Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Blunt Art of Criticism

Over the years, I've grown accustomed to literary criticism.  I think that's true of any writer who has been in the trenches marketing their wares.  In the freelance field, it's important to grow a thick skin, and to let people think what they will.  A writer who cannot accept honest and fair criticism cannot grow, and they'll find it impossible to succeed.

I've gotten my share of negative reviews, both for my published works and for the unpublished works I've marketed over the years.  Beyond the fair criticism that aided my growth, I have been able to accept the negative comments as personal opinions.  Such things as "His characters [in The Guns of Mars] lack the depth and definition necessary to become real people" and "His [Fantasy Western] is really just a clichéd western trope" are just what some individual readers think, and it speaks to their personal tastes and preferences.

Yet, over the years, I've gotten a few particularly nasty reviews/comments, which I believe went above and beyond honest criticism, and delved into the reviewer's personal attempt to play "Simon Cowell."

I've found that the worst "reviews" I've ever received have come from writers of inferior ability.  I don't say this lightly, nor as an insult, but as something I've learned through experience.  I've run into quite a few "writer reviewers" who have gone out of their way to tear down other writers unjustly.  There are several reasons behind this; some are merely copying their own critics and seeking to share the misery, while others think they can elevate their own material by putting a negative connotation on the "competition."

One key example of trying to knock down competition came during the 2nd Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, when the Guns of Mars was in the Quarterfinalist stage.  There were a couple of people (fellow contestants) who reviewed the first 5,000 word excerpt and went out of their way to invent problems with the story, and complain about its complexity, all in the hopes of improving their own chances in the contest.  As a satisfying show of justice, The Guns of Mars advanced to the semi-finals, while my detractors had their stories dropped.  Yet, I do wonder if their negative reviews might have soured the finalist judges in their decision-making process.  Could the handful of 1 & 2-star reviews on my excerpt have made them wary of putting The Guns of Mars in the finals?  We'll never know.

The truth is, you can't control what other people are going to say about your work, and even the best writers get nasty, unfair criticism laid against them (amidst the fair, honest comments both positive and negative).  The right review at the right time can make a career, just as the wrong review can break it, though it's rarely that drastic.  Still, I end up feeling like Vincent Van Gogh all too often; mocked and ignored in my own lifetime, despite my true talent.

Yet, in the same vein, you can't go around challenging your critics.  Most of the time, you must ignore their slams.  I've seen some amazing "flame wars" that amateur writers have started, attacking their critics over negative reviews.  The most memorable had the writer eventually telling everyone to "F--- Off!" thus destroying her career.  We must show professionalism in our response to reviews, and stand above petty personal attacks.  If our detractors are fair, we should be grateful for their assessments; if they're not, we must hope that others will set the record straight.  There is no point in someone rebuking their own critic, for it comes off as self-serving and unbelievable. Yet, if third party voices challenge a critic's assessment, then you receive vindication.  That often requires tact and patience... and sometimes it never comes.  But, we must carry on.

I'll conclude with a piece of advice to readers.  Small press publications are often in dire need of honest online reviews.  This is especially true for multi-author anthologies, which get even fewer reviews than novels.  For every review that is posted, there are often a dozen or a hundred people who have read the book and haven't bothered to say a word about it.  This isn't a problem for the big imprints, but small press releases depend on word of mouth from readers.  It is important to share reviews, so people will know what you think.  It's also vital that a larger percentage of people post reviews, so the views of a few don't have an overwhelming (and sometimes unjust) influence on public opinion.

1 comment:

  1. A lot to comment on in this post.

    What a horrid experience with ABNA. However, as you say, they might have done you a favour. Congratulations on getting so far.

    When my short story collection comes out in March I will be nervously awaiting my first reviews. If any of them are negative I will try to take them on the chin and move on. Of course I will be upset - I'm only human. What I won't do is react like some of the authors you've mentioned. The only person they make look bad is themselves.

    With regard to small presses, I rarely see any of them reviewed. Is that because they are small presses or because a lot publish multi-author anthologies, which by their nature are difficult to review? I'm not sure. And of course now we have the problem of Amazon removing reviews left by authors.

    Thought-provoking post!