Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Criticism

Here's my dark secret: I like reading book reviews. The snarkier the better. In fact, I prefer it when the reviewer just rips the book a new one, decimating every single plot point and tearing the characters apart in an inky massacre.

But...uh...I don't like reading those sorts of reviews if they're about my book.

When I'm feeling really bad about my writing, or I've lost confidence in myself, or if the word-well has just run dry, I log onto GoodReads. I shield my eyes of any reviews of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (good or bad), and I look up my absolute favorite books, and read the negative reviews of them. It reminds me that all writing is subjective, and that not everyone will like every book.

But if I'm feeling really bad, I'll look up the books I don't like, and I will read the snarkiest, meanest reviews of them, and in my head, I get my snark on, too. It still reminds me that writing is subjective--but it also reminds me that I care about quality. I think of the things I value in writing, and I take comfort in the fact that others value that, too, and call other writers on those issues.

And also? It reminds me that people do pick apart books for entirely valid reasons. It reminds me that when someone reads my books, they may be doing it with an eye to poke holes in the plot, dig into the characters with a sharp knife, rip apart my words.

There's a problem with the idea that just because you wrote a book, it's good enough to publish. There's also a problem with the idea that just because a book is published, it's good. Last night, I was up until 3:30 am writing out notes for my last-chance changes to A MILLION SUNS. I'll be honest: there came a point where I was just staring at the page, debating whether or not I really needed the comma to set off the prepositional phrase, or if it was fine without.

So I read a review of a book--a truly vicious, nasty, snarky review, and it tore apart the text word by word. And it reminded me: I'm not a special snowflake. People can--and will--do that to my book, too. So I better make it the best I possibly can.

I kept the comma in.


Jodi Meadows said...

I was going to ask what you did with the comma. Glad you kept it. O_O

Avery Marsh said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm a new writer, and as much as I want to get published, I also dread putting my work out there for other people to see/judge/chew up and spit out. But you have such a great outlook.

Awhile back I was googling something I don't remember and came across a message board with a penchant for slamming JK Rowling. They tore her to pieces from everything to her technical skills to her originality. And I realized... anyone can find anything wrong with anything if they look hard enough.

But I hope to get to the point one day where I can look at reviewers as distant critique 'partners' that inspire me to better my work.

Kate @ Ex Libris said...

As a reader/reviewer with no plans on becoming a writer, I really try not to be too snarky, but it's hard, sometimes. I remember I read a terrible fantasy book once and my comment was "If Tolkien had an untalented, 13 year old sister, she would have written this book." Reading that still makes me laugh, but I went back and erased the comment because I started to feel like it was too mean. A part of me feels that maybe I don't have a right to be critical since I have no talent for writing fiction, myself, but I think that art has always been pulled apart and digested through criticism.

I have always wondered if authors read reviews and what kind of reviews they enjoy reading....

The Wagner Family said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bridgette Wagner said...

That is a *fantastic* idea to read bad reviews on goodreads!! Lately I have had a hard time with liking what I write and constantly keep putting myself down. Thank you for reminding me (and other writers on here) that everything IS subjective. No matter what you write, someone WILL find something negative to say about it. On that note, can't wait to read my really bad reviews!

Gina Ciocca said...

How funny, I blogged about subjectivity today, too. As someone who is unpublished and getting rejection letters in droves, I'm always so discouraged when I read a book I know is lacking. Worse is that I'm expected to hold my tongue, because negative reviews coming from writers are frowned upon. So, like you, I snark in silence.

Great post!

Mel Chesley said...

You know, this is what sets you apart from the people out there who rush things. Not everyone can write and those who cannot write and end up self publishing their book need to take a good hard look at what they've done.
I am all about quality. At one point in my life I thought, "I have an awesome story!" so I wrote it down and put it up on Writingdotcom to see what people thought.
I got a lot of people telling me it was good... but this is what was wrong with it and proceeded to rip it to shreds.
I was devastated. I thought I was a good writer. Instead of giving up, (because I was told it was good, just revise and edit, don't give up!) I did what they suggested and then continued to learn as much as I could.
If I can't produce a good, quality book and have it published, then there is no place for me in this industry. I know what I like to read and it certainly isn't something that wasn't taken care of and polished to perfection in the first place.
Excellent post and kudos to you for taking pride in what you do and offering up the best quality you can!

Kristine Asselin said...

I guess it's sort of good to know that even the best get down sometimes. Not that I want you to be down, Beth. But we all doubt ourselves sometimes--just have to pick up and keep moving. Perseverance seems to be the theme of the day (see both Jenn Laughran's and Scott Eagen's blogs today)

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Great post!

I remember when I first started writing, I believed that good writing was good writing...something everyone could aspire to and recognize.

Writing is SO not that way. That line in the agent form rejection letter that "publishing is subjective" may annoy writers, but truer words about writing have never been written.

Tere Kirkland said...

Yes! The comma stays in the picture! ;)

Reviews are the one part of being published that I am NOT looking forward to. But I can see how reading criticism of other work might help you to be more critical of your own. That's why I used to crit so many queries while writing my own. I needed to apply my analytical, critical thinking skills to someone else's work before I could apply it to mine.

Great post!

Anni said...

I think it's much easier to find the negative parts of a book/movie/etc than the good parts. I think, as a writer, that people who make their name just ripping up other peoples' products aren't really giving honest reviews, unless they are ONLY viewing the crappiest of the crap. It's easy to be snarky and mean about something and have it entertaining. But it takes much more to write about something that you think is good without it being boring.

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm always for leaving extra commas.

There's always something to critique about any book. A character isn't flushed out, I might have known about a plot twist before I was supposed to, and so on. When I write reviews, I try to keep the author and the reader of the review in the back of my mind. I don't want to be mean to the author, but I don't want to mislead the reader.

I shudder to know how I'll take it when it's my turn one day. Maybe I'll try your method and read some snark that isn't about my book. It IS subjective.

Anonymous said...

And I thought I was the only one who really enjoyed reading reviews that tore apart my favourite books! It's good to know I'm not alone.

NeuroHormone said...

You're crazy but I love you. =D
And I love your words. "special snowflake"

linda said...

Sigh, I have to admit that reading snarky/negative reviews is a guilty pleasure of mine, too. For both books I did and didn't enjoy. It's so interesting, and you're right that it's a great reminder that reading is entirely subjective. And it helps me think about what I want to avoid in my own writing, even if I have no control over how it's perceived by readers. Thanks for the great post!

Anonymous said...

I love this post and it made me giggle out loud, because I do the same.

I've even written one-star reviews of my own (unpublished) books, just to take off the sting. I mean, uh, to gain perspective and potentially fix things!

I may be overthinking things here, but I analyze the patterns in reviews. The books that do well tend to get wildly varying reviews--five-stars and one-stars. Love or hate. The books that get the equivalent of polite applause (three or four stars across the board) hardly get me excited at all.

Who wants to read a book nobody hates? :-)

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend reading negative reviews in order to become a better writer. Any published author should know that the process of evolving is never finished. Especially if you're a YA author.

But if you're intent on admitting your complacency to pretend and remain ignorant of your flaws, then go ahead. You're not in this for the art, I see.