So…I’ve been writing reviews and critiques for a long time now.
Back in 2005 or 2006, I started an account on Shelfari, and wrote a short review of every book that I read. Hundreds of short reviews, most of them trying to look at the book from a writer’s perspective: what could I gain from it? Some of the more articulate and insightful reviews now survive as blog posts here on my site, while others are…best left there on Shelfari, buried beneath hundreds of other short postings and comments.
I learned a lot from writing those reviews, no matter how dreadful some of them were. I learned that every book has an author, and that every author is a real person, and that every Real Person Author is probably the same as me: they read their reviews, and they care about what readers think. On the positive side, I was actually contacted by Brad Listi (Attention. Deficit. Disorder., and founder of The Nervous Breakdown), who loved my review of his book, and who thanked me for a thoughtful examination of the contents. At the time, that was the closest I’d ever come to a “celebrity encounter” with a real author (not counting my professors). On the negative side, though, I wrote a pretty scathing review of a book called Nylund the Sarcographer, by Joyelle McSweeney; it’s a book I still dislike and wouldn’t recommend, but it’s a small-press offering by an obscure poet, so did I really need to write something that so loudly trumpeted how terrible I thought the book was? Well. When I recently checked my old book review, I noticed that there were a grand total of four (4) people who have the book on their shelves, and one other review: this one a single sentence, generic, and much kinder, likely the review of one of the author’s friends. And someone had marked my review (which was extremely specific about the book’s failings) as “not helpful.” Oh no, I thought. The author definitely read this review. The author definitely thinks I’m a gigantic a-hole, maybe even marked the “not helpful” button herself.
Since 2007 or so, I’ve also been writing critiques for my Creative Writing students’ poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. In a single “Introduction to Creative Writing” course, I will write 75 highly analytical and personal 1-2 page critiques, one for each student for each genre in which they write. In a fiction or nonfiction workshop class, the workload is more reasonable: a detailed 2-page critique for each author’s short story. In every single critique, I am forced to consider the audience: I am not writing to other readers and telling them whether they should check this book out, but instead writing to the author him/herself to tell them what is working in their manuscript, and what ideas need further attention. The result is predictable: half of the students love me, and love the rigor with which I attend to their manuscripts; the other half hate me, and think that I’m attacking them, and (on some occasions) refuse to speak to me, or refuse to revise (the “I don’t care what you have to say! I’m a genius!” defense mechanism), or call me “harsh” and “unreasonable” in their evaluations, or cry (literally), or even begin to defend sloppy writing (“Come on, Mr. Holic. A few typos don’t really matter.”).
In any case, I’ve written thousands of reviews and critiques in the last decade of my life, some of which were appreciated, and many of which were not appreciated. (I even had a student who bragged that he had not read my comments.)
And now I’m writing a book review/ reading essay series called “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. I try to focus on small-press books in the column, but really, I write about whatever I happen to be reading, and discuss how my own reading habits are changing as a result of having a baby. The latest installment is here, and focuses upon Jess Stoner’s mixed-media/ hybrid novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This.
And what do you know? Jess Stoner read the essay, loved the discussion (and the criticisms), and made a really awesome post on her tumblr account. This was a real first for me, to have an author so grateful for the review I gave. Maybe I feel like the last seven years of reviews and critiques have actually been building me into a solid, honest-to-God book critic.
It makes me feel even better to contrast the above with the following exchange between author Patrick Somerville and The New York Times book review. The article is a must-read. Apparently, the book critic completely misread the novel, and not in an excusable way (i.e. not due to the fault of the author’s own poor/ confusing writing); the critic attributed the events of the entire first chapter to the wrong character, thus altering and muddying the book’s story and structure, and causing everything to collapse. Corrections were issued, but what does a correction matter to an author whose book has now been given a poor review that cannot be taken back? The book critic can’t re-read and re-judge the book, after all.
There is a similar responsibility in writing book reviews and student critiques, I think. To say something misguided in a student critique would be (potentially) destructive; it might even mean that you’re teaching the wrong principles, setting the student down a path where they think that 2+2=12. You’re writing directly to an author, and you don’t take on that task lightly. With a book review, the audience is obviously different, but maybe the responsibility is the same; maybe the critic should keep the author in mind…the main responsibility is to the reader, certainly, but just as good reviews can herald the arrival of new talent, bad reviews can sink careers before they even get started. A bad review might not matter for Stephen King, but for me? No, the author isn’t the primary audience, but if the critic remembers that the author is an audience, maybe it’s easier to remember the responsibility of writing a fair and critical review.
On the flip side, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing authors write things like “Thanks for the review!” on one another’s facebook walls, and I’ve become accustomed to seeing overwhelmingly positive reviews published throughout the small-press world. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. “Croney Critiques.” This is what happens when the critic makes the author into the primary audience for the review, and now we’re dealing with something that’s irresponsible for readers. Maybe it’s even irresponsible to the book’s author.
In my own writing, I strive to be as honest as possible. If I don’t give you honesty, then what the hell am I giving you? We’re both wasting our time. But honesty isn’t an excuse for hurtful or hateful commentary, either.
In any case, check out “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. Critiques are always welcome!