Writers and Critics

Posted by Elizabeth on July 07, 2009
It’s been an interesting month for writers and reviewers. In the past two years at Goodreads, I’ve observed the relationship between authors and critics and I think it’s safe to say that at this point, the distance between the two has all but disappeared. Alain de Botton (one of my favorite authors) publicly criticized Caleb Crain’s review in the New York Times of his latest book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work; Alice Hoffman tweeted about her poor review in the Boston Globe and asked people, "If you want to tell Roberta Silman off, her phone is [Silman's phone number and email address]. Tell her what u think of snarky critics;” And Chris Anderson was called out for his lack of citation of Wikipedia in his latest book Free.

Fortunately for us, we interviewed two of these controversial characters for our newsletter, Alice Hoffman and Chris Anderson. Unfortunately, both interviews were conducted before these Internet bombs, so the questions we asked are closely tailored to their books and not to their opinions about critics.

Still, this month highlights a really interesting issue that is relevant to Goodreads. It’s a question we face from time to time when people flag a review for “inappropriate content," and that’s the question of guidelines.

At the inception of Goodreads we thought a lot about guidelines, particularly because a nasty, unbalanced review can be damaging for an author and generally unpleasant. This is an issue I hold particularly close to my heart because before I worked at the Los Angeles Times, I worked for several years as a dance and opera critic for local newspapers. When I was just starting out, one of my mentors gave me a very interesting piece of advice. He said, “Never, ever, pan a work by an emerging artist.” He added, “A young artist’s career may never recover. Someone like Janet Jackson has already been established, and can handle it, but when someone is just starting out, you can ruin them.” He also told me that if I was going to criticize something, I should always say how that particular problem could have been improved.” I do feel grateful that I was given that advice at the beginning of my career. I don’t think that I’ve left a trail of damaged artists in my wake as a critic, and I don’t want that on my conscience.

Of course, we would never tell people how to review a book. Goodreads can be whatever you want it to be. Some people don’t want the pressure of feeling like they have to produce a professional quality review; others make their profiles private so that they can be completely candid with their friends. It’s entirely up to you.

This also brings me to the nasty, snarky review. It’s a desired thing, both online and in alternative weeklies and websites such as the Huffington Post. The problem with the snarky review is that it’s so easy to write. It’s a bit making fun of someone. If the performance was so-so, the artist is an easy target, and all that’s required is a spoonful of weak-witted humor.

And the problem with a badly written, snarky review is that the final result is not funny, it comes off as mean. I love well-written, snarky reviews. They uncover something and always surprise you. They are often gentle yet probing; they start off pleasant and then veer into darkness. Pauline Kael is a great example of a critic who could pan something without beating it to death. But the trouble is that there are very a small percentage of brilliant pans, and the rest of the reviews are badly written tirades that seem like the author is trying to sound smart. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I’m the most skilled writer in the world or that the reviews by Crain or Silman are in that category. But I do think that there is a preponderance of this kind of criticism in the print world and blogosphere, and perhaps even at Goodreads.

Without trying to sound like a goody-two-shoes schoolteacher, I think that an element of morality in criticism (particularly online) will become more and more of an issue in the next decade. If you can’t say anything nice, you better say it effectively.

-Elizabeth

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jon (new)

Jon Without trying to sound like a goody-two-shoes schoolteacher, I think that an element of morality in criticism (particularly online) will become more and more of an issue in the next decade. If you can’t say anything nice, you better say it effectively.

Thanks for the reminder. I will keep this in mind as I write my very amateurish reviews. I will read some of your reviews to learn from. Do you have some favorite reviewers to recommend as good examples here at GoodReads?


message 2: by Elizabeth, Chief Wordsmith (new)

Elizabeth Oh no! Your comment made me laugh out loud! I'm not at all sure if I'm a great example to follow.

In terms of great critics, my all time favorite is still Pauline Kael, but she was a print journalist. Personally, I think as long as you're true to your opinion and review the book (not the author), you can probably write whatever you like. But I do try to be kind to first-time writers.

I'd just like to highlight an issue that I think will become more and more important as the Internet evolves.

Cheers,
E




message 3: by Tracie (new)

Tracie Yule I particularly like the comment: "if I was going to criticize something, I should always say how that particular problem could have been improved." I always think about this before I write a review because I don't want to criticise just for criticism's sake; but because I have something worthwhile to write.

I, also, think that there are a wide variety of opinions out there and some you may or may not like...and sometimes you just need to walk away from it because if you don't, it doesn't make you look good either.


message 4: by D.B. (new)

D.B. Pacini Dear Elizabeth,

I greatly enjoyed your article and I want to share with you the following. It is, in part, from postings or private emails I’ve exchanged with my Goodreads friends.

D.B. Pacini
THE LOOSE END OF THE RAINBOW
Endorsement Reviews:
http://www.astarrynightproductions.co...

*******

In my opinion, reviews are extremely important. In my case, they were, in large part, a main reason I secured my publisher, and a main reason I am presently getting youth advocates, librarians, and school principals to read/consider my book for their students.

I sent the manuscript for my youth/YA fantasy novel, THE LOOSE END OF THE RAINBOW to a number of people, requesting them to write a review that I could list on my website, providing that they liked the story. Most of the reviews that I currently have listed on my website are from people I did not previously know before I contacted them requesting a review; most are people that read my unpublished manuscript.

When I sent queries to publishers I shared condensed snippets from the reviews and asked publishers to visit my website to read the reviews in full. My publisher admitted that one of the reasons she decided to read my manuscript was because the reviews on my website were compelling.

As an author, I think reviews are tremendously important.

As a reader, I rarely purchase a book without reading most of the reviews listed about it. I think a reviewer can share his/her unfavorable opinions about a book without attacking the author and without being a deliberately mean/rude jerk. Unconstructive and aggressively offensive reviews, written by overtly negative reviewers, bore me. They reveal more about the reviewer than about the book. Even if the reviewer does make legitimate points about the weaknesses/flaws in the book reviewed, I am unimpressed with any reviewer that uses his/her review as a swinging club to bash a writer. I respect reviewers that appreciate that a poorly written book is as important to its author as a well written book. There is an appropriate way to give an unfavorable review. Reviewers that strive to be respectful always receive a tip from my hat even if I disagree with their opinion about the book.

I am a book reviewer. I have Goodread postings that share my philosophy about reviews.

I am strongly opposed to paying for reviews. I don’t have respect for “paid for” reviews regardless of how well written they are. That is why I can’t consider purchasing them for my novel. Something just feels really wrong about them to me. It feels like paying for a handsome date, phony and pathetic---even if he is handsome, even if you have a great time at the prom, school reunion, wedding, or whatever. Writers must choose if they wish to consider paid for reviews. I know some people want them. That is fine. I just don’t want them for my books.

Regarding positive reviews, most of us can tell when a GLOWING review was written by MOM or DAD. Such reviews do have value. A praised filled review written by a family member or a friend simply needs to be taken in the context that it is written. It is not a professional review. It is not trying to claim that it is. Our parents, our mates, and all of our loved ones have just as much right to share their opinions about our books as anyone else has.

I know there is a growing trend for people to write reviews about books they have not read. This slimy practice utterly flabbergasts me. When a person lies to their own soul, they are doing something far more serious than being unethical. Our souls know our truth. A personal choice to be deceptive is a powerful boomerang that hurls back to us fast, hitting us hard in the core of our souls. A dishonest reviewer reaps more crap karma upon themselves that any damage their fake review can ever do to an author. Their biggest victim is themselves.

As a book reviewer I won’t ever write a review for less than four stars, but my review rating is not as high as it appears.

Elizabeth, you share that when you were starting out that one of your mentors advised you to never pan a work by an emerging artist. He said, “A young artist’s career may never recover. Someone like Janet Jackson has already been established, and can handle it, but when someone is just starting out, you can ruin them.” He also told you that if you are going to criticize something, you should always say how that particular problem could have been improved. Your mentor sounds EXACTLY like my mentors. I took their advice to heart too. I have not left a trail of damaged artists in my wake as a critic. That is not on my conscience.

I read a lot of books confidentially. I do not want to embarrass an author by posting on Goodreads (or posting anywhere) that I’m reading his/her book if I later do not feel it is worthy of a 4-5 star review. So, I rarely post what I am reading. On average, I write reviews for 3-4 books per 10 that I read. I’m not interested in writing negative reviews and I won’t lie.

I am not a “professional” book reviewer. I’m not perfect. I don’t catch everything. I’m not always right. Authors take suggestions I provide that work for them. They discard all the rest. I cannot help everyone. Whenever possible, I help those that are, for whatever reason, in my path.

I never speak with anyone about another person’s writing unless I have a specific reason. I then secure permission from the writer first. The only things I publicly share are 4-5 star reviews (for published books) that I write/post on bookseller’s sites.

I thought I’d explain this to you. Every now and then someone will notice that I only post 4-5 star reviews and they think I’m an easy reviewer. I’m not easy, just kind.

I am very pleased to meet you here on Goodreads. I love Goodreads.

Warm Regards,

D.B. Pacini





message 5: by Mackenzie (new)

Mackenzie I feel like people write bad reviews to purposely hurt someone. I never write bad reviews about anything. I if don;t like something I wont use it again. I was just reading home direct reviews and I couldn't believe some of the things that were said. I have used them a few times and I never had a problem. I think people should takes bad reviews with a grain of salt.


back to top