by Steve Laube
One of the burdens an artist must bear is the scrutiny of public opinion. It can either be exhilarating or devastating. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue let’s look at some of the categories that define this topic.
Everyone has an opinion. The problem for the author is to determine how much weight to give to those opinions. One mistake a writer will make is to ask someone or group of someones, “What do you think of this?” with “this” being your work or the cover of their latest book.
Think of it this way, if someone is asking for your opinion and genuinely says they want to hear your thoughts, you will give that opinion…and it is often critical. It is as if we don’t feel like we have been “honest” unless we find something wrong or something we don’t like. We can become overly nitpicky and focus on things that are not vital to the design or the composition of the project. And this is where it becomes dangerous for the author. The tendency is to place too much credence on these type of opinions given by those who may not have the experience or know-how to truly be of service. That is not to say their opinions are wrong or misinformed, merely that discernment must be used when filtering these comments.
The gathering of too many opinions can clutter a sure vision or shake your confidence. It can become like the cynical definition of a committee: “A body that keeps minutes but wastes hours.”
In my opinion there are two kinds of reviews. Internet reviews where anyone can post their opinion (see above) and published reviews where a critic renders their perspective (see below). While the ease of online reviews have revolutionized the way we shop they also need a huge dose of discernment.
Recently one of my clients had a review posted online of their book which read in part, “Any sane individual would not be able to go further than page 5 of this idiocy…Yack, the worst book of the decade not just the year.” Obviously the reader despised the book, but in other sentences revealed that their problem with the book was its Christian content. So they were attacking the book based on religious grounds.
With many books being heavily discounted or given away free the chance of finding a “reviewer” who takes issue with the author is quite high.
I have one friend who says that if a book has 100% five star reviews they won’t buy it because “It isn’t possible for a book to have everyone love it equally.” She actually looks for the four star reviews and reads those carefully. And she always tosses out any one star reviews as being “someone who has an axe to grind.”
Since reviews are readily accessible they are the source of many author’s emotional and spiritual depression. If reviews get you down? Don’t read them. If reviews make you sky high and excited? Don’t read them. They are opinions. And some people love to give you their opinion whether you want it or not.
On the other hand a critique usually comes from someone who is being paid for their expertise or an expert who volunteered to lend a hand. A critique group that you trust, for example, can become a valuable source of feedback and help you on your journey. In one way this is a curated response from a reputable source.
Your editor’s response to your manuscript falls under this category. It is a critique. While it is still an opinion, it is a measured one coming from years of experience and a desire to help make the book even better.
It doesn’t mean you have to love the critique. In fact it may make you frustrated or even angry. But that is part of the creative process. As Calvin Miller once said to me when I was his editor, “It is the clash of two rocks that makes a spark. The spark of creativity.” Of course he said that after telling me he disagreed with my critique of a portion of his manuscript.
To further explore the topic of “critique” I highly recommend you read the following articles:
“Critiquing Critiques” by Rick Daley (on Nathan Bransford’s blog)
“Finding the Right Critique Partner” by Tamela Hancock Murray
This category is reserved for the intensive and even exhaustive reviewer found in a publication of some sort. Many magazine have a Book Review section and some incredible analysis can be done in those pages. Some of my favorites include Book Riot, The Englewood Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Christianity Today, and many many others. The trouble with these are also their attraction as the books discussed can be somewhat obscure. And yet wonderful treasures can be found in this way.
I think one of the greatest descriptions of the job of the critic is found in the words of Anton Ego recited in the film Ratatouille. He said:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
Have you asked for “opinions” of your work and become confused by the advice?
Have you received an over-the-top bad review?
Is there another category of “opinion” that I missed?