Monday, March 23, 2009

Criticizing other writers

We just got back from a few days out of town, visiting some friends. The friends are writers, and they invited some friends over for dinner, and the friends' friends were writers too. And then we went out and bumped into some more writers.

It was all a lot of fun--I like meeting other writers. But it's easy to see how the literary world can come to seem awfully incestuous. I've resisted many times, on this blog, the notion that contemporary literature is nothing more than a big clique, and that all that matters is who you know--the notion is cynical and reductive. But knowing lots of other writers is nearly inevitable, especially if you study or teach at a college, and for the most part it's desirable, too.

It becomes problematic, though, when you wish to perform the geuinely useful act of substantively criticizing other people's work. What if you end up on a panel with that writer someday, or have to deliver a reading together? What if that writer reviews books, as well, and yours falls onto her desk?

The screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas left a comment to the last post, in response to the thumbs-down I had just given his thriller. As you can see (and as he further proved in a subsequent email exchange), he's a good sport with a thick skin. But not everyone's like that. Indeed, hardly anyone is, and that's too bad.

Writers should criticize one another, respectfully and carefully. To offer only praise for the things you like doesn't quite constitute a useful dialogue--if something bugs you about a peer's work, and you can support your views, you ought to be able to express them, calmly, without the fear of making an enemy--and you should have the humility to accept similar criticism yourself. Of course, this is a hopelessly idealistic approach: in one of my many rants about book reviewing, I have probably said that the only people who are really qualified to review books are other writers. But other writers have prejudices and allegiances that are hard to overcome, and the results often come off either as hopeless snarking or professional backscratching, delivered with a wink.

I was talking with some colleagues about book reviewing, and I said that I preferred getting an intelligent bad review than a positive puff piece. And one colleague turned to me and said, "Bullshit." Well--she's kind of right. I certainly would prefer a ditzy rave to a thorough intellectual thrashing. But most of the reviews I've gotten that flattered me the most are ones that, at least in part, took me to task for subtle weaknesses in my work. One memorable review, in praising a recent book of mine, took the time to dismiss my first two, and my main reaction was, "Whoa--they actually read the first two." What I meant, I suppose, is that I would rather be read carefully than praised thoughtlessly, and accept the possibility that I might be found lacking. I think most serious writers feel the same way. We want to be part of something alive, something rigorous, not merely players in yet another form of casual entertainment. We need to keep one another on our toes, to have the respect to give and receive criticism.

All of this is on my mind, as I have a new book coming out next week and am bracing myself for negative reactions, or, worse, no reactions at all. I hope I can learn something from the former, but if I can't, I fear I will end up on my knees, begging the world for faint praise.

19 comments:

rmellis said...

We met Judy Blume!

*swoon*

I can't take criticism of any kind anymore. Legitimate criticism makes me feel like a fool, and illegitimate criticism makes me mad.

Come to think of it, I can't take praise, either.

jrlennon said...

Great comment, hon!

I mean, uh, lousy comment...I mean...

ah, never mind.

Derek Haas said...

The problem is -- and this isn't profound -- the line between professional reviewer and casual reader tossing up a review on-line has been blurred to the point of invisibility. While Kirkus or a NYT review might hold more weight, I'm finding readers are paying as close attention to the 15 reader reviews on Amazon as any professional review. Word of mouth has gone global. With books, this tends to be positive, I think, primarily because our audience is thoughtful. But with movies, there is a growing culture of trashing films for sport, each reviewer trying to out sensationalize the other. So far, I don't think this culture has spread to literature, except for extremely popular fare like TWILIGHT. All this is to say that you should've read more than a page. :).

jrlennon said...

OK, OK, you've got me to rights! I was only trying to slim down my library book pile and got a bee in my bonnet.

I agree, though, that that line is blurred. When we sit down to really try and analyze a book here on this blog, as we go from time to time, I think we do much better than anything you'll ever read in, say, Kirkus--and if you've read our stuff, or like this blog, a review here may carry more weight, too.

Amazon used to irritate me, back when I actually read my reader reviews--I always felt misunderstood and unfairly maligned. But increasingly I find--Rhian has written about this too--that you can tell which reviewers are reading books in the manner you like to read books, and thus which reviews will be relevant to you. I suspect the star ratings are less important than they once were, and that readers are actually paying attention to the reviews.

I'd like to think that the entire analysis of literature, in all genres, is becoming democratized, and that in the long run this will make for more thoughtful criticism, and perhaps more thoughtful writing. The death of print newspapers, which is beginning to snowball, may force this process top accelerate. Here's hoping it does some good.

Matt said...

Derek, re: film vs book reviews, I agree that film critiquing has become a zoo where people with little or no idea of what they are talking about share the same page (literally, as is the case with Rottentomatoes.com) with those who are intelligent, professional, and knowledgeable.

As this pertains to books, what has been posted about the Amazon-effect is accurate, but doesn't come close to the sort of lunacy seen on imdb.com (or the comments on the A/V Club) because it's so much easier in a digital age for people to purchase/steal/rent/watch a 90-minute movie than, say, do the same with a 600-page book.

I suppose it will be interesting to see how the proliferation of the e-book changes this; I have an unproven suspicion that digital books will encourage speed-reading, resulting in an increase in literary opinions which are just as wildly uneven as those posted about film.

Derek Haas said...

I don't know... I've been reading almost exclusively on Kindle for the last 18 months or so, and it hasn't increased the speed with which I read a book. Maybe it will lead to a new piracy in the book business, but I'm not sure the same type of person who chooses to illegally download an mp3 file is the one reading on a kindle. I could be wrong about that... though that's a topic for a different blog.

My main point is that the anonymity with which you can get away with movie reviews these days -- GawdZilla on Aint-it-Cool-News says "I'd rather eat my own dook than sit through that movie again!" -- lends itself to hyperbolic, typically negative pile-ons. The internet makes it easy, and the blogosphere reaction supports it. Though I haven't seen this mirrored too much in terms of book reviews, it certainly could become more commonplace. And the ability (or the desire) of a potential reader to discern between, say, Daniel Handler of the NYT, and DESPERATEHW17, when picking out his or her next purchase is decreasing, in my opinion.

jrlennon said...

Ah, but how do we know that DESPERATEHW17 isn't just another of Dan's clever alter egos?

I am, by the way, quite worried about e-book piracy. Unlike, say, Metallica, we don't make shit from touring. Perhaps I ought to get some web-only merch together.

How's reading on the Kindle, Derek? I'm interested in e-book readers; Rhian is not. Or, rather, she thinks they are bad...

Derek Haas said...

It's pretty great. Not being back-lit is key... so no eye-strain. My wife was opposed so I bought her one out of spite. It sat on her bedside table, unused, for four months. I kept ordering books for her so it would be filled whenever she decided to turn it on. We took a trip out of the country and she took it with her... hasn't put it down since. You get used to it quickly. The only negative is the page count... you never know exactly where you are in the book... the days of 'oh, I just have 35 pages left, I might as well finish' are over. Because you can change the typeface to make the letters as big as you want, they've substituted dots at the bottom of the screen for page numbers, and the dots fill in as you get closer to finishing. The problem is you never really know how many "page clicks" makes up a filled dot, so the end of a book has this mirage of going on too long. Still, I've gotten used to it.

And now they have an app for the Iphone where it will sync with your book on the kindle, so if you're waiting in line at the starbucks counter, you can read a couple of pages, then when you get home to your actual kindle, it knows where you left off and immediately syncs to that page.

Ahhh, technology.

Gary said...

You touched on the real horror, though lightly - that of being completely ignored: you can dismiss criticism but you can't dismiss nothing. Then there is the related horror of being reviewed but of it not making any difference bar a few extra copies sold before your book disappears into oblivion and your Amazon sales ranking climbs into seven figures. Then there is the also-related horror of your first novel having done badly but your publisher, being a good sort of cove, has faith in you and goes for one more roll of the die with your second, which, despite it being of solid literary merit, suffers the same fate as the first, and thereafter if you ever bump into him and meet his gaze you see his eyes filling with reproach (not to mention the fact that your career has been permanently ruined since no other publisher will touch you). Then there is...

Actually the best example I know of the merits of NOT telling the truth to friends about their latest work concerns Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud. Malamud was on his death bed, more or less, and had completed the opening of a novel, and asked Roth what he thought of it. Instead of lying, Roth started 'criticizing' it, saying it opened too slowly... The full account appears in the London Review of Books in May 1986. It ends with the sentence: 'He died on 18 March, three days before Spring.'

Sara F. said...

Derek,

A random unrelated question: I was just looking at your book on amazon and am wondering: is there a reason it's printed in a sans-serif font? Seems strange to me. Do a lot of books do this now?

Interesting about the page number thing on kindle. A friend of mine was once talking about endings in books versus movies, how the reader knows exactly when a novel will end, but with a movie the audience doesn't always know when it's final fade to black will come. Pros and cons to both of course.

Sara F. said...

I just noticed that as I was typing my post about knowing versus not knowing when endings come, Gary was posting about death. Sounds about right.

Derek Haas said...

Good question, Sara. I don't have an answer. I dig the way it looks.

jrlennon said...

Gary, the only answer is to pay no attention whatsoever to any book reviews, blog posts, or sales figures. That is the path to sanity. And it is almost impossibly narrow...

Zachary Cole said...

Derek: I feel the urge to post as "GawdZilla" from now on ;)

E. said...

Gary, your summary of the Roth-Malamud encounter rocks the projects; I have no need now to read the full article, since it can't possibly be better than your brief yarn. Thanks for that!

I'm (mostly) with Rhian. Criticism, even well-thought, makes me insane. Praise I can take. Heaps and heaps of it. Yes, please, two lumps of sugar.

Re: film reviews by the Great Unwashed: I know there are buffs who take their cinema as seriously as we take our literature, but really, films exist (for the most part) to entertain. (I know, I know, it's an art form, it aspires. I know.) Isn't everyone entitled to an opinion, even a clumsy one? Whereas book reviews lacking nuance drive me batshit, IMBD blather just feels like... democracy on parade. Do we really need "professionals" to tell us we're wrong to hate on the latest James Bond?

JRL, sorry I keep posting late comments -- I just got a new MacBook (!!) after my laptop got zapped a few weeks ago, so my access has been spotty. Good to see you all.

Cheers,
E.

jrlennon said...

I really don't think movies are more or less artistically potent than novels. They're certainly more of a gesamtkunstwerk, and thus are more tyrannical over the senses and imagination...but personally I'm almost as moved by them as books.

As for criticism...it all depends on how it's delivered, I suppose. This is why I don't read reviews of my books anymore...

jrlennon said...

Oh, E. good luck with your Macbook...I'm in the market for a laptop...but I am aiming a bit lower, I think. Perhaps another HP that I can shoehorn some Linux onto.

Anonymous said...

[url=http://sunkomutors.net/][img]http://sunkomutors.net/img-add/euro2.jpg[/img][/url]
[b]star trek themes for windows xp, [url=http://sunkomutors.net/]buy adobe photoshop for[/url]
[url=http://sunkomutors.net/][/url] buy photoshop brush selling software in a
adobe acrobat 9 pro extended serial number [url=http://sunkomutors.net/]pc software to buy[/url] repairing internet explorer in windows xp
[url=http://sunkomutors.net/]free autocad hatch patterns[/url] free macromedia dreamweaver 8 software
[url=http://sunkomutors.net/]nero 9 disk space reporting error[/url] academic software san
acdsee pro photo [url=http://sunkomutors.net/]adobe acrobat 9 professional hot key[/b]

I LOVE YOU said...

AV,無碼,a片免費看,自拍貼圖,伊莉,微風論壇,成人聊天室,成人電影,成人文學,成人貼圖區,成人網站,一葉情貼圖片區,色情漫畫,言情小說,情色論壇,臺灣情色網,色情影片,色情,成人影城,080視訊聊天室,a片,A漫,h漫,麗的色遊戲,同志色教館,AV女優,SEX,咆哮小老鼠,85cc免費影片,正妹牆,ut聊天室,豆豆聊天室,聊天室,情色小說,aio,成人,微風成人,做愛,成人貼圖,18成人,嘟嘟成人網,aio交友愛情館,情色文學,色情小說,色情網站,情色,A片下載,嘟嘟情人色網,成人影片,成人圖片,成人文章,成人小說,成人漫畫,視訊聊天室,a片,AV女優,聊天室,情色,性愛