Thursday, May 15, 2008

Should Writers Be Critics?

If anyone has the time to read down to the end of the comments section of my last post, they'll see among the really terrific and thoughtful reader comments (you commenters make this blog worth doing) that Scott Snyder, author of Voodoo Heart and "The 13th Egg," one of the famous VQR Six, shows up to talk about some of the decisions he made in writing the story. Ack, I feel terrible when I criticize someone and they read about it on the blog, but what am I, stupid? Of course they do. And Snyder is really nice about it, too, which makes me feel worse.

But he provides an important piece of information: that the story was commissioned for an anthology of superhero stories written by writers who don't generally write that kind of thing. Which explains a lot, including the crazy ending. I stand by my point -- that it's not a "character" story -- but the context explains why it's not a character story.

Another piece of significant info: my own spouse and co-bloggist JRL was also solicited for that same anthology. Dammit, now we are in the awkward position of having apparently insulted the editors JR was working with.

It's not that big a world. If I say I didn't like a book, there's a small chance that the author and I have the same agent, or that the author had previously said very nice things about my husband, or that if I ever finish and publish another novel, that author will bring out the big knives for me.

There's also a philosophical hurdle, which I consider very carefully before I leap over it: the idea that writers should support other writers, period. That if they can't say anything nice, they should just shut up. Some writer friends only open their traps to kindly blurb other writers or to write positive reviews, and there is something to be said for this position.

Yet here I keep blathering on, as if the world is graduate school and everything I say will be considered in a dry academic context. Of course it's not school; the world is actually a complicated web of connections, histories, and obligations. Oh yeah, and there's Google. Still. I feel like the discussion of literature and writing shouldn't be left just to critics. Critics have less at stake. This stuff is important to me, and I think it needs to be discussed, and I hope if my own work is ever publically thrashed on a blog I'll have the equanimity to take it with as much grace as Snyder.


bookfraud said...

yes, it is a small world of publishing, much smaller than most people realize. i'm not in the inner circle that my opinions mean anything, but i know people who have unwisely opened their mouths about a writer or book and later regretted it.

as for criticism, writers can be (formal) critics, but it may mean saying goodbye to a friendship. friends shouldn't let other friends review their books. it's gotten tot he point that when i see a fawning review by a writer, i assume he or she knows the author of the book. pretty cynical, i know...

zoe said...

That's why places like here are so important. Everyone is pretty much equal and there's a democratic approach to reviewing/critiquing other writers.

Anonymous said...

Rhian, inspired by your philosophic hurdle, I scribbled out a very sloppy logical proof:

1. Many of today's editors are (or want to be) authors.

2. Authors depend on positive reviews from editors.

3. False compliments given usually lead to false compliments received.

4. If all of today's editors are (or want to be) authors, and authors depend on glowing reviews from editors, and a glowing reviews beget glowing reviews, than editors have an incentive to give false compliments to mediocre work.

5. A positive book review of mediocre book is a bad review.

Therefore, much of today's literary criticism is generally bad.

6. Bad book reviews mislead the public, causing them to purchase mediocre books.

7. A series of mediocre book purchases lead to distrust and apathy toward contemp. lit.

8. Distrust and apathy toward comtemp. lit. leads to decline in readers.

Thus, current literary criticism is adding to the decline of literature.

But I missed a bunch of steps, including:

- chummy "small world" MFA culture leads to kind yet disengenous blurbing of mediocre books, which = bad reviews
- publishers hounding established authors to blurb mediocre books = bad reviews
- several years of public apathy leads to public disinterest, which leads to cuts in staff on the review desks of major newspapers, which leads to...

(Everyone now!)

Bad reviews!

It's a culture of kindness. Too bad it's the kindness that's killing the culture.

rmellis said...

BF: Your cynicism is probably quite well-founded. We don't do much criticism here, but when we review friends, we make sure that's out in the open. I'll confess that I actually don't read the work of my friends much, because if it's good I'll be too jealous, and if it's bad I'll be embarrassed.

Zoe: The same Zoe who had baby just the other day? You are a soldier!

Anon: I can't argue with your logic. I think the most heartbreaking bit is where the reader loses faith in literature after having had too many crummy books hyped to her. Blogs might be able to save the day on this one -- I know I've discovered more great books via blogs than I ever did via reviews.

Anonymous said...

Anon, I'm a published writer. That's not how it works, though i know we'd all like to believe that. I wish I got good reviews so easily. Blurbs are blurbs and yes, that's all chumminess. But really, reviews and criticism are a different culture. It's not such a corrupt system. Trust reviews, not blurbs (though yes, sometimes, like films or plays, bad books get oddly good reviews). And most editors at the level you're talking about - good editors - don't want to be writers. Believe me. Writers are like the last thing they want to be. Sorry, but I promise this is true.

Anonymous said...

Yes, first anon--I was with you for a little while, but you are making some grim generalizations that don't hold true. Most editors do not actually wish they were writers, in my experience--some do, and some in fact are, but many are editors because that's what they like doing. The circle you describe exists, but it isn't very tight; there are many ways to escape from it, and lots of people do.

Also--and second Anon mentions this--blurbs are just crap. Don't believe a word of them. THEY are where friends say nice things about friends...there really is a different standard for reviews. Not to say that everyone follows that standard, but there you go.

I'm lucky to have been able to actually really like almost all the books I blurbed...and even the marginal ones, I could come around to seeing as good for long enough to write the blurb.

The only way to really know if a book is any good is to read it.

rmellis said...

No, JR, I think there are ways to know if a book is good without having read it. I've come to recognize certain ways of talking about books that certain people have that I trust implicitly -- won't mention any here for fear of leaving someone out -- but they are all people I know personally or are bloggers. I can't think of a single mainstream reviewer whose judgement I so thoroughly trust.

FirstAnon said...

Rhian, I agree with you entirely. Like you, I have a few friends whose taste I've come to trust. I have a few bloggers I've come to trust. If they tell me a book is good, it's almost always good.

This is the issue that I'm trying to address. It's a matter of credibility, a lack of credibility on the part of print reviews, and how the trend of writing kind reviews of mediocre work is a detriment to literature. It extends past blurbs. Authors who review the work of fellow authors are almost always the worst offenders.

We've all been exposed to workshops. We know how this works. It's almost funny.

Say a story's decent. It's not great, it's not anything you'd go out of your way to recommend to a close circle of friends, and yet it's not awful -- it's just decent.

What do we do?

First off, we never call it for what it is. We never say, "it didn't do much for me, and I doubt this story ever could." No. We point out particulars.

Most start by offering a cheap bouquet of compliments: "I love the metaphor you use to describe the diabetic's nose." "Great use of alliteration to drive home the plot." "This sentence could have been written by Cheever." Later we might get into some substantive critique. Then we finish with another set of bland, happy encouragements.

We make them a compliment sandwich.

In part because we want the kindness extended to us when it's our turn to be critiqued.

Sadly, I see a very similar technique used in print. The reviewers (after hashing out the requisite plot summary) use a variety of positive adjectives to describe work that is (to anyone who's been in a workshop) clearly... decent. Not "great", not "an excellent example of...", not "a tremendous achievement given...", but -- decent.

You and I? We can vet the bullshit. We can read between the lines. We understand that there's no way in hell that he could have written a poor review of her fictionalized account of the Darfur genocide.

The general public might not. I'd even argue that - having not been exposed to the delicate politics of workshop reviews - they cannot.

This is a real issue. It's also, I believe, an example of how MFA culture negatively impacts the world of literature. When an author heaps false praise on a mediocre book, they offer the reviewed a small kindness - but they do the public no service.


Because they erode the credibility of that journal or paper.

Because when a customer picks up a book whose author was kindly reviewed by a colleague in the Times, and then the customer chucks the book half-way through ("It was... decent."), that customer is less likely to trust the Times in the future.

Now with regard to the issue of writers as editors and editors as writers: I'd suggest that the distinction is getting murky. Take into consideration two new novels that were released just recently - one by an editor at The Paris Review, the other by an editor at n+1.

Overall, both got pretty decent reviews.

Anonymous said...

dude, you can't review the books of people you know in places like the times. again, i'm a published writer myself and it doesn't really happen. they're careful about that. you're taking an experience you seem to have had in a bad workshop and extending it to the rest of the publishing world. i've been in plenty of workshops where people are brutally honest. most, in fact. maybe it's just the quality of the classes you've taken. no one's handing each other "compliment bouquets" or any such thing in a good workshop. they're critiquing a story on its own terms, trying to figure out what the author was going for, what was working given that, and what could be improved. sure, some nepotism exists in reviewing, but nothing like you seem to think. there's no conspiracy. it's not some club created by mfa culture. mfa students might stick together, the way any colleagues do -doctors in med. school, lawyers in law school - but there are broad lines drawn when it comes to critical reception. friends don't review friends, at least in my experience, or they get called out on it. you're being paranoid, anon.

book reviewer said...

I review books regularly for several large newspapers, and I'm always asked to sign a contract stating that I don't have any connection with the author (we're not friends; he/she's not a former student; we don't share an agent or publisher), etc. And you know what? I take that seriously. I would never review a book by someone I knew personally or expected some quid pro quo for, and the vast majority of writers I know who write book reviews also follow that rule. I'm sure there are exceptions, but those are exceptions, and as the person above me wrote, they would eventually get called out on it. I've written several glowing reviews as well, all to authors I've never met and may never meet, and I expect nothing in return, except my check from the newspaper.

book reviewer said...

A sentence above should read,

"I'm sure some don't, but those are exceptions, and as the person above me wrote, they would eventually get called out on it."

Sorry. It's too damned early.

FirstAnon said...

In this forum we can argue behind a veil. The author who reviews a fellow author exposes her name to the public. If she gives an unkind review, there's both the chance that a) she could be made a fool of (here I'm thinking of Mailer's first review of Beckett's Endgame), or b) she could be made a target for reciprocal attack (examples of which are too many to list).

The safe thing to do, the cautious thing to do - especially in a profession that depends a lot on who you know, and the contacts you make - is to print a mild, inoffensive review. This mirrors most reviews I read today. Plot summary, plot summary, bit of critique, cute conclusion.

I don’t necessarily blame the author/reviewer. Like bookfraud and Rhian said, it's a small world. True, reviewers aren't friends with the authors of the books they review. But that doesn't mean it's not in their interest to be friendly. In many cases - especially with young authors - it is. For all the reasons that Rhian previously outlined.

Here you may hem and haw, and tell me that this isn't how it really works. That no author puts aside her harsh judgements, she never holds back what they truly feel about book, she never "balances" with kindness. You may say that no author ever writes a review without thinking of the feelings of the other author (remember Rhian's Hurdle*, "writers should support other writers, period"). I disagree. I not only think it happens, as a friend of a few authors who write book reviews on the side - I know this happens.

One told me that after she wrote a bad review of a book in a major web mag, the author (a stranger) emailed her, accusing her of sabotage. Even if my friend didn't like the book, the author contended, she should have been kind enough to focus more on what she liked. How did the author feel justified in demanding this? Rhian's Hurdle: "Writers should support other writers, period."

So Anon was right to qualify: book reviewing is nothing like the rough critique found in a graduate MFA workshop. It does, however, seem eerily similar to the model of a lot of public workshops, where the desire to make friends - and not look like a jerk - is an undeniable factor at play.

Finally, I think the assertion that "they would get called on it" is weak. Being that book reviews are incredibly subjective, how could you possibly "call out" an author who occasionally writes mild, inoffensive reviews of mediocre books?

Instead, I think you'd call that author kind.

* I totally think we should bring 'Rhian's Hurdle' into the lexicon, by the way.

book reviewer said...

I've written scathing reviews as well, but...whatever. This is a ridiculous argument. As is usually the case, I regret I posted the above.

anon2 said...

firtsanon - i meant "called out" in that the connection would be quickly exposed and ridiculed. you're way paranoid, buddy. only someone totally alienated from the world of publishing would be so suspicious. here you have authors and reviewers and editors telling you your fears aren't really true, yet you keep clinging. of course most of us writers know each other. it's not a conspiracy. it's not a secret club. what you fail to get is that writers know writers b/c they come up together. they work in the same field. i didn't get into an mfa b/c i knew anyone. i didn't get into my first magazine b/c i knew anyone (i was found off the slush). i didn't get an agent b/c i knew anybody. it's the opposite. i got into an mfa b/c i gave a good submission. subsequently, i know writers b/c i got into an mfa. or a magazine. and so on. i know them b/c we ascended the ranks together. get it? there is some merit to the system, and your refusal to acknowledge that is extremely, extremely insulting to us working writers. you must know lots of people in your profession whom you ascended the ranks with. now i have other writer friends who i know because i studied with them, and i have writer friends i know because i admire their work and wrote to them. and i have writer friends that equal leave no room for integrity, or professionalism. don't you have colleagues you've come to be close to out of mutual respect, or work-related circumstances (panels, readings, jobs, etc.)? or is every working relationship you have based on some kind of warped nepotism? frankly, one of the reasons you're likely having trouble becoming a writer is that you're so resentful of the idea that most writers make it on skill and hard work. they sure as hell don't sell their books to friends. they might get blurbs from their friends. but they sure as hell don't get reviewed by their friends. as up and coming writers, they sure as hell don't get into reputable magazines b/c their friends run those magazines. once you're established, yes, you get solicited. yes, you know people at the magazines you've been in who let you cut the line, but not on the way up. there is a weeding system, a strong one, and to ignore it or refuse to believe in it is to discredit the art form you profess to care about. listen, i'm telling you this for your own good. please. try to see writing objectively, similar to other careers. of course there must be a few people who coast in via connections, but to believe that about the industry as a whole is to deeply insult everyone involved.

G. C. Munroe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Writer Reading said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rmellis said...

Well, I didn't mean to diss all book critics. It's just that there are few prominent ones, that's the fault of the publications that value movie and restaurant reviews over books. (Would it even be possible for there to be a Leonard Maltin of book reviewers?) My local paper has lengthy, well-thought-out food and movie reviews, but only just recently started printing book ones. And they are god-awful.

I didn't know book reviewers had to sign statements testifying to their lack of bias; thanks for the info, BR.

I wonder if part of the problem is that it's so hard to get at the essence of a book without relying on one's individual taste, or personal literary philosophies. I've read several reviews of "All the Sad Young Literary Men" that make it sound like something I would like... but I hated it. For some reason, I find movie reviews much more reliable; I can almost always tell from a review whether I'll like a movie, and I'm almost always right.

Sorry I missed those removed posts. Sigh...

Anonymous said...

I think anon2 is perhaps overstating the case here, but I pretty much agree with what he/she says.

But it's true also that the vast majority of book reviews are softpedals. One writer I respect ENORMOUSLY wrote a negative review of a book recently--a very well-written negative review. When I told this writer I liked it, the writer told me the book was actually WAY WORSE than that--the review held back!

I DO think writers often feel funny saying what they REALLY think about other writers. It isn't that they're reviewing their friends--they're reviewing somebody with whom they sympathize, because they're a writer. The NYTBR, in my view, often feels like little more than a selection of mediocre writers saying other mediocre writers are wonderful, with a smattering of people who don't know what they're talking about poo-poohing excellence. (Our friend Brian Hall's brilliant new novel was snubbed by...wait for it...the NYT drinks columnist a couple weeks ago.)

But anon2 is definitely right--there is no conspiracy, and no MFA cabal. Just some occassional insularity and denial, which you get in any line of work.

David Rochester said...

Good heavens, what an interesting thread.

I think one tricky piece of all of this is that to a large extent, the experience of art is subjective to the person experiencing it. I'm not sure I'm really qualified to know what is mediocre and what isn't, but I do know what I like. I know what I like to see in a story, and in a book, and yada yada.

I think my opinion, and/or reviews of books I read, would be most useful to people who share my aesthetic sense. That's probably true of most professional critics, as well. Just because someone is a so-called professional doesn't mean that he is free of personal bias.

I do think that in general, there isn't enough honesty/accountability in the arts, but I think the lack has more to do with failing to require artists to be emotionally accountable than it does with failure of craft. There's a lot of techinically sound writing out there that doesn't take any risks. And it's risk that makes art, IMO.