Criticism, writing, and readers

an aside to writers in honor of NaNoWriMo

I was talking to my son about a piece I wrote because I wanted feedback about what I was getting across with the meaning of a piece. In the conversation, I had an epiphany of sorts that I wish I’d head in the 90s when I was first teaching writing. Granted, it wasn’t creative writing, but some of the same principles underlie all good writing.

Let me give you a little background. My son is a visual artist. The short version is that he didn’t opt for art school for multiple reasons, and one of them he is thankful for is that he doesn’t have to make art to make a living. He is passionate about art for Art’s sake.

I believe that in creative writing, you shouldn’t make art just for others. If you get too tied up in the salability or popularity of the book, you’ll end up strangling the work.

So in that context, he gave me a response about the writing piece which I suspected about this first draft: it was kind of all over the place. “I can’t tell if your article is an Allegory for white flight, racism in America, or someone earnestly trying to bring awareness about birds in SA.”

After a little discussion about the content of that statement, I asked, “ Do you think it’s worth pursuing as is?”

For me, that was a question about technique. I wanted to know if what I’d done could conceivably achieve the effect I desired. I think the question, if posed to a visual artist, would be “Do you think this drawing that you can’t tell is a bird or a cat can be worked on so that it looks like a cat, or is it too far gone and I should just get a new piece of paper?”

He took the question as “Is it worth drawing a cat?” and went on to make valuable points about not getting tied up “in the get,” as my daughter would say:

“I would just set the expectation that this is for you, and maybe other ppl will like it or not, but it should be about your expression first and foremost.”

On the other hand, there is technique.

I agree with that statement. I believe that in creative writing, you shouldn’t make art just for others. If you get too tied up in the salability or popularity of the book, you’ll end up strangling the work.

On the other hand, there is technique. In visual art, it’s a  little easier to separate the output from the technique (or maybe is just my ignorance that makes me think so). I hadn’t thought of it that way, though, until this discussion.

My response was this: “Yes and no. Because writing is about communicating with others, clarity about what the writing is is a matter of technique, so getting feedback is made akin to asking how to mix the color you want (or what choices you might have according to color theory). It’s a tricky line in writing, i think, trying to separate technique from substance.”

I realized that not separating technique from substance is part of the problem with getting criticism, whether constructive or not, on something you’ve written, whether it’s in the editing stage out of the final product, as in a book review.

In art, sometimes you hear people speak in terms  of craft (as well as it being an arbitrary distinction between arts and crafts, but I’ll pass on that digression). Craft refers to how clean and finished it is,  how much you can tell that a maker has figured out how to use the materials. If you’re not versed in the craft, it can be very hard to tell when a piece is lumpy because they didn’t know what they were doing or that they’re making a point about lumpiness. You just know whether you like it or not.

I believe I try to sort out substance from technique by trying to say upfront what I don’t like about a book that is a matter of taste: I don’t like peanut butter or horror. Not a judgement on the validity of someone making or eating the one or writing out reading the other. Just me.

The question isn’t, fundamentally, did the reviewer like it, but did the piece have the effect I wanted.

But since it’s hard to separate what you’re trying to say with how you say it, sometimes both the reviewer and the writer make errors in the how when trying to get to the what. The question isn’t, fundamentally, did the reviewer like it, but did the piece have the effect I wanted.

So, say, for example, that you want to leave people with an ending that is ambiguous, letting them fill in the blanks. For me, what I’m about to say could be a spoiler, but I’m a little overboard on my definition, which will be the subject of another post.

A great example of ambiguous endings is Washington Black by Esi Edugan. It’s won all kinds of awards, and is an excellent piece of writing. It’s a little risky to end the book the way she did because of the way endings can change how we feel about the entire book, but that was the choice she made.

I hated the ending, and it did affect how I felt about the book as a whole, which I was enjoying immensely until it ended. I felt like it just stopped and there was no resolution, and, dadgummit, I wanted to know what happened to this character I’d come to love.

Which brings us to the problem specific to reviews, a problem endemic to our society that begins in kindergarten: grading or rating.

We have been graded our whole lives, so we think we know what grades mean. Grades are easy. They don’t require us to think critically, and we can quickly many choices to find what we want. It’s a symptom of both abundance and mass production. We have so many choices because things are mass produced, but to mass produce, you must have uniformity, requiring grading and sorting of things that aren’t really uniform.

Hence the pressure in reviews to rate, whether 5 stars or ten, stars or pickles. As a writer, it is tempting to see that as a comment on substance rather than technique, when it could be either.

In the case of Washington Black, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, which was kind of meaningless, because it was a compromise between what I thought about her technique (5) and whether I’d recommend it to someone (debatable, because the ending pissed me off because it wasn’t how I wanted it to end).

So if Edugan cared what I thought, she’d read the review to see why I rated it like that. But because I rated it in the middle, splitting the difference between my rating of her mastery of the craft with the rating of whether I’d recommend it, it would be lost in the averages. If, hypothetically, she was trying to get feedback on the effect she was having in the exercise of that craft, then a one-star review would have been more useful for her, as that flags it as something someone felt passionate enough to rate it that way.

Book reviews, like any feedback, are useful to the degree that they succeed in telling you something about how a reader experiences the book. Book reviews are supposed to be for other readers, not for the writer, so the thrust is why I did or did not like the book, regardless of whether it is technique or substance.

Frankly, I didn’t want to give it a one because Black writers have more barriers to get thorough to have their work read, and I don’t want to contribute to the problem. Edugan is a fabulous writer and deserves to be read. It was just a case of me not liking the aftertaste.

So when reading a particular review about your own writing, you should ask yourself whether the criticism addresses what you’re trying to achieve. Does this reviewer think it’s a bird when it’s supposed to be a cat? Or does the reviewer want it to be a bird because he doesn’t like cats? Those are important distinctions, and not always easy to sort out.

Of course, if you’re trying to make them wonder if it’sa bird or a cat, then, again, congratulations, you’ve done it. But this analogy is assuming you want them to talk the difference.

As a reader, one rating can’t tell you whether a book is worth reading; you have to read the substance of the review to see if you, as a cat-lover, would agree with the reviewer who dislikes a book because it’s not a bird.

However, an aggregate rating is more informative. If a hundred people have rated a book, and it’s got less than a three-star rating, maybe it’s because the craft hasn’t been mastered—or it may just not have found the right readers yet. If a thousand people have rated a book that low, it’s being more likely that it’s a matter of craft rather than substance unless it’s trying to make a point about lumpiness that only a small number of people will get.

Or if it’s particularly controversial, but that tends to be clear at the outset, and relatively fewer people will read a book they know they won’t like, although trolling is definitely a thing. For the most part, though, a book had to have reached enough readers who liked it to gain the attention of trolls, so for a newer or more obscure book, it’s less likely to be an issue. But for bots. Okay, I’ll stop looking for exceptions.

So the point here is that reviews, like any feedback, are useful to the degree that they succeed in telling you something about how a reader experiences the book. Book reviews are supposed to be for other readers, not for the writer, so the thrust is why I did or did not like the book, regardless of whether it is technique or substance.

For me, that’s part of raising the status of indie authors and publishers: trying to spotlight what’s good quality writing regardless of whether I like what someone is writing about.

That’s why my review process is an attempt to separate the two. If I think it’s an issue of insufficient attention or mastery of the craft, it ends up in the “Not ready for primetime” summary reviews. Full reviews assume that the book is competently written and are focused more on matters of taste, just as the Big 5 won’t publish a book if the author hasn’t adequately mastered craft.

For me, that’s part of raising the status of indie authors and publishers: trying to spotlight what’s good quality writing regardless of whether I like what someone is writing about.

For another point of view, see this awesome post by Ryan Howse, Books Are Awesome. A short quote from his article: “Books need to be judged on what they are attempting to do, not on a predetermined checklist.”

6 thoughts on “Criticism, writing, and readers

  1. Rin @ The Thirteenth Shelf

    This is a great post about the difficulties of reviewing. I know the trend these days is to move away from a rating completely. Many book bloggers I know now opt only for “I recommend” and “I don’t recommend.” Still, as you mentioned, this doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance. I’m still using 5 stars for my own site, and it’s a challenge to put all my personal thoughts and my subjective critiques into a single rating when the two are, as you say, truly different and mean different things to a reader who is looking for a book.

    This post has given me a lot to think about. I’m not really comfortable moving away from a star rating entirely, since one of the objectives of my site is to offer succinct information. But at the same time, I believe it’s worth noting the difference between substance from technique in a way that goes beyond a single grade.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the lengthy reply and kind words. It’s hard to relinquish something that so many readers expect. On the other hand, if I’m in generally in sync with a particular reviewers likes and dislikes and am in a hurry, I’m just as bad as anyone else about looking at the ratings only.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Stunning post. A lot of food for thought here regarding the way reviews (and mine in particular, since this brought on much introspection) are constructed.

    I personally see reviews as something that can never achieve objectivity, since it’s mostly impossible to decide what factors as objectivity with fairness.

    They are, imo, a relay of the writer’s own experience, preferences, and outlooks, with the intent of connecting readers with similar viewpoints and tastes to a book (or forewarn those with dissimilar ones).

    Arguable and a complex matter, but definitely a very interesting discussion.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Yes, experience definitely influences the lens through which we review a book. I’m planning a post on inference in the future, which has to do with that specifically–how readers pull meaning out of books that are going to be conflicting.

      Like

  3. Really happy to see so many good thoughts on Objectivity vs Subjectivity and this particular angle.

    Personally, I feel like I very rarely – maybe never – see a book where I really don’t gel with it but see flawless technique. That’s probably an outlook thing but if I’ve got a book where I see quality but don’t like it, I go digging, and I can normally find something that I think is objectively probably not doing the book any favours – usually early. And I’m a big believer in that a lot of how a book is viewed depends on how you feel about it – I know I’ve seen the exact same flaw in different books, and wrote “who cares” for the review of one book and was exasperated by it in another. If that makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed; you can never escape subjectivity. And there have been enough times where I’ve loved a book and read it at a different time in life and wondered what I saw in it. Occasionally, the other direction, but generally the downward trend.

      Like

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