Thursday, February 03, 2011

Criticism... it's tough

I did a post the other week about a book and author I was disappointed in because she happened to be a long time favorite. I made the comment that of course I wouldn’t name names, because well… no one wants to say out loud that kind of thing.
My reasons for this are simple.

1. You never know how your comments will be taken.
2. I don’t want to leave myself open for attack… the old “who are you to say…”
3. The romance community is a small one and you don’t want to make enemies.
4. And I hate to admit this… I really do… but is it because the romance community is mostly female and women by and large are more sensitive to public criticism?

I’ve read blogs on this before and I’ve always just shrugged them off, but in thinking about how reluctant I was to actually call out this author (and so many agreed that I had done the right thing) I wondered if all genre publishing is like this or specifically romance?

The truth is I would never be “mean” in my criticism. I have too much respect for authors. Even Stephanie Myers, who I have named publicly as not being a fan of her work, I still respect that millions of people love her books for their own reasons. I have my opinion – and it’s just that. An opinion. And any criticism I would point out is usually based more on a “learning” experience. I didn’t think *this* worked. I thought *this* part took me out of the story. It’s part of the dissecting process to understand what makes books successful.

Once you’re published one of the things you have to face is your books are going to be reviewed. There will be negative ones. Not maybe. Not possibly. There will be. Someone will post something on Amazon. Someone will have something to say on some review site.

Some authors choose to ignore all reviews, but then you also miss the good ones. Some laugh them off. Some are irritated. Some are deeply hurt. See my reason 1. Since I don’t know how the author takes criticism I don’t want to risk hurting someone’s feelings. There’s no point when I can avoid it.

As for 2 - “who am I to say…” I always based this on the fact that I’m not a NYT bestseller. But it makes me think – are only NYT bestsellers able to critique books? No. The truth is I’m an avid reader and have been for 30+ years. I read across genres within romance and out. I’ve taken classes on craft. I’ve read books on writing and I’ve published my own work. I’m not a chump. But even if I were – the truth is I still get an opinion. Sad but true.

Enemies – I don’t want enemies! Okay, but then it makes me think if someone makes me her enemy just because I happened to say her book didn’t work for me… what does that say about the author. If your attitude is that every person who critiques your work publicly is an enemy… well then you’re going to rack up a bunch. And truly – if you’re not listening to other people’s criticism then you’re not
growing as an author.

Which leads us to 4. Are we too sensitive? Is it a woman thing? A writer thing? Or is it completely individual? If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything. That’s like Golden Rule # 3.

But we’re talking about books for mass consumption. What if we called the authors out? What if we said – the plot fell apart. The emotion wasn’t there. There is too much exposition. All tell, no show.

These are the things new authors are told ALL the time. Send in a manuscript to a contest that critiques and the feedback is usually going to be pretty intense. Why? It’s anonymous. People feel free to say what they think.

So why can’t we say it to these “big” authors who knew all this at some point but have since forgot or just don’t care. Who does it fall to, to tap them on the shoulder and point out where the mistakes were made? The agent? The editor? Definitely not a publisher who is on a tight schedule and needs those profits. But a blog reviewer? A peer?

As a writer I’ve read reviews that said my books were horrible, stupid and that they were thrown across the room. I’ve made people’s eyes roll and have made people hate my heroes or heroines with such passion they felt compelled to write about it in a public forum. I accept all of it. The good, the bad and even the really awful.

I don’t think anyone’s ever been intentionally malicious – although I hear stories about that happening all the time. Reviewer A out to destroy Author B. But to date I have never called out anyone as being my enemy. Do I wish everything came up roses, sure. Do I question some people’s reviews – sometimes. Obviously I’m going to defend my work.

But I wonder have we all just gotten too sensitive when it comes to people in a public forum pointing out our mistakes? And if the prevailing thought is to never say anything if it isn’t nice are we putting at risk our genre by not calling out the really bad books.

What do you’all think? Do you prefer public forums to keep things positive? Do you think review sites and blogs can offer criticism without being mean or is it too fine of a line to walk?


Molly O'Keefe said...

I'm largely uninformed but didn't the cyber world just explode about this very same topic earlier this week? One author said she had a public persona and worked hard at making sure she didn't step on too many toes and she saved her outpouring of anger for the vault with specific friends - because she never knew when she might need the bridge a public criticism might burn.
People, I believe called her false.

The other author on a different subject came out as herself - no holds barred and people said they were turned off because they were offended or felt insulted.

The romance community is small and th romance cyber-community is even smaller and we're all hungry for real connections with our favorite authors - but we've got to find the line we're comfortable with in terms of how much we reveal about ourselves.

A few years ago I was pretty Anti-War, Anti-Bush and I had a link on my website for an organization that I thought was amazing. I got one email from a woman who said this changed her mind about me and I realized for me I might be anti-bush, anti-war, but my website wasn't the place for that. It's not that I'm desperate for people to like me, though I am and I don't think I'm a coward - but I just felt pretty icky putting myself out there like that...

Kwana said...

This is a great post. I think a lot of this fear and new over sharing has come with so many having easy access and a voice.

With everyone and their mother having blogs we all feel we deserve to share our opinions with the world and somehow the world needs to hear them. Also I think and some me hate me for it. This leads to a certain amount of undeserved self importance.

I mean really it's all opinions and you know the old saying right?
Everyone has one.

As a writer, reader and person who has been blogging for years I am often torn. I'm asked to review books a lot. I've made it clear that I walk a fine line. I won't have bad reviews. I won't trash other writers publicly and it's just my personal thing. Not because I'm afraid that it will happen to me one day, because I know it will, but just because it doesn't feel right me saying I'm an expert and trashing a book that others may love.

But if I do give a book my thumbs up then you know that I have read it and do really like it.

I will say I also don't want to come off as someone with malicious intent towards anyone else. It's just my way. And no I'm not sure if a man would feel this way.
I also don't think men are as connected by community as women are so there is that.

Tough call all around. I think there are some wonderful review sites that do great jobs. You can tell they work hard and take the books they review seriously. Those are where I stay. The rest I quickly weed out as folks just flapping their gums.

Maureen McGowan said...

I think we, in our community, can be too sensitive about reviews. I personally applaud romance review sites and blogs that aren't always positive and say when they don't like a book and why.
That said, I have no interest in being a book reviewer myself. I do like sharing when I discover a book I love, but I try to avoid criticizing other authors work in public for some of the reasons you mention.
I say leave the reviews to the reviewers and book bloggers and goodreads members and amazon buyers etc. That's just my personal choice.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Where in the cyber world did the blow happen? See... I only come to this website and a few others so I NEVER know what's going on.

And Kwana - I totally agree it's about finding what you're comfortable with and only doing that...

But... I will say why does a negative review have to equal "trashing".

I think there is a difference between... This didn't work for me because I felt it lacked an internal conflict.


Man this book sucked. This author had NO idea what she was doing...

But I think we've gotten so "afraid" to step out on that ledge (myself included) that we no longer see the difference.

Now instead it's like... well the cover was amazing.

Maureen McGowan said...

Stephanie, I totally agree.

And, you know, the more I think about this, I have more (personal) trouble publicly criticizing the work of people I consider peers than people who've already hit bestseller lists, etc. This might not be logical, and I admit it's based more on my own issues than any big principle. :)

Eileen said...

As an author, I mentally divide reviews. If the review appears in what I consider a professional review site (Romantic Times, Publishers Weekly, etc.), I pay attention. Someone's blog? Well, I'm happy if it's positive because I pleased a reader and pretty much skip it if it isn't positive. And I endeavor to NEVER read Amazon reviews. Maybe that's snobby. I don't care. It keeps me sane.

Molly, your comment about the politics is interesting to me. A couple of years ago, I attended a regional RWA conference. The speaker was VERY political. It just so happens that her politics and mine are very similar, but I still didn't feel that it was the right venue for that speech. I kept wondering how I would have felt if she'd espoused the opposite view. I probably would have walked out and written a letter of protest to the organizers.

Notice I'm not naming names. I'm going with the false woman. I'm not so much worried about burning bridges, but I think there's already plenty of negativity out there. I don't need to add to it.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Politics is something I ALWAYS have to stay away from becuase I always piss off everyone.

If I'm in a room of right wing conservatives - I'm going to show case the argument on the left.

If I'm in a room with radical liberals - I'm going to showcase the argument on the right.

I have this need to be so squarely in the middle. The only voice I can rally behind seems to be... Jon Stewart... who is a comedien... not a politician.

Sinead M said...

I'm with False woman as well. This is public domain, and really, at best a means to connect with other writers and perhaps also, sell some books.

Molly O'Keefe said...

So last night I got a google alert about a review of my Feb book, so I went and checked it out and it wasn't good - she didn't like the book and she thought my character behaved in a way that was unlike her character and that I had blown what could have been great - i had a little sad moment - no one likes to get bad reviews but people either like this book or they don't, there doesn't seem to be much middle ground. But then i was looking around the reviewers blog and low and behold she was a writer with a book out right now and suddenly I wasn't sad I was angry.

I'm sure like all of us she was and is a devoted reader before she's a writer and I don't believe in this it's us against them mentality between writers and reviewers but man, I thought this is why you don't bag on other writer's books. I think writers who review work at cross purposes largely.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Yep - that totally sums it up. It's the objectivity.

If we're just readers and reviewers - there is a level of objectivity to the work.

But writers who review... it's like saying... you as a writer would have done it differently.

Of course that's going to piss you off.

Eileen said...

I'm with you Molly. That seems . . . wrong. And unsisterly.

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