Everyone is a Critic

by Steve Laube

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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.

Opinion
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.”

Review
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.

Critique
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

Critic
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 RiotThe 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.

Amen.

Your Turn
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?

16 Responses to Everyone is a Critic

  1. Diana Harkness April 29, 2013 at 4:46 am #

    Well said. Someone in my writing group told me that my writing sounded like young adult lit. Not what I wanted to hear. I’ll wait for my editor’s critique.

    I am one of those “scurrilous” internet reviewers. I have been asked to review books that were so bad I could not finish them. I decline to review those. However, if I have an obligation to review a book as I do with when provided a review copy by a publisher, I am careful in my reading and my writing. As I read and write, I realize that someday someone else may be reviewing my own writing, but I also have an obligation to readers like myself and my friends. If I could not recommend a book to my friends, I won’t recommend it in my review and I will likely suggest an alternative. And yes, it does come down to my perspective: a well-educated reader, a long-time Christian who cares about theology, and a writer who cares about language. Even so, I know that some people will adore what I despise. My rating system runs to 5 stars for something I greatly enjoyed and will reread and long remember, something along the lines of Faulkner or Hemingway, perhaps; 4 stars for a very enjoyable book; and 3 stars for a book that provided a minor diversion, but had problems. I have never given a book 1 or 2 stars; those books would not be worth my time.

  2. Connie Almony April 29, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    I love your friend! The one who doesn’t trust 100% 5 star ratings. If I’d met you personally, I’d think you were talking about me. I rarely give five star ratings either. I need to reserve those for something well beyond the commonplace. And if a writer feels they deserve that rating on every book … hmmmm. To assume your work will appeal to everyone—even if it is beautifully written—is deluding yourself. I often refer to a well-known writer who once told me that if you calculated the numbers, you would find over 90% of the population does NOT like any particular bestseller. So why should I expect everyone to like my little-ole tome of excellence ;o). The important thing is to find, reach and serve MY target audience.
    This post is a great breakdown in how to utilize other’s opinions. A writer needs to take advice, but she also needs to consider where it’s coming from. I have four critique partners who give me a breadth of great advice, coming from each of their varied gifts. However, on occasion, they have opposing views. I look at their advice, explanations if they gave any, and consider the audience they know best before I decide how to proceed. I’ve been very blessed by this group.

    • C.L. Dyck April 29, 2013 at 8:20 am #

      When I see a book that has all five-star reviews, my first reaction is, “This has made it around to the writer’s friends and the book review blogs, but hasn’t hit the actual reader market yet.” Even seeing a few four-stars lends credence to the book for me.

  3. Rick Barry April 29, 2013 at 6:15 am #

    I have found it fascinating to read reviews of successful authors’ books on Amazon. Since there is no book on the planet that pleases everyone, each book generates both positive and negative reactions.

    As you point out, Steve, some people leave negative opinions simply because a book contains an element of faith. One fellow reviewing one of my friends’ novels admitted as much, saying, “If a book has anything about Christianity, I’m against it.”

    As an author, I especially appreciate friends who will give me a blunt and detailed critique. Praise is fun, but I’d rather have friends point out blunders so I can fix them before I submit a manuscript. After all, you’re not being helpful to a friend if you don’t mention the dryer sheet hanging out her pant leg or the zipper he left open. The same applies to manuscripts.

  4. Sharon Henning April 29, 2013 at 6:55 am #

    I disagree with assuming that 5 star or 1 star ratings automatically mean a discreditable review. Often when I read 4 star reviews, the reviewer fails to state what was lacking in the book. This leaves me wondering why they didn’t give it 5 stars.

    What makes a review creditable for me is how well the reviewer supports their views or clearly states what they want and how this book succeeded or failed. I’ve read 5 star reviews that fit that category as well as 1 star reviews.

    Conversely, I’ve read 5 star reviews that were so filled with hyperbole (“the best book I’ve eve read in my WHOLE life”) that I couldn’t take them seriously. Also I’ve read 1 star reviews that turned out, as Steve said, the person felt offended that someone “tricked” them into reading something written by a Christian.

  5. Carole Lehr Johnson April 29, 2013 at 8:08 am #

    Great post! I do book reviews and I feel like I can be honest without giving hateful comments. I may not like a book, but that doesn’t mean someone else may not like it. Yet, I can point out the things ‘I’ did not like about it. Giving a five star rating means a lot to me … I have to like everything about it, but that doesn’t mean it is without flaws, just a fantastic read.

  6. Judith Robl April 29, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    Doing reviews can be a tricky business. When I gave one particular negative review of a book, the author wanted to engage me in a debate about it. Sorry, Charlie. My opinion is just that. It doesn’t change because of your rationale.

    I try not to be demeaning, but when I have trouble reading something, I feel an obligation to my reader to specify what that problem was.

    Not everyone echoes my taste in reading, so I try to respect that as well.

    • Rick Barry April 29, 2013 at 8:44 am #

      A fine reply, Judith. I’ve heard of authors who pop into review sites and roll up their sleeves to defend their work. Definitely not cool. It’s tough to take seriously any writer who tries to mud wrestle with reviewers.

  7. Nikole Hahn April 29, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    If a book, especially a self-published book, has all five star reviews I am immediately suspicious. I have also read articles from other reviewers and self-pub authors who talk of having their friends and family do five star reviews so their book rises in Amazon ratings. I review as both a reader and a writer, using what I learned at Word Weavers. I have given one and two-star reviews, three star reviews and lots of four and five star reviews. Sometimes, I can’t even finish a novel or book because it bored me or was badly written. Unless the publisher required me to finish it, I have a policy that if the first fifty pages don’t appeal to me, I won’t finish it though I will give it my best shot. Authors should take what is useful and discard the rest. I have also been verbally attacked for writing a bad review and have had to defend my position. That being said, I do agonize over reviews, because writing bad reviews are not pleasant, but I hate how people treat readers like a dollar bill. One author I totally respected. He offered my readers a free ebook. His novel was so-so and needed a few rounds with a critique group, but his gracious reply reminds me how we all need to treat each other with respect.

  8. Patrick April 29, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    In my years as a record producer/recording engineer I found the same thing to be true – everyone has an opinion. I can’t tell you how many times one person would say “There’s too much bass in the mix!” and the very next person who heard it would complain about the lack of bass, You learn to take random opinions with a grain of salt. Robin Gunn shared something with us at Mount Hermon – there is an inner circle in your artistic life and you only let people you really trust into it. Those are the ones whose opinions count. My mentoring group from MH has formed an online critique group – we learned to trust each other with our work at the conference – and it has proven to be most helpful. You can move from draft three to draft four when several people you trust are critiquing as you go.

  9. Ron Estrada April 29, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    I read the “worst book of the decade” that you mentioned. I was stunned that anyone would pick up a novel that has “Christian” written all over it, then complain about the content. I replied to the author (a good friend) who was the target of that criticism and reminded her that Moby Dick has 42 one-star ratings on Amazon. My writing partner recently published her first and has had to endure much of the same. I don’t know if there’s a category for people who read something they expect to hate, then write a review. I read another one recently under a cozy mystery I happened to love. The reviewer started with “I knew there’s a reason I hate cozy mysteries.” Really? Then why did you read it and why did you decide to trash it? As far as critiques go, I’ve learned that most groups will focus on the mechanics of writing. While a new writer must adhere to the rules, it’s important to understand when to take advice and when not to. If it changes your voice or particular style, you have to decide if the advice is valid. When all the writing in a critique group looks the same, then something has gone horribly wrong.

  10. Nancy Mehl April 29, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    I spent many years as a book reviewer, online and for a major newspaper. (Yes, they even paid me to review books!) I didn’t write snarky or critical reviews then, and I won’t do it now. If I don’t like a book, I just don’t review. Reading is incredibly subjective. Just because YOU don’t like something doesn’t mean someone else won’t. And recommending someone else’s book instead of the one you’re reviewing? Uh, no. Telling people to buy a different book, or the lovely – “Skip this book” comment isn’t the job of a reviewer. Some authors don’t have other jobs. This is our main source of income. It chaps my hide to read comments that actually suggest people not buy a book just because this particular “reviewer” didn’t like it. The problem with this attitude is, unless you have been installed as the only person in the world who knows everything about writing, your review is written through your own prejudices, likes and dislikes. Your opinion isn’t necessarily right – it is just YOUR opinion. I try to remember this IF I read a review (I usually don’t) and especially if I write one.

  11. Peter DeHaan April 29, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    In our critique group, we have a rule against critquing a writer’s theology, instead our focus needs to be on the writing itself. Usually we remember to follow that rule.

  12. Jennifer Dyer April 30, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    I am often saddened by the way people love to write hateful things online. It’s a form of bullying, in my opinion. I wish people would be more factual with their reviews. However, fiction is so based on emotions perhaps it is difficult for people to approach their views on it clinically.

    I have a somewhat unique reviewer situation because I often write reviews for moms to know what is in the YA books their kids might pick up. I have tried to model my reviews off the style Plugged-In uses for movies. Give the facts of what is inside and let people make up their minds.

    As for the 5-star reviews, I can see why those would be a problem. It’s hard to give a dear friend anything less. :-)

    I don’t know all the authors of books that I review, but I don’t want to discourage a person, hurt them emotionally, or dress them down publicly. I keep in mind that someone has poured months or years of their life into this project and that whatever my opinion (and that is all it is), I should be kind when rendering it.

    Thanks for the perspective, Steve.

  13. Rebecca LuEllaMiller April 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    I think we need to get used to online reviews and understand that they are becoming the book buzz of our day. Ever since I’ve been involved in writing, I’ve heard that word-of-mouth is what really sells books. My point is, I don’t think a writer can ignore what people are saying about their books, and in fact, ought to do all they can to encourage it.

    I think the “why are they saying it” should dictate an author’s reaction to negative reviews. One writer friend who got a bad review because of the Christian content responded with praise. She was so glad that what she wanted to say was apparent to the reviewer. He was reacting because he disagreed with the worldview, not because he thought the book was poorly written.

    I’ve read books (and reviewed them) that others have raved about, but I think we were looking for different things. If I state what bothered me about a book, those who love it can’t say I have an ax to grind if I give a particular example. They can, however, say they didn’t notice what I noticed or that it didn’t bother them. Readers, then, get to decide which type of reader they think they might be with that book, and the author has no cause to be upset.

    Becky

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