A novelist friend of mine published three books with a small press publishing company. She’s not eating Kobe beef on the royalties but her books sold well enough to pay off her advances and attract the attention of some local professional critics, i.e. those who get paid to offer their opinion, as compared to the rest of us.
The reviews were generally positive. Until one came along that wasn’t.
Justifiably, my friend was upset. By the time a novel is ready for general consumption, countless hours of time and effort have gone into making it as good as an author feels it can be. A negative review devalues all that hard work in a matter of minutes. Of course, anyone who puts himself out there—politicians, journalists, artists, musicians, writers—opens himself up to criticism. If he can’t figure out how to accept and manage the two commandments (rejection and negative reviews), he might as well trade in the keyboard for a fishing rod.
The thing about reviews is, they are so arbitrary. The often vary widely. Professional movie critics for instance, who are supposed to put their biases aside, assigned Aquaman a 65% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, proving there are all kinds of personal factors influencing each critics choices, decisions and opinions…after all, they all saw the same film yet, a full two thirds of them enjoyed a movie the other third did not.
Even when critics agree, audiences often disagree. Consider this headline: “Bohemian Rhapsody is the worst reviewed Golden Globe Winner in 33 Years.” Obviously, the critics disliked it. Audiences gave it a score of 92%.
What about The Last Jedi? I challenge you to find three people who agree on whether that was a movie worthy of the Star Wars franchise. Plot holes big enough to fly a star destroyer through, unnecessary social commentary, incomprehensible scenes (the milking thing), are offset by epic battles, cool special effects and the Millennium Falcon, because there’s never a bad time for the Falcon. I still can’t decide if I liked the film or not. I’m leaning toward the audience’s 45% rather than the pro’s 91%.
Literary reviews are no different. There are professional critics as well as arm-chair critics. It seems to me most professional reviews are written by people who love to show off their superior understanding of the human condition and their knowledge of obscure words. They enjoy knowing their “wisdom” will be printed in overly impressed-with-themselves newspapers such as the Globe and Mail. These reviews are most often done on novels considered to be important; a professional would not deign to review genre fiction.
In contrast, reviews on Goodreads, for example, are written by everyday readers. Often, they’re nothing more than plot summaries or comparisons, rather than actual reviews. Sometimes they lack proper punctuation, spelling and coherence. I find this is puzzling, given these “reviews” are written by people who enjoy reading and should therefore have a strong grasp of the language. Recently, in a small group of people, most of whom I didn’t know, I was introduced to one such arm-chair critic who puzzled me to the point of irritation.
He said, “You’re the author.”
That freaked me out a little bit, but I nodded and said, “Yes, that’s me.”
He said, “I read the beginning and the end of one of your books.”
“The beginning and end? Not the middle?”
“No. Not the middle.” He shook his head. “If I may offer some constructive criticism…”
At that point, I stopped listening to the clown, for two reasons, neither of which had to do with my unwillingness to hear a negative review.
No. I stopped listening for a technical reason and a personal reason.
First, when a finished novel is sitting on a shelf, the time for constructive criticism has long since past. I have several extremely generous friends, people I trust and whom I encourage to give me as much constructive criticism as possible. This happens when the book is nothing but a stack of paper. I want to hear everything they have to say, especially if it’s negative. Positive feedback gives a person a nice (transitory) warm-fuzzy but it does nothing to improve an MS. I don’t care if my beta readers enjoy the book, although I hope they do. I want them to get technical. I need them to draw my attention to everything that doesn’t make sense, anything they take issue with, anything they don’t understand. I want them to suggest ideas they think would “work” better. Once they’ve done that, and I’ve considered all their notes and made all the corrections, the time for constructive criticism is over. Anything after that is white noise.
Second, if a person hasn’t read the book, as this nut-bar freely admitted, he can’t critique, compliment or otherwise comment on the book’s contents and then describe his statements as constructive criticism. As well as disbelieving, I was irritated... This individual couldn’t be bothered to read the book but somehow thought it appropriate (and thought I might appreciate), his uninformed and ignorant opinion? Give me a fucking break. Read the book from start to finish. Then, tell me what you think, if you must. I might pay attention although, probably not because at that point, the book is what it is and the negativity won’t improve my life in any way.
My novelist friend emailed me the review that so upset her. It was neither negative nor positive. It was vanilla ice-cream without sprinkles or caramel sauce. It was beige paint. The one thing that was completely obvious to me, and should have made the review easy for my friend to dismiss, was the so-called professional who wrote it clearly hadn't read the entire novel. Without effort, I pinpointed the moment when she stopped reading and began writing her review. I immediately dismissed the review as more white noise and suggested my friend do the same.
People believe they are showing interest and being supportive when they make statements such as, “I started your book but I haven’t finished it yet…” (Voice fades to nothing). It’s not ideal when that happens—we writers can be an insecure bunch. We hear a remark like that and think,
My book drags!
Holy shit, I can’t write.
I’m a pathetic failure.
Why do I even bother trying?
I’m going to find a very tall bridge.
It’s not a problem either—when our rational mind takes over, we remember there are multiple reasons why a person might start something (anything), and not finish it.
On the other hand, professionals and arm-chair critics alike, who review without actually reading the novel, are most definitely a problem. I expect (and can accept), a variety of reviews based on preferences unique to each individual; it’s not unusual, as we saw with Rotten Tomatoes. What I can’t accept is a pompous talking head offering “constructive criticism” based on his…
…actually, I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would make such dumb-fuck statement without basis.
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