Friday, May 29, 2009

The Critic's Attitude

This is the follow-up to my previous post, The Author's Attitude. My last post turned out to be very long and very satisfying to write - I vented my own anger at being sniped at by authors who didn't care for my reviews, and I also explored my own insecurities when being criticized for my writing. It's easy to point out the absurdity of someone trying to contradict another's opinion. I'm not the first to comment on how writers flip out over reviews and I won't be the last.

A harder topic to discuss would be the Critic's Attitude, and the responsibility a critic has when reviewing a book, because critics have two large and seemingly impenetrable defenses against backlash - Free Speech and Free Opinion. Namely, "I have the right to write whatever I want" and "I have the right to feel whatever I want." I support these rights and believe every human being should have them, but sometimes people can be so busy slavishly clinging to the defense of these rights that they're blind to the ways these rights can also be abused.

Writing is power - both for the author who can transport the reader to a wonderland of imagination, and for the critic who can persuade, cajole, warn, and sway readers around to her way of thinking. As a certain superhero's mentor once said, "With great power, comes great responsibility." You have an immense amount of power as a critic - but while you are entitled to write whatever you please, you also have to take responsibility for what you've written and the affect it can have on other people.

There was a discussion on Katiebab's Babbling About Books page a few months ago about a reviewer who was told that publishers didn't want her to review their books anymore (and therefore didn't want to send her any more ARCs) because authors thought her reviews were insulting and unprofessional. The initial response was "a publisher's denying a critic because they write negative reviews! INJUSTICE!" but as the situation was revealed at greater length the discussion evolved into "what constitutes unprofessional?" Was this just another situation where the meaning of unprofessional was defined by an upset author who thought the critic was a big meanie for hurting their poor little literary baby? Or was this a case where the authors and publishers considered the critic's reviews - reviews that were published on an established review site (instead of of a personal blog) - unprofessional because she used exaggerated and aggressive language for comedic effect instead of focusing on strictly reviewing the work?

This was a difficult argument and one I couldn't easily pick a side for. I, for one, love using creative language in my negative reviews (I once described a terrible book as "the literary equivalent of a sack of burning cat hair"). Coming up with what to say for a negative review makes up for having to read a terrible book in the first place. My intention isn't to hurt the author, but to vent my own frustration and anger and disgust and displeasure at reading something that truly failed to engage me.

But is there a right way and a wrong way to review? While I still believe there are no "wrong" opinions, I do believe that there are wrong ways to express those opinions - ways that defeat the point of reviews in the first place. But these ways aren't as clear-cut to me as my objections to author responses - in many ways the lines are blurred, because the definition of "insulting," "unprofessional," or "threatening" varies depending on the eye of the beholder. As mentioned in my previous blog post, many authors feel threatened or insulted by reviews simply because they are negative.

I think when it comes to the responsibility of a critic, there isn't so much a list of rules to follow rather than a mantra, a motto, that a critic should bear in mind when they set out to review something. To me, that mantra is:

Sounds simple, doesn't it? I can almost hear the chorus of "duh"s.

But consider what you aren't doing, by reviewing - and only reviewing - a book (and only a book!):

Just as it's a big no-no for an author to take a review personally - you shouldn't make a review personal. Under no circumstances should you critique or make fun of an author's appearance, secondary profession, family, political affiliations, sexual preference, religion or personal life in your review. I repeat: You are reviewing a book. Everything else about the author is irrelevant. Now, that doesn't always mean that comments about what an author does outside of the book you are reading have no place in a review at all - for instance, if the novel goes into great detail about, say, horse breeding and you find out the author grew up raising horses on a ranch and you want to mention that, that doesn't sound too bad to me, because you are using that to explain the book. That you are reviewing.

You are allowed to critique and point out the bad things you think the author did with the book that you are reviewing, but anything else should be off limits. For instance, my review for Fern Michaels' Fool Me Once (I linked to it above with, uh, the "cat hair" comment) is one of the most vehement I've ever written, because I honestly believe that book is an appalling waste of wood pulp and ink. In my review, I'm very passionate and adamant about how much I hate the book - I consequently say that Fern Michaels has bad characterization skills, a poor grasp of the proper definitions of English words, and a ridiculously awful sense of pacing - as they relate to her creation of the book. That I reviewed. If you read the review, you will notice that I do not mention anything about Fern Michaels that does not relate to the book. I don't accuse her of being an obese overweight failure who lives alone with her dogs. I don't surmise that she writes her books with the blood of innocent Christian babies. I don't even accuse her of having morning breath. Because that's not my job as a reviewer.

Similarly, as a critic you have a responsibility to recognize the difference between hating a book and hating an author. In all likelihood, you haven't met these authors in person and consequently have no idea what kinds of people they are. You shouldn't hate Johanna Lindsey because she wrote a book you didn't like. However, if she runs over your grandma with her minivan, well, then I guess it's open season but that's not very likely and it won't involve your responsibilities as a reviewer.

This point ties into the conflation some critics make between hating the art and hating the artist that I mentioned above. I recently got into a discussion with a commenter on my blog over the letter grade of one of my negative(ish) reviews. The commenter insisted that I should have given the book a worse grade than I did, that I shouldn't be "afraid" to grade lower, and that as a reviewer it is my job to "punish" the author - as this commenter put it, the author "obviously" must have realized what she was doing wrong with the book, and that for her "mistake" she should be "punished for her own good" so that she can "learn her lesson."

It disturbed me that there are critics out there that hold to this idea. Just as an author sometimes needs to be reminded, "It's just a bad review, dude," as a critic you should remember, no matter how much you may have hated a book - it's just a fucking book. It wasted a few days of your time - it didn't murder your father and rape your mother. The author who wrote this book violated no governmental laws (grammatical laws? Whole different story...) and isn't subject to criminal prosecution.

Passing judgement on the author is not your job. Why? Because! You are reviewing a book. That task entails reading a book, identifying what did or didn't work for you and expressing your opinions and feelings in an articulate manner. While some authors may definitely read your negative review and take it as a literary spanking, that is not your purpose. You are not writing this review for the author. You are writing this review for yourself and your readership - the intention behind your reviews should never involve the author's reaction or feelings. This should be the case even if the review is positive, because ultimately you don't write a positive review because you want to make an author feel good or because you like an author - you write a positive review because you liked the book. Simple as that.

Continuing on that note: you, as a critic, are free to suggest that your readers buy a book you enjoyed, or refrain from buying a book you disliked. Your status as a book critic gives you the opportunity to suggest what action to take for or against a book, depending on how you reviewed it. But remember, (say it with me now!): You are reviewing a book. Anything outside that book you are reviewing is entirely, completely, and unarguably outside your perview. You are not entitled to initiate or request that actions be taken for or against the author based on your opinion of their book.

This means you should never threaten an author or encourage others to do so in your reviews. Most reasonable critics know this and believe it goes without saying, but I feel it's necessary to explain how the mistake of forgeting a book critic's basic function (Hangman! Y_ _ _re rev_e_ _ _ _ _ b_ _ k) is what eventually leads to the review that crosses a line. And even then it's less clear-cut than the faux-pas an author can make - authors or concerned readers who think they should comment or take action against a review that they believe is truly offensive and threatening might feel helpless against the seemingly unassailable walls of Free Speech and Free Opinion. But in the same vein, an author who stands up for a review they dislike - how objective are their objections to the review?

It's a thorny tangle, but ultimately I think both authors and critics, writers both, need to remind themselves of their responsibilities. In the author's case, she needs to remember that she is responsible for the books she writes - not other people's reviews or other people's feelings, so it isn't her place to try and "correct" them or to insult them for expressing an opinion that differs from her own. Similarly, the critic needs to remember that she is responsible for reviewing a book, and that she should restrict the subjects she discusses in her review to those with direct relevance to the book.

As I wrote this, I opened another window and checked out Dear Author, one of my favourite websites - and discovered they posted something similar (dang?). Feel free to go and check that out, too.


  1. Your two "Attitude" essays are excellent, AnimeJune, and I have learned my personal lessons from this one.

    I suggest another important consideration in the role that a critic must perform. The quantity of romance literature that is being published is an enormous, continual, overwhelming flood of pages. In these circumstances, a good critic should help the publishers, editors and readers be more selective and even rejecting.

    With so much to read, why waste time on novels with preposterous situations (e.g. a young woman organizes a criminal gang to spring a condemned killer from London prison in order to earn money to buy a farm in Virginia?)?

    With so much to read, why waste time on novels with gratuitously and disgustingly spoiled endings (e.g. Yours Until Dawn)?

    With so much to read, why waste time on novels that are not romantic but rather are essentially pornographic?

    Novelists who ground their novels carefully, thoughtfully and artistically in reality deserve to be read. Critics help readers find those deserving novels in the flood of mediocre and bad novels.

    Critics inform their readers not to waste their time reading shlock and failures when they instead can read the best works in the genre.

  2. You're right there - we serve people with our opinions, and people trust the critics whose taste is the most like their own.

    In my particular case, *lol*, I rather liked the book about the young woman who organizes a criminal gang to spring a (wrongly) condemned killer from a London prison, and have told people it's worth spending time on, hahaha.

    Still, not everyone trusts every critic, just because tastes differ. While the Smart Bitches are fantastic bloggers and bring up interesting news about the romance industry, I don't read too many of their recommendations because we differ on a lot of them.

  3. Vorkosigrrl2:48 PM

    Nice post, AnimeJune.

    Just for fun, one of the most memorable lines I've ever heard from a review was by the famed dramatist and critic George S. Kaufman. In reviewing a play, the actor playing the lead role was named Guido Nadzo. Kaufman's comment on his performance: "Guido Nadzo was Nadzo Guido." Gotta love it.