Thursday, May 26, 2011

Don't expect only compliments

I have the reputation of being a nice guy, at least according to some people. I also have the reputation of being a quiet guy. For me, the two often go hand in hand because I tend to live by the rule "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

This is probably still good advice for the most part, but honestly I'm finding myself more bored by it than anything else. To only compliment other writers doesn't make for very lively interactions, and, sadly, I often treat book reviews I see by other writers as meaningless.

So, I've changed my stance.

I'm being more open with my opinions about other writers and agents and editors. And I have a greater respect for my peers who act the same way. There are definitely some honest reviewers out there, and I hope they know that I appreciate them.

Last week, Man Booker Judge Carmen Callil retired from the judging panel after the prize was given to writer Philip Roth. Beyond my own opinions of whether or not I think Roth is deserving of the prize, I appreciated the story being made public because 1. I'm tired of everyone always playing nice-nice, and 2. it made me think about my own opinions of what makes good or bad writing.

We shouldn't be afraid of bad reviews. When I look at book reviews, which I tend to do more often now, I find that both good and bad reviews can get me interested in a book. With bad reviews, I often want to buy a book because I'm pretty sure I'll disagree with the reviewer. Showing me a bad review written by a bad reviewer is probably the best way to get me to read a book!

And I'm pretty sure a lot of us writers are desperately seeking honest feedback. When I did my Tiger Mother reviews some time ago, I got a lot more people requesting the harsh review over the nice one. And the reviews people gave me for my own passage made me think harder about my writing. They made me a better writer (even if I was calling them names in my head).

Being honest about our opinions also gives us more credibility. I value the words of someone who I think is honest much more than someone who is always nice. I want my own words to have that sort of weight, so I'm going to be honest when I see bad writing, and I hope I'm going to be trusted when I talk about good writing.

I worry a bit about writing this post now, just a few days before I publish my collection The Wild Grass. Will this mean that everyone gives me bad reviews, and will this keep other people from buying my book? After thinking about it, though, I realize that I'm okay with whatever happens. If people are like me, the bad reviews might get them more interested in my work. For my own development, a bad review might make me a better writer.


  1. I'm a late bloomer and started back to college in my mid 50's. I always hated the critiques I received in writing classes that said "beautifully written" etc. They didn't help me and I knew that my writing needed help. So I appreciate constructive criticism. However there are some people who are just plain mean and I have no use at all for them.

  2. Chuck, I've witnessed the just plain mean people. I don't think they are being honest either. They're just erring on the opposite side than the nice people. I hope those people suffer from bad allergies and itches they can't reach.

  3. Well, it's always easier to say something negative than it is to say something useful. I try to think less in terms of "good" and "bad" and more in terms of "works for me" and "doesn't work for me."

    Though I will say that it would be childish and unprofessional to trash the winner of a contest I'd helped judge, no matter how I felt about the winner. That makes the contest about the judges, not about the writers. Ms Callil is a doofus.

  4. I agree with Domey. I think there are quite a few people who aren't honest at all - either they always say something kind to be nice or they say something nasty just to be mean.

    You've hit it on the head though - be HONEST. You can be honest and tell someone their work needs, well, work by telling them what could make it better and pointing out the things that DO work. You don't have to just be nasty and tell someone their book sucks. Those are the criticizims I don't like. If you don't like my writing, fine. I need to know - but tell my why you don't. Tell me what needs to change or what would make you sympathetic with my MC or that I need to study grammar.

  5. But my point: I agree that we should be more honest when we talk about writing, and not always strive to just smile and be supportive no matter what we actually think. A hard truth doesn't have to be delivered in a mean spirited manner, though. I'm always amused and annoyed by reviews on Amazon where the reviewer seems to have somehow been personally insulted by the book they've read.

    I also read the 1-star reviews of books I'm interested in, because as you say, a badly-written bad review might make me want to read the book all the more.

  6. Really? I thought Callil was quite refreshing!

  7. Scott, you make an important distinction that I should have elaborated on. Yes. My Tiger Mother reviews were not what I would usually prefer to say. For me, most honest reviews will probably have a mix of both things I liked about a work and things I didn't like about a work.

    April, yes, the WHY part of a review is absolutely essential. It's pointless for me to read a review that doesn't go into detail about that.

  8. Domey, Callil may be being honest, but if she has an agenda she should find her own venue. Suppose that, after we announced the winners of the Genre Wars contest, I'd come out and quit the Lab because I didn't like the winner (by the way, I loved "Two Separate Pieces," the winning story) and I'd wanted some other story to win. That would, I think, be disrespectful to you and Michelle and to the winner and to the idea of the contest and it would be hijacking a contest I'd claimed to have respect for as well as making me a big fat liar who'd only pretended to buy into the judging process as long as I thought it would reward the people I wanted to see rewarded. Ms Callil is a petulant doofus.

  9. It's important to distinguish between a review and a critique.

    A review is for the benefit of the reader. If you say something is great and it sucks, you're not doing your job and you're being "mean" to your audience.

    But a critique is for the benefit of the writer. Often praising the things a beginner has done right can help much more than a litany of everything he's done wrong.

  10. I need to go work at another station for a bit, but I'll come back as soon as I can to respond.

  11. Scott, I think in the case of Callil this was a case of extremes. She wasn't trying to push one other writer. I think she says she would have been okay with any other writer on the short list winning. To me, it would be like you really detesting the story that both Michelle and I wanted to win. I would think that as a group, the three of us should not choose that one as the winner, and if we did I'd understand you wanting to step down as a result. It IS disrespectful, but my feeling is that at some point Callil lost respect for the process. Rather than being locked in, she made her opinion heard. I can sympathize with that. I don't think she hijacked the contest. My guess is that Roth's reputation has not been hurt, and I'd assume future awards would still be respected.

    An added bonus that's off topic is that I am paying much more attention to Roth winning now than I would have before. I'm even considering giving his work another chance.

  12. Anne, that's a very good point about a review being for the benefit of the reader. I wonder if a lot of people writing reviews keep that in mind.

  13. "at some point Callil lost respect for the process" I think she's just hacked off because Roth won and she doesn't like Roth and she wasn't able to convince the judges to vote for someone else. Which just goes with the territory when you're a judge. If I was outvoted in a contest by you and Michelle, I'd not throw a tantrum and trash the winning author. Callil is a selfish, self-absorbed and self-important doofus. She could have just as easily written an article somewhere about her feelings as a judge for an award when the winner was someone she really disrespected; that would have integrity. But this idea that all of us should say what we feel when we feel it no matter the context is pure narcissism and a bad side effect of the consumer culture. What Ms Callil thinks of Philip Roth is not the point of the Man Booker International Prize. Her use of the prize announcement to trash him only shows what a huge ego she has, with a need to overshadow the Prize itself. Did I already say "doofus?"

  14. Hmm... I actually avoid most reviews because all books are good anyway, so I just remember the names.

    That's why I refuse to do a book review on my blog. I'll rather avoid the double standard (of insisting on calling it a book review but people being punished for critting negatively)than actually go with or against it.

    This of course makes me wonder whether I will submit my works for review one day.

  15. Misha, I think avoiding it is one way to go too! You make a good point about the term "review" being inaccurate in some cases.

  16. It's hard to find good feedback. Sometimes it makes me happy to hear someone say "oh, it's just perfect," but other times I just shake my head because I KNOW it's not my best work.

    I value honesty a lot, so I try to be as honest, yet gentle, as I can.

  17. If writers are afraid of bad reviews, don't write. We need constructive critiques in order to grow and develop. What we don't need is criticism, usually under the umbrella of 'I'm just being honest'.

    A good book review will highlight the positive and the negative, a brief rundown of the story, give the reviewer's opinion, and then let the reader make the choice.

  18. Not to be Captain Obvious, but my work is so perfectly perfect, anything other than the most glowing of compliments would be a lie.


  19. Seriously, I too live by the "nice rule." Sure, there are manners involved, but also I am exactly average. Who am I to judge anyone other than "I like that, but not that." Perhaps, when I've achieved a certain expertise in the craft, I could give an honest and helpful critique. I understand that a writer will not seek out an average for a critique, so in a way my point is moot. Maybe I'm beating a dead horse, but Tiger Mama critiques are best.

    Davin, have you trademarked "Tiger Mama" yet?

  20. I have no tact in my reviews. I say exactly what I think of what I'm reviewing and WHY. The why is very important to me.
    Now, I do have a few mss in the works that I someday hope to publish (probably self-publish), and what you've mentioned in your post has occurred to me before. Will there be people who give me bad reviews because they didn't like what I said about another book they liked? Possibly. But here's what I think about that: if the reviewer can back up her/his negative opinions with solid examples to support them, then I should pay attention. But if that reviewer is merely spouting emotional reactions and hatred because s/he is not happy with me, then it's not worth my time anyway.
    Bad reviews that are honest should be helpful to a writer. Bad reviews that are on the level of an uptight 3-year-old should be ridiculed.
    Once, on my personal blog, I reviewed a YA book that I thought (and still do) is horrendously sexist. I backed up my opinion with multiple examples from the book. The author found my review and ranted at me for days, but I held my ground. He claimed he had not intended the book to be sexist so it was therefore not sexist. I told him that he needed to take a closer look at his writing, then, because the book screamed sexism to me. He pouted.
    This was a lesson to me. I most certainly hope that if someone writes a carefully supported review of something I wrote I can examine my writing more thoroughly to see why that reviewer is getting that idea.

  21. Domey: you have inspired me. When is the first meeting of the Previously Nice And Quiet?


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