably don’t always meet them, but I try my best and that is all we ask of any reviewer. That they react honestly to a text.

And, hey, if you do get a few stinky reviews, laugh it up. Brad Meltzer's clearly got the hang of dealing with his critics:

*I review for at least one market who asks for positive reviews, but my arrangement there is that any book I can’t be positive about, I don’t review. Its simple as that. I won’t lie just to increase book sales. And in fact, I believe that lack of honesty in some reviews is what leads to jaded readers.

**Like a certain reviewer who has taken on 2 members of DSD and taken swipes at them in the most ill-informed and idiotic manner fuelled by genre prejudices and personal hang-ups.


Scott D. Parker said...

As a survivor of graduate school in history, I learned to do a book a week and review it. Brutal schedule, but it taught me how to be objective and academic. I use those qualities now.

I review a lot of books I like, mostly because I bought them. Now, I'm also getting books from review sites and that's a mixed bag since I may never have known the author/book before. Sometimes, it's a pleasant surprise. Other times, not so much.

If grad school taught me anything, it's being able to take criticism. And to have thick skin. If a review is critical in the drafting state, it's trying to make the finished item better. If a review is critical on the finished product, it's trying to do what you said: here's what the author was trying to do and let me tell you if he succeeded. And, frankly, it's buying advice. Books can be expensive and I'll decide to go retail or library based on well-thought-out reviews. I try to do the same thing. I thoroughly enjoy it. Hope that comes across, too.

Dana King said...

"try and understand what a work is trying to do, and then argue whether it is successful."

Great advice; I'm going to make note of it every time I do a review.

I try never to be gratuitously snarky, though I will bend that rule a bit when a mage-bestselling author has written a piece of serious tripe. Lesser known authors get more circumspect reviews, and I never criticize unless I can provide evidence. I also like to provide evidence for praise.

On occasion, I won't like a book because it's not my cup of tea, and I'll say something like, "If you like thrillers with triple digit body counts and a fir fight in every chapter, add one star to this review."

Sandra Ruttan said...

What I hold to is, it's professional, not personal. At least, that's how it should be. If a reviewer says the author is a lazy bitch with no fashion sense, the author may have a right to be offended - they're supposed to be critiquing the book. But if the reviewer says the character development wasn't convincing and the plot didn't hold together, and here's why... then that's their opinion, backed up with the substance of the book. And that's professional.

I think the real issue is that we want to convey this image of the crime fiction community. That we're all buddy-buddy and everyone is just wonderful. 99% of the people in the community are the nicest people on the planet. Sounds good, but even if two people are really nice people, they still might have personality clashes. You can meet really nice people and still not become their best friend. You just don't click that way.

But the notion that we're all best buds runs right into the issue of reviews, because I think this is why people tend to take them personally.

When I have my critic hat on, I write reviews for readers, not authors. As an author, if you obsess over everything anyone says about your books, you'll go insane. I view it like advice on American Idol - take what seems to make sense as constructive criticism within the context of what you're trying to do, and forget about the rest. If you try to write the book that will make everyone happy, you'll never succeed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

After one bad experience, reviewing a book someone asked me to review, I won't do it again. Because I had agreed to do it, I felt like I had to be more positive than I was. So I felt like one of those radio reviewers you see in movie ads, bought and paid for. But times are too hard to knock writers so I mostly stay away from talking about current fare unless (like in the case of LET IT RIDE) I really like both book and author.

Jay Stringer said...

Great piece Russel.

If all internet critics approached it in the same frame of mind as you, things would be looking a lot better.

I found that i didn't really enjoy my stab at being a regular critic, so now i only do it if i find a book i really want to tell people about.

Kent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kent said...

I was told early on that a writer should never answer their critics, and I think that's a fairly wise and righteous thing.

Every time I see a writer pitch a hissy fit over a bad review, I put that crybaby on the pay no mind list.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I've been reviewed a lot as a performer...and am waiting for the reviews as an author. Reviews are always a tricky thing because it often comes down to personal taste. I think that readers understand that. I will often pick up a book that got a terrible review by a certain reviewer knowing that the reviewer and I almost never agree. Reviewers can only do their best to be honest. Ultimately, the reader is the judge as to whether they are right or wrong. (remind me of this when I get a bad review...please?)

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