Criticism and Books

I got my first rant-comment on the reviews part of the blog yesterday. Whooo! The person was taking me to task for daring to criticize a particular book. (It’s one of only three books, I believe, out of 400+, that I’ve ever given a rating of one out of five.)

There are a couple of interesting things about this. One is that I remember reading a discussion on the Amazon review boards about how any review daring to say negative things about a book–particularly a work of fiction or a book about a controversial subject–immediately garnered a bunch of “not helpful” votes, as well as, often as not, hate mail. So I went into this thing expecting this.

The other is that the person’s comment was far more vitriolic and personally attacking than anything I had said about the book. So by their own standards of judgment… well, I guess they must not think very highly of themselves. But hey, they’re entitled to think what they want about my review, just as I can think what I want about a book.

The person’s thesis was that I was a horrid, jealous person who took pleasure in dumping all over other writers’ work because I didn’t have any talent of my own. I was kind of surprised to find that this really didn’t bother me at this point. I guess I’ve gotten to the point where I have enough confidence in my own ability that my self-image isn’t going to be damaged by a ranting comment, which is nice.

I’ve written only three reviews, I believe, that completely rip into books. By and large the majority of my reviews have ratings of 4 and 5 out of 5, which some say means I’m too soft on the books I read. I’m always delighted to share the news when I’ve found a truly wonderful author–such as Anne Bishop, Patricia McKillip, or Garth Nix–because I’m happy to admit that I would love to have a tenth of their gorgeous talent.

One of my better articles on writing, I believe, is criticism and learning to write. You see, most people take a very extreme view of criticism regarding creative work. Either they believe that it’s just horrid stuff (as this person apparently does) at any point, or they believe it’s appropriate to tear something apart at any stage so as to help the writer improve.

Instead, the point I made in that article is that criticism is an evolutionary thing. When you first conceive of and develop an idea, you need to shield it from criticism so that you can develop it without feeling threatened. As it grows into an actual work you gradually need to introduce constructive forms of criticism, starting with broad brushstrokes (“are there any major plot holes?”) and eventually, just before you consider the work finished, ending with the tiniest of details (spelling, grammar, punctuation).

Finally, once you publish a work and put it out in the public eye, whether by publishing formally or by putting something up on a website, you’re accepting that people can say what they like about your work. More than that, you have to understand that with the exceedingly wide variety of opinions out there, someone somewhere will inevitably dislike your work and think that it sucks, no matter how many people like it.

Different writers handle this in different ways. Some are very gracious and polite; I’ve received emails from writers expressing disappointment that I didn’t like their books more, but thanking me for a fair review. I’m always impressed with these writers’ professionalism and happy to read more of their work simply because someone who approaches their work that professionally is probably always learning and always willing to listen to the possibility that they might have room to improve.

Some writers become very abusive and determined to make you look bad; I’ve received responses from writers that took me to task for small problems I had with their work, despite the fact that overall I loved their work and recommended it to others. The silly part of this is that they just make themselves look petty and end up losing readers who become fed up with their antics, even if those readers like their work.

Other writers know that they can’t really handle the feedback and so choose not to read any reviews. This may not be an optimal response, but if you know you have trouble handling negative feedback then it’s certainly a legitimate one.

Once a work is out in the public eye, people have the right to view it as they wish. I’m honest about how I see a work, and I’m not going to be dishonest in order to “only say something nice.” I know that not everyone will agree with that, but I’m okay with that. As far as I’m concerned, the important part is that I try to provide enough information about what I liked, what I didn’t like, and why, including my personal biases, that readers can make their own decisions as to whether they’d like or dislike something I’ve reviewed.

Posted in News & Musings, Writing

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