Friday, May 06, 2005

Fireflies in the Georgia Heat

While we’re cataloging aspects of blogging culture, let’s talk about another one. A kind of group discourse often takes place across the blogosphere, even unacknowledged at times. A call will ring out from one blog, and then echo in ten other places. Like fireflies in a summer field the spark is passed from one writer to another to another, rippling across cyberspace. One discussion currently in play relates to reviewers and criticism. I’ve obviously not experienced this yet as a writer (the reviews part, I mean—I’ve had my share of criticism already.) But both as a writer and agent I think Alison Kent’s comments yesterday were dead-on. Here’s a quote:

“See, that’s the thing. If I hear criticism of my work, the first thought that comes to mind is: Does the criticism register? I have never written a perfect book. I send them out into the world in the best shape possible given my skills at the time. But I can point to every book I’ve written and find things I wish I’d done differently. And if those things are ringing a reader’s or critic’s bells, then I listen. I learn. I take to heart the input and do what I can to better my craft. Isn’t that the point of constructive criticism? Whether given by readers, reviewers, or peers? It is for me!”

Let me cheer you on, Alison! Thank you. First of all, every bit of feedback I receive as a writer I welcome, even if it’s not comfortable. How else can I grow? How else can my clients grow if they don’t hear critique from me, editors, and ultimately their readers? And yet you’d be surprised how often, when I actually take the time to send an intensive personal critique on a submission, I’m met not with gratitude that I took the time, that I tried to give them thoughtful analysis of how to make the manuscript better, but rather with argument. I’ve had writers call me to debate me. I’ve had nasty emails that claim, “Well my critique group likes it!” After a while of this as an agent it almost makes you not want to bother. But you hang in because then there are the others. Writers with an outlook like that expressed by Allison above. They want to be the best they can be, and only with reader reaction and thought can their work ultimately be shaped—whether that critique come from editors, agents, fellow authors, or readers.

Let’s face it, writing is a solitary endeavor. Which makes the moment any reader takes up an author’s book a transcendent one—and that kind of mystical cooperation between reader and author shouldn’t be cheapened by the idea that we can drum the readers into lockstep reaction. We can’t make them march the way we ordain. We can only create the work, hope someone will enter the author-reader partnership, and then honor their reading by taking the comments to heart. We don’t have to agree with everything—nor do I expect everyone to agree with me when I give my agently commentary. But I do think respect is the key. Self-respect, respect for craft, and respect for one another.

The Internet age has ushered in the era of anonymous cruelty. Where opinions can turn nasty and abusive, and when you combine that with the age of correctness, dissenting voices (although dissenting from which opinion is the key here) are hammered into silence. At least in theory. Some of the best “voices” on the Net today don’t give a whit about the Netstapo types, and thank GOD for that. In an impersonal and faceless medium, it’s important to remember to hold onto our humanity.


Ellen said...

"...every bit of feedback I receive as a writer I welcome, even if it’s not comfortable. How else can I grow?"

I've always regarded bad reviews as a useful thing-- sometimes they point out very valid problems with my writing. And we all get bad reviews, so there's no point in getting in a snit about them (although it can be hard not to sometimes!). Critiques from editors, agents, and contest judges are often very valuable, too.

But occasionally an author gets feedback that isn't welcome-- unpleasant criticism that's directed at her personally, rather than at her writing. This is the kind of thing that tends to blow up on message boards and blogs, because it's hard to ignore. But generally speaking, an author is better off ignoring stuff like this, because any argument on her part will tend to draw attention to it.

In other words, criticism isn't always constructive. An author needs to learn to heed the constructive criticism and ignore the rest.

Deidre Knight said...

So true! But I'd categorize that under the latter section of my post, the bit about the anonymous cruelty of the Net. I'm always amazed at how people can get carried away in the posse mentality.

Part of welcoming critique is knowing the difference b/t bashing and truly instructive analysis.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Since my past life was as a (restaurant) reviewer, I hope I'm prepared to take it as well as I dished it out now that professional reviewers will be turning their eyes on me. :-)

But this is another reason I always keep all my rejection letters and contest feedback - you never know when someone weird opinion will turn into five or six people's insight.

What I don't get is the so-called "reviews" posted on Amazon, etc. which are really just the mutterings of fangirls or embittered and jealous writers that can actually hold some bearing on a book buyer's choices. Bad reviews from establish reviewing source, yes. Biased ravings, not so much.

Deidre Knight said...

I've actually had to go to Amazon and have a review removed on an author's book. Not b/c the "reviewer" had a problem with the author--b/c they had a personal issue with ME!! It's amazing.

I also take issue with some reviewer sites that tend to head straight for the negative review on every book. After a while, it's hard to take their opinions very seriously.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Are you talking about Mrs. G.? She cracks me up. She's like the "Television Without Pity" of romance novels. But I feel differently about her, since she's a) not a "review site" but a person with a hobby and can therefore be biased and personal and snarky, and b) she's not posting her admittedly personal and biased opinions on a book-buying website like Amazon.

Deidre Knight said...

Yep. Does she no longer post on Amazon? Because she used to, which was part of why it bothered me. To argue against myself, I suppose when someone IS reviewing uniformly, then even the bad can't hurt that much. :) SO I've answered my own debate on this one.

Ellen said...

Mrs. Giggles has skewered-- er, reviewed-- four of my books:-). Actually, I voluntarily send my books to her for review. She is extremely snarky, but when you dig beneath the snark, you often find a kernel (or even several kernels) of truth in her reviews. Her comments on my books have helped me identify some of the weaknesses in my writing.

Diana Peterfreund said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Diana Peterfreund said...

I think even if she posted on Amazon it would be okay, because if she disliked something about an author's book, she gives a very good reason for it (like Ellen says, a grain of truth). She's not one of those people who comes on and flames because they don't personally like that author (not the author's work, but the author) or her agent or whatever else. Of course, that's part of the whole "must take what you dish out" attitude of mine. I know that the reviews I wrote affected people's businesses. It sucks for the author, but if it's an honest review based on a reader's opinion rather than some prejudiced flame, there's really nothing wrong iwth it. Reviewers shouldn't be in it for hte authors, they should be in it for hte buyers. If the authors learn somehting, great, but that's not what the review was written for.

I think Mrs. Giggles actually does have genuine affection for romance novels and that's why she feels so free to state her unvarnished opinion about what she finds wrong with many of them.

Maybe I like her because, while I don't have as strong reactions to the issues, I have similar likes and dislikes of storylines, character motivation and genre cliches. I know that anything Mr.s Giggles gives a 65 or above to I'm liable to like very much. She gives tougher grades than I would, but we think alike.

Gena Showalter said...

You've hit a subject I'm trying so hard to work on! I thought I was prepared for bad reviews because hearing I need to work on something from other writers, my lovely agent, readers and so on has never, never bothered me (in fact, I like it). I eat it up, crave that kind of feedback, so I can go back and make the book better. Yet for some reason, bad reviews manage to rock me. I don't know why, but would absolutely love to get to a place of peace about them.

princessdominique said...

Fabulous post! You are both dead on! Offering up a novel in the best possible shape is all anyone can ask of us. We learn--we grow.