The Author, "Formal" & "Informal" Criticism

(October 2000)

There's been considerable furor on one of the romance discussion lists recently about a couple of issues we've all talked about in the past - reviews and the online behavior of authors. These issues hit home recently when I tried to re-direct discussion about it on one of our own message boards. Readers have apparently not tired of this discussion.

Because it is an issue that isn't going to go away, why not tackle it? That question was made easier when I opened my in-box and discovered an article written by double-DIK author Adele Ashworth.

I'd like to present to you Adele's article, which not only discusses formal "reviews," but reader criticism in general (for an earlier discussion on this, feel free to read Patricia Gaffney's 1996 Write Byte on the same subject). Following her piece are some reader comments from the Potpourri Message Board in consideration of this question:

"What is the relationship between critics and artists/authors, or the reality of being a public figure, or the right of readers to object or comment on a work which has been sold to them?"

After that are some thoughts and questions for you to consider. And finally, reader responses to these thoughts and questions and on the original content of this page.

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Keeping It In Perspective: Author vs. Reviewer vs. Reader

s a journalism major at the University of Utah, I worked as an intern during my senior year for the ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City. Of course this was much more work than glamour, and I was stuck for hours each day in a tiny tv room writing news stories (what we called “copy”) for the five o’clock broadcast. But I didn’t work alone. I sat right beside a woman, fresh out of Brigham Young University, who’d been hired by the same station to write copy for the anchors.

Interestingly enough, I would write a story while she wrote another, she would look mine over and pronounce it fine. But when she handed it to the copy editor in the same pile with hers, hers were accepted while mine came back as inadequate, scribbled on with remarks about the “stupid lead sentence,” “shallow writing,” or my absolute favorite: “Obviously written by an intern.” Did I take it personally? Of course! I worked hard and my stories were, day after day, rejected with frequent humiliating remarks that didn’t at all help me improve my writing.

The woman I worked with noticed this. She had only graduated two semesters ahead of me, at a comparable, four-year accredited university, but there was a difference. This ABC affiliate was paying her. Her stories had to be good. I was merely an intern who would be replaced by another the following semester.

About three weeks into my internship, my co-worker had an idea: We would write our afternoon stories, then switch our names (always at the top right of every story). Guess what happened? My story got read on the evening news; her story came back scribbled on with red pen. From that moment on, we swapped stories all the time, mostly to freak out the copy editor, who, I would like to think, began to suspect but couldn’t prove a thing.

Here’s my point. All writing is subjective, and as a longtime writer I’ve accepted that. Yet this is my only stand-out memory of three months’ work in a news station fifteen years ago. Why? Because my subjective writing was “unfairly graded” and I was mad enough to spit.

But what does “unfairly graded” mean? Where do we draw the line between “unfairly graded” and “appropriate criticism”? I’m not sure I, or anyone, knows the answer to that. Two plus two always equal four, and if, when you add two and two together, you don’t get four, you’re wrong. But what constitutes a great lead sentence (or opening paragraph, or the best sentence structure) is totally debatable. Even the most literate minds cannot agree on what actually makes a particular book great or awful. I’ve now moved away from writing news stories to writing romance. In my personal experience as a romance novelist, I’ve been accused of writing both “terrible, choppy, unreadable prose” to “luscious, beautifully lyrical prose” by intelligent, educated women who love to read romance novels. Who is right? Why is there such disparity and dissension between authors, readers, and reviewers if we all want the same thing - a good book to read and be read by others?

On Being An Author:

It may be shocking to some, but I’m not one of those authors who considers my books my babies. Yes, I put a lot of effort, learned skills, and as much talent and time as I can muster into writing the best book I possibly can, but it’s not like giving birth. I have two children, and if someone verbally attacked one of them, I’d get defensive, maybe even vicious. On the other hand, I love my books, and don’t want to see them criticized, but it’s not because I see them as perfect little creatures spawned from the center of my creative soul. I put everything into them in the hope that I create lovely stories that please the reader, whether she’s me, my sister, my best friend, or a total stranger who buys it off the shelf. That’s all. If I don’t please the reader, I’m upset, and deeply saddened because I tried so hard. Still, I just write books. A book is a book, not a child. In the grand scheme of what we call “life” there are significantly more important things for me to worry about besides whether one reviewer/reader disliked my latest.

There is, however, a huge difference between having my hard work criticized and having it attacked, or what we in the business call “trashed.” In the three years I’ve been writing books, I’ve read many criticisms of my work, as a whole and in part. Suffice it to say I’ve not once, by any romance reviewer, had my work figuratively scribbled over in red pen with the words, “Obviously written by a beginner” - or idiot, or loser, or ugly fat woman. That’s not to say it hasn’t been done by a reviewer somewhere. Some people are simply more tactful than others. Yet this is what I, as an author, have to keep in perspective when I read a mediocre or even poor review of one of my books. A review is not personal, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Before I began this article, I spent a good two hours reading through numerous reviews at AAR, most less than glowing, some a lot less than glowing. I looked specifically for those that attacked an author’s gift, something I deem very personal, and to my surprise, I didn’t find a single one that I felt was an outright, blatant attack on the author herself. Yes, I was surprised, considering that there are more than a few authors who believe sites like AAR trash authors and are quite verbose about it, almost to the point of being arrogant. That’s not to say some of the reviews I read didn’t come close. But again, this is subjective. If a reviewer comments that it’s “hard to believe the publishing market is so tight when such and such a book can be published” (paraphrasing), is that reviewer criticizing the author or the book? I’d venture to suggest reviewers and readers would say the book, an author would say the author. It’s a matter of opinion.

Many like to argue that a review is just one person’s opinion. In point of fact this is correct. However, I do believe readers and reviewers sometimes get caught up in the Almighty Opinion, as if this one magic word makes it forgivable to criticize in any fashion. As an author, it can sometimes be excruciating to read a negative review of a fellow author’s book. We can sympathize all too well with harsh criticism. Sometimes it makes us angry, especially when we’ve read the book that garners a “bad grade” and feel the reviewer completely missed the mark, or just didn’t “get” the book. That’s a shame, but it happens all too frequently.

So does this mean the author’s feelings should come into play when a review is written? Not necessarily. A review is not written for the author, but for the buying public, who, for the most part, couldn’t care any less about an author’s feelings. The reader wants an unbiased assessment of a book before she spends her hard earned money on it. However, it should be kept in mind that the person who wrote that book is a human being, a man or woman with kids and laundry and irritating in-laws and life struggles. She’s tried like hell to please, and is so damn proud of her story, start to finish, that to read on a bulletin board or list that her personality and/or feelings don’t matter, is downright insulting. No, it’s not the same as saying the author’s child is the ugliest, brainless brat to ever step foot in Mrs. Carmichael’s sixth grade class, but to an author, it’s close. Just because a review is an Opinion, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a reviewer to write whatever she feels. As in all things, discretion with grace should be the order of the day, and when a reviewer is criticizing a piece of creative art, all tact should be involved, whether she hates the work or loves it. Reviewers who do this with the most flair are the most respected by authors as well.

On Being AAR:

The first time I stumbled onto the AAR site two and a half years ago, I thought I’d hit a gold mine. It was, in my opinion, a treasure chest of ideas, articles, and fascinating if not outrageous commentary. This was, of course, only a few months before the publication of my first book, and naturally I worried, especially after I became somewhat engrossed in the site, that my books wouldn’t “make the grade.” But that’s part of the life of an author. I had two choices: I could ignore AAR, and other sites like it, and if I received a less than glowing review, I would simply not respond. Or I could grin and bear it. I decided to do that latter, mostly because I enjoy reading the bulletin boards, columns, and reviews at AAR, and felt, as I do even now, that the reviewers here do their best to be unbiased. Have any of them crossed the line? Maybe, but - here we go again - that’s subjective.

I’ve always felt that Laurie Gold placed herself in a difficult position when she started AAR, and even more so when it began to grow by leaps and bounds. Would she be more loyal to readers or authors? Could she be both? AAR is a reader site, so it’s only safe to assume readers take priority, but where would the site be without authors to comment, or interview, or write articles and column segments? She would have to walk a very tight rope indeed to please everybody. It’s debatable whether she’s been successful, unless we let the numbers speak for themselves. They do. AAR is enormously successful as an Internet presence for dynamic interaction between authors, their books, and readers, and hits to the site are growing by the day. I think this is a good thing, regardless of whether their reviewers like my work. I’ve yet to receive a “low grade” or negative review at AAR, but it’s bound to happen someday. How will I take it? I don’t know, exactly, but I doubt it will be a personal trashing in red pen, in which case I’ll likely grin and bear it, maybe post my thoughts and shrug it off. Of course it will hurt, especially if I feel the reviewer just didn’t “get” it. But it’s a book, not a baby, and there will be another. AAR may be a very large presence on the Internet, but a negative review here won’t break my career. On the whole I think AAR has been a far more positive influence on the romance genre than they are many times given credit for.

On Being A Reader:

I think it’s safe to say that all authors care immensely about their readers, and write every single book in the hope of pleasing every single one of them. That isn’t possible, of course, when we’re talking about something subjective. As writers, we do know rationally that not every book we write is going to be loved by everyone, even sometimes by our most loyal readers. We also realize that to many our books might be real “stinkers.” I’ve never had a problem with readers saying they didn’t “get” one of my books, or that they didn’t like the story for whatever reason, or even that a reader just found my books not to her taste and won’t try me again; everybody’s taste is different, including mine. I love Dean Koontz, for instance, but having tried several, I have never been able to read a book by Stephen King beyond the first couple of chapters. His style is just boring for me and that’s that. I expect all authors realize this is going to happen with their books as well.

It does get unnerving, though, when reader comments go beyond the pages to the author herself. In that case it tends to ring of personal attack, which is unfortunate, in my opinion, not only because a hard working person’s feelings can be deeply hurt, but because it becomes entirely too obvious that the reader who makes such personal, sweeping statements has gone beyond what’s important. For instance, I read a Dean Koontz book last summer sitting on the beaches of Hawaii. It fell flat for me. Totally flat. I thought it was so boring I could hardly finish it. At the time I wondered if it was because I was at the beach, but decided that wasn’t it. If a book is truly engaging I’ll be drawn in, and it doesn’t matter where I’m reading it. At this point, I can’t even remember the title... Door to Tomorrow? or something? But I can remember Watchers and Lightning and Strangers, even though I read these books years ago, because I loved them.

The point is, I paid six bucks for a book I didn’t like by an author I love. So what. I’ve paid six bucks for a whole chicken that, after cooking, was made of mostly bone and fat. It’s just a chicken. Of course if I keep buying six dollar chickens made of mostly fat and bone from Company X, I’ll stop buying their food. Since the chicken was only six bucks, I probably won’t take the time to write the owner of Company X because hey, it was only six bucks and my time is a lot more valuable. After two or three bad chickens, I might tell my friends that the latest chickens from Company X have been disappointing for me and I probably won’t buy any more of them. But I don’t attack the chicken, or make sweeping statements that imply Company X should just hang up its hat and close its doors. Maybe they just seem bony and fatty to me. Maybe someone else likes chicken like that. Who’s to say?

It’s the same with books. I’ll read more of Koontz’s books, and in the end, if they begin to read, to me, like that Door to Whatever, I’ll quit buying his books. But I would never, ever complain to Dean Koontz, or even suggest to my friends and fellow readers that Koontz himself has no idea what he’s doing as an author anymore. Door to Whatever, I’m absolutely positive, was somebody’s favorite Koontz book, and I respect that. He’s a wonderful author; I just didn’t like that one. But I’m confident he’s still got the talent to write great books that will be enjoyed by lots of readers in the future.

A lot of people love my books, and probably the same number of people dislike them. That’s fine with me. The fact that a book as a whole, or parts of the plot, didn’t work for a particular reader is completely understandable, and I take absolutely no offense in that. Few authors would. What I especially enjoy is when a reader writes me personally, saying she didn’t like how so-and-so character did such-and-such, and then asks me why I chose that plot device. She still might not like my explanation, and it might not change her feelings about the book, but at least I can explain why I did what I did. I wouldn’t write the book any other way, and if she wrote it, it would be different. In instances like this, it’s actually enjoyable to disagree!

Long before I wrote romance novels, I read them by the dozens. I learned through trial and error who wrote, in my opinion, the best of the best. I bought her books. If I spent six dollars on a “stinker” I would stay away from that author in future. It was simple, and entirely possible that she just didn’t appeal to me, which is certainly not the author’s fault. Now, with sites like AAR, TRR, and TRJ, readers have greater access to honest book reviews, and that’s a wonderful, time-saving, money-saving thing. But we’re talking about books, not loaded BMWs.

Dustin Hoffman said it best, I think. A few years ago, when questioned about his brilliant role in an upcoming movie, he pointed out to the interviewer that people should keep his contribution to society in perspective: He made movies; he did not perform brain surgery. Truly words of wisdom!

Readers Answer This Question

"What is the relationship between critics and artists/authors, or the reality of being a public figure, or the right of readers to object or comment on a work which has been sold to them?"

LLB

There have been many interesting threads on message boards and discussion lists about how it's not the author's demeanor online that counts, but the books they are writing.

Those of you familiar with this site and our boards know that if an author whines or complains in a petulant manner, readers will generally go on the attack. I think that's fine and that is appropriate, because it happens at the time of the 'bad behavior.' When other authors come on the boards and make comments that aren't whiny and petulant, they earn the respect of the readers.

We are here, ultimately, to talk about books and what we feel about them. Obviously, since books are written by people, some discussion will inevitably be about the authors. But if bad behavior is really what you want to talk about, I don't think this is the place. Over the years, I myself and the sites I've written at (TRR and AAR) have been attacked numerous times. There are several authors who have attacked AAR from AAR's own aarlist, which I personally find not only ironic but rude, but hey, that's the way it is. We reviewers may remember who wrote what about whom, but we don't go on about it endlessly, and we don't do it in public. Hey, it would be lots of fun to tell you which author tried to have her publisher stop sending us books to review or which author tried to stuff the ballot box in 1997, or which author is the most two-faced when it comes to using this site to help her career, but what purpose would it truly serve other than to be malicious?

Sue

I've been on other lists where most people do say that demeanor counts. It's a current thread on RRA and so far the 'does count' are winning over the 'don't count.' I can tell you right now there is a certain ebook author whose whiny online presence has offended so many they will never read any of her books. I certainly think that it is perfectly acceptable to rebut anything authors write in public forums, whether it's on message boards or any list I belong to. Just as anything I write in a public forum is debatable/rebuttable.

An author's character does have an influence on what I read/buy. Hundreds of romances are published each month and the UBS has 100,000 I can pick from. Why would I pick one written by someone I consider a b*tch? BTW, that goes for the SF, mystery, and general fiction authors I read, too.

Lori R

I have to agree I ran into an author who posted a number of comments on another board that I felt were shallow, self-absorbed and insentitive to the feelings of the person she was posting about. I already had one of her books in my TBR pile but every time I sort through and arrange my next batch of books to read I pass her by and wonder how rewarding her work could possibly be Maybe it would be different if I had read her before I saw these comments but I'm starting to think this book will end up going straight to the UBS without even the having a run at the 50 page rule.

By contrast she is the only author I have ever 'seen' online that hasn't been friendly , responsive and helpful to me. So many seem happy to answer reader's questions and genuinly pleased that people enjoy their work.

Jennifer R

I’d really like to put in my two cents on this subject for two reasons. Number one, while I have not written any romance novel reviews, my previous job was as story editor for a management/production company. In other words, I have turned down scripts and listened to men crying over the phone as I delivered the news. Contrary to popular opinion, sitting in judgment is not an easy thing. Everything I read I wanted to like. I wanted to find the project that could start our development deal, I wanted to make someone enormously happy, I wanted to become wrapped up in the story I was reading and not have to slog through 120 pages of tripe.

On the other hand, I want to be a writer. I know exactly how tough it is to hand someone something I’ve written and listen to their feedback. I’m desperate for approval, for feedback, all the while hoping against hope that everyone will fall to their knees in worship over my brilliant prose. While the latter has yet to happen, I have listened, sometimes grumpily, to well meaning criticism. I know it’s value and I know that without it I will never ever improve. I will remain in my own world, believing in my own brilliance, laughing at my own jokes and delivering pizza at night to make money.

So, here are my .02 cents.

We spend our entire lives being judged. In the first grade we start a quarterly tradition. We are given a report card. For the first time, we have been judged. Our entire school careers are subject to this. And, be our grades based on a point scale, strict percentage, or a 'bell curve' we all know that an A is good and an F is really bad.

The majority of us then enter the work force. Many of us are subject to performance reviews. Based on our score, we could be given a promotion, a raise or a bonus. Or, we could be fired.

Do I believe that a writer’s feelings about their book can be similar to those of a parent for a child? Absolutely. But, what’s the worst possible mistake a parent can make? 'Not, my child.' Or. 'My child would never do that.' Or 'Coach, why aren’t you playing my daughter more? You know she’s better than everyone else.'

Unconditional love is a wonderful thing. But, it can often be blinding. Unconditional love also brings unconditional pain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. It just means that by surviving the pain, when one’s bench riding daughter wins the soccer scholarship to college it’s just that much sweeter. Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team. He wasn’t good enough. Guess what? He worked harder. He was rewarded.

As a parent, if you choose to take your child and put her into gymnastics class, not at the local gym but with Bela Karoli, then you know that your child is going to be judged on a much larger scale then you might like. The same can be said about literature. Writing is a job that relies on the people outside of it to pass judgment. Text-books get reviewed, biographies get reviewed, fiction gets reviewed… If you write a book, and you give it to your mom, dad, sister, aunt, cousin, best-friend, most likely they will tell you nice things. (Unless they’re my family) But, if you send it off to an agent or to a publisher, you are sending it to be judged. Is it any good? Then, will it make us money?

The job of a critic is not to like your story. The job of a critic is not to dislike your story. (I know the latter seems questionable) The job of the critic is to read your book, to summarize a part of the story, and to explain what works or what does not work in that story. For some reason, authors, romance authors in particular, cringe at that last detail. But, it’s subjective, they cry. Or, if it’s negative it’ll hurt my sales. Or, you’re being too critical.

If there is no criteria for what is good, then there is no criteria for what is bad. If we do not encourage excellence, we will be stuck with mediocrity. If Michael Jordan had made his team when he was not good enough to play, he might never have worked hard enough to become good enough to make his college team or the NBA.

All books are not the same. If they were no one would have any reason to write let alone read. Most of us have been reading for a long time. So have most critics. I cannot comprehend a person that wants to see a book by Judith Ivory treated in the same context as one by Cassie Edwards. There is a great difference between Michael Jordan and the very last person to be drafted. Yes, they are playing the same game, but the levels that they are playing the game are far removed. A critic needs to be able to address these issues. A critic does not do this by saying Michael is good and the other schmuck is bad. A critic does this by pinpointing exactly what is good about Michael’s game. His defense, his free-throws, his lay-up, his dribbling, his passing, his hook-shot. While it is reasonable that the vast majority of players will not reach his level, the critic has proclaimed Michael to be the best. Ergo, every child growing up who plays basketball knows what it takes to be good.

While there is no physical basket for writers to miss, there is an invisible basket that a lot of authors whiff repeatedly. They do not use correct grammar, they write stilted dialogue, they write purple prose, they do not have three-dimensional characters, and, or they leave gaping holes in their stories. A critic’s job is to know these things. A critic’s job is to inform. And if the information is negative, the critic’s job is to give as accurate a reason as possible as to why she had this reaction. The critic’s job is not, however, to couch the bad in favor of being a cheerleader for the industry or because the author’s sales could be affected by a bad review.

Critics are there to help authors. I’m sure that Michael Jordan, age 15, did not appreciate being left off his high school team. But Michael responded by improving his game to the level that would get him on the team. If authors viewed negative reviews as constructive criticism, maybe they could learn from each one. Instead of becoming angry at the critic for criticizing their baby, maybe they need to notice that yes, the baby’s eyes are a bit blood shot, and yes, the liquor cabinet is missing the bottle of Jack Daniels. With knowledge, comes the ability to improve. One does not improve when one gives a book to a parent one knows is going to universally praise. One improves by giving it to the person who does not care about us personally but does care about story, and character and structure and grammar.

In the end, feel-good reviews help no one. Readers know not to trust them, authors learn nothing from them, and those outside the genre do not realize that there’s a difference in quality from a Cassie Edwards to a Judith Ivory.

Amy K

I think you hit several nails I've been aiming at straight on! I'm not an author (and no ambition in that direction), just a reader, and as I said below, until I found this site and serious, critical review, I'd given up on romance. I'm now addicted because there are wonderful authors, worth my money and worth my time. I can't tell you how many times I'd try a new author and just sit and shake my head. My response was generally, good grief, I could do better than that and I've never ever fancied myself a writer of fiction. I simply stopped buying romance books. Think how many more readers there are like me. I'll bet quite a few. I also appreciated your recognition that we readers are smarter than some in the industry think. As noted in my post on the other board, if someone put a hunk and some cleavage on the telephone book there are certain romance organizations which would call it a five-star tour de force. When I was trying to find new books, I also tried the 'one of my favorite authors says this is a good book.' I can't remember that being a successful method even once. ( I am not impugning anyone's motives; I'm just saying it never worked for me, so for the most part, I ignore these little blurbs).

The thing I've read periodically is that some authors are upset with reviews because they can 'unfairly' affect sells. From everything I have read of great artists, great composers, great dancers, great writers, they do what they do because they are driven to their particular creation and monetary reward is neither the inspiration nor the guiding principal of their life's work. I'm not saying 'commercial' acceptance is entirely wrong nor am I saying it does not play any role in creation, I'm just saying, it's not the seed. Shakespeare wrote plays which appealed to Elizabethans; Dickens wrote books for which he was paid by word count, but both, I think, served their art first and public acclaim or critical acclaim were only part of the formula, not the driving force.

An Author

Much of what you say is true, but I can't help feeling that some people (including authors) take this whole review thing way too seriously. It's just a book, and just an opinion of a book.

Here's how I look at it: I get a review from Reviewer A, who reviews at a tough site that prides itself on telling it like it is, who I don't know from Adam and, as far as I know, has no reason to suck up to me. She enjoys the book and says lovely things about it. I get a review from Reviewer B, who reviews at a tough site that prides itself on telling it like it is, who I don't know from Adam and, as far as I know, has no nefarious plans to wreck my career. She hates the book and says unlovely things about it.

What transports Reviewer A into ecstasy absolutely incenses Reviewer B. What bugs the crap out of Reviewer B doesn't even cause Reviewer A to bat an eyelash. Both are normal, intelligent people who believe they're right and stand by their claim.

(Repeat this with Reader A and Reader B)

What does this 'teach' me, the author?

It teaches me that Reviewer A likes my book and Reviewer B doesn't like my book.

That's it.

LFL

Well said, Jennifer. When I'm asked my opinion of a book I always try to answer the question as honestly as I can, and I never let myself think about the possibility that the authors might be reading my comments, because if I did, I would lose my nerve and be afraid to post anything. But on the other hand, I also hope that by being honest I help them out, if they are interested in opinions and reactions as a tool for helping them keep honing their craft.

Usually, even my complaining about things that didn't work for me is a sign of affection. If I didn't like and enjoy things about these books, or see the potential to like and enjoy them even more -- in other words, if I didn't care - I wouldn't be complaining. So I always hope my opinions help, and I try not to hold back, but not to be rude either. I'm sure I don't always succeed in this, but I give it my best shot.

Ita

The problem is that different people have different definitions of 'rude' and 'trashing', especially authors, sigh. Some consider *any* negative comment as 'trashing'. I've seen rants about reviews which gave lots of good reasons for not liking a book. These people don't understand that that the more reasons a person gives for liking or disliking a book, the better it is for the reader. The things that one person hates, another would absolutely love.

When I'm asked my opinion of a book I always try to answer the question as honestly as I can, and I never let myself think about the possibility that the authors might be reading my comments, because if I did, I would lose my nerve and be afraid to post anything. But on the other hand, I also hope that by being honest I help them out, if they are interested in opinions and reactions as a tool for helping them keep honing their craft.

Usually, even my complaining about things that didn't work for me is a sign of affection. If I didn't like and enjoy things about these books, or see the potential to like and enjoy them even more - in other words, if I didn't care - I wouldn't be complaining. So I always hope my opinions help, and I try not to hold back, but not to be rude either. I'm sure I don't always succeed in this, but I give it my best shot.

Jennifer R said so well what I've always thought. Artists can't grow and learn (no matter how painful the growth is!) if they don't listen to critics and separate what is valid and what isn't.

Lancene
When I read elsewhere at the site that Jayne Ann Krentz won't give interviews to review sites that do 'negative' reviews, I could only shake my head in wonder. A review, by its very nature, must express some opinion about the quality of the work, otherwise it is only a synopsis and is utterly worthless to those of us who need some guidance. If the review can be taken in the spirit of constructive criticism and used by the author to do better work, then so much the better, but as a reader I just want some idea whether the book is worth my effort. I am not insensitive to the plight of authors, but the fact is they are in a very competitive business; if they want my dollars they better understand that I don't automatically owe them anything. I personally would hate having my writing exposed to criticism, which is why I would never consider doing it professionally, but as my mom would say, 'If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.'
MIchele

I do write. One thing I absolutely hate about critiques (I've not been published so all my 'reviews' are from critiquers) is how lightly people step around saying anything negative. I need to be told what is wrong with my writing! I think everything I write is absolutely wonderful, if I didn't I'd change it until I was satisfied. This is why I want my work critiqued. I need an outside opinion, someone who doesn't automatically think my work is wonderful.

I'm not talking about spitefulness. There is a difference between: 'The dialog is stiff and I don't believe a real person could be niave enough to get herself into that situation.' and 'This is junk. What makes you think you can write? Go home!'

I have not seen the latter type of review at this site. There are real reviews here. How can the genre expect to be respected when honest critisism is eschewed in favor of blind praise?

Thoughts & Questions To Consider

As the person who walks the tight rope that Adele mentioned on a daily basis, I am often frustrated by those who visit our site, read some negative comments on one of our uncensored message boards, and attribute those comments to those of us who actually write for the site. Even those who will admit that we aren't those readers seem to feel that because we create an open forum, that we have "set a negative tone" for any and all visitors.

Why is this frustrating? Because all of us love to read. Each of us loves to read romance novels. If we didn't, we wouldn't spend as much time as we do devoted to reading, reviewing, pontificating - and, yes, at times poking fun at the excesses we encounter.

Whenever I receive a private email from an author complaining about how personally hurtful our reviews are, I immediately send them to our FAQ page and a page that's linked to from it - on negative reviews reprinted from U.S. newspapers and magazines. I always invite these authors to read those reviews and to respond to me if they find anything we do that's not done elsewhere in the mainstream. To date I've never had a response.

One of the main thing that I believe sets AAR apart from other romance venues is that we try to make clear that we're only voicing opinions here. Whether in our reviews, dual reviews, or commentary, we always leave our opinions open to your disagreement. We try to convey that a reviewer's opinion about a book is only her/his opinion (that's one reason we do dual reviews!) and that, if you disagree, your opinion is equally as valid. The same goes for our commentary. That premise, which is also a promise from me, sometimes gets lost, and I think that not only a disservice to the site, but to those who do post in disagreement.

Finally, I have a question that perhaps you can answer. AAR runs two discussion lists, one for readers and authors and another for readers only. We set up the second list after hearing that many readers felt they could not be honest in discussion books and authors if they felt an author or someone who knew that author was on the same discussion list.

However, presumably some of these same shy folks have no problem posting to some of our message boards, and sometimes post very negative comments about books and authors. Message boards are likely to be read by more people than exist on any given discussion list, so I'd love to hear from you why that seemingly paradoxical situation exists.

Readers Respond To Adele & Our Questions

Teresa E

I just finished reading the article and have to say how impressed I was. As both a reviewer (of historical fiction for the Historical Novel Society) and a writer (as yet unpublished in fiction) I agree with Ms Ashworth's take on the nature and purpose of criticism. There are very few reviews at this site that have crossed the line from genuine criticism to trashing. As an author, one has to expect that not everyone is going to like your work and that there's a good chance some may really dislike it, but you can't write something for public viewing and expect only positive, glowing reviews. That's just not realistic. OTOH, as a reviewer, I try to comment only on elements of the book itself that don't work, rather than just saying 'This author can't write.'

As a TA at university, I had to take a mini course on criticism and marking. I learned two extremely valuable things - first, never attack a student/writer and second, never mark in red pen - use a pencil. The work is open to criticism, but not the person who wrote it is not, while marking in red pen has a very obvious negative effect on the receiver, whereas pencil seems a lot less threatening. I do defend AAR to those who say they won't read their reviews because they trash authors, even though the occasional bad review does rather annoy me. Overall I feel this site has done a lot to improve the Romance Fiction profile by providing well written and usually balanced critiques of books, rather than just singing the praises of every romance novel to be published. One of the reasons I enjoy reading the more critical reviews is to get an idea of what does and doesn't work, then applying it to my own writing

.
Amy K

I think Teresa's professor's approach to using a pencil was an excellent way to bring home the purpose of a critique (I confess I've used a red pen, but only because it's easier to see and I've never taught that art). I also wanted to note how much I liked Adele's comments about her books not being her children. That analogy works, but only to a point, and her recognition of this reflects, I believe, a healthy perspective.

I've worked for national and internationally known public figures and have known many others, and one unassailable fact of life in the limelight is that the tradeoff for fame and fortune is privacy and its attendant expectation that some things are sacrosanct. If any public figure takes on the mantel of fame in the innocent belief that all is fair play and courteous behavior, he or she is destined for a rude awakening. I've watched people literally destroyed for a single mistake or a single weakness. I've been in the trenches (figurative!) during Vietnam, Watergate and Carter's presidency, and the one thing I knew very early on was that I wouldn't be a public figure for all the rice in China. The price is simply too great. Nothing I have ever seen written on these or any other related boards comes within a country mile of the kind if virulent attacks I'm referring to. There are, however, rules of survival in this arena, and if anyone is interested, the short list follows:

  • Don't put anything out for public consumption if you're not willing to have the public into dinner;
  • Accept that universal acclamation is an oxymoron. Ain't gonna happen - not in this life;
  • Always consider the source. Depending on the source, that criticism may in fact be a wonderful compliment;
  • Never forget why you entered the field. Lose sight of that and the war is lost;
  • Answering personal attacks in kind makes you the issue;
  • If there are legitimate charges, respond to them honestly. Admit when you're wrong. Disingenuous denials and excuses will be seen through because Lincoln was right: you can't fool all of the people all of the time;
  • Never argue with a stupid person. You'll lose. Guaranteed;
  • Never forget that in formal, judged debate, a team, which resorts to impugning the motives of their opponents or makes personal statements of any kind about their opponents, loses. Period. The debate's over; and
  • There are always at least two sides to every issue, and if you have a tendency to forget this too often, review 'On Liberty' by John Stewart Mills.
Author Karen Ranney
If I might add rule #10: Never believe your own press releases.
Phyllis
Well said, Amy. When you said 'I've watched people literally destroyed for a single mistake or a single weakness', it brought to mind all the times that I've seen (on the news) people who were brought down for a single ill begotten remark. I call it the 'off with their heads' syndrome a la the queen in Alice In Wonderland. Too often when a person in the public arena has made a remark or joke that is perceived to be offensive to a group of people, instead of publically telling him (or her) not to do it again (one more chance), they immediately demand their resignation, when it may have been a thoughtless error and not part of their character. Those same people will then, go on to the next victim not knowing or caring about the person and their family left behind. Goodness, after reviewing what I just wrote one would think that something similar had happened to me or mine. It has not. I just hate unfairness when I see it. Everyone needs a second chance unless it is a life threatening situation.
Amy K (again)
What I know, I've learned here, and my posts were prompted by a segment of the writing community which apparently believes negative reviews and comments are somehow unacceptable. I think Laurie's response to these authors is excellent (referring them to mainstream reviews which attack the author outright). Having said that, I also strongly believe that eternal indignation ought to be saved for things like Potsdam (sp?) and Pearl Harbor. Inserting one's foot in one's mouth is in the scheme of things a lesser matter and ought to be discussed and then dropped (as long as there is some effort thereafter to keep that foot on terra firma). I agree with you entirely, and thank goodness for us erring humans there are some, like you, who are will to try for the 'divine' approach.
Lancene
I enjoyed Ms. Asheworth's contribution; her comments make a lot of sense. I wanted to add that authors are not the only ones who take negative reviews personally. Some of the most heated discussions on these boards have come about when readers have gotten hot under the collar about one of their favorites receiving a less than glowing review. We are almost as protective of our favorites as their creators are and it is just incomprehensible to us that a life-changing reading experience for one person leaves another unimpressed.
Adele Ashworth
Thanks, Lancene! It's interesting that you bring up the fan issue. I'd never actually considered this before. Since there aren't that many people, comparatively speaking, who regularly read my books, I'm sure this hasn't been an issue, as it might be for Crusie, Kinsale, SEP, Nora, for instance. I think a lot of times the author is oblivious to this kind of reaction as well, if she's not a regular board reader, and not on a particular list where it might occur. It does make me curious as to how often this happens.
Lancene (again)
Adele - If you tune in often enough, you'll see quite a bit of 'fan' bias. There is a short thread on the review board right now in fact, regarding a reader favorite that was less than well-reviewed. As others on these boards have noted, a lot of us not only read and take into consideration the review itself, but the opinions of other readers. I have discovered many new or new-to-me authors thanks to other readers here, so our opinions do carry some weight when we care to share them.
LLB
Lancene - I've often said, 'Hell hath no fury like a reader's favorite author scorned.' The worst flaming I've seen comes not from author to reader, but between readers when a favorite author is criticized.
Elissa

That's true, but on boards you don't know (unless it's a regular poster) whether it's a reader defending the author or the author (under an assumed name) defending herself. And actually, even on email lists you can never be sure. Over on the paranormal lists a new reader popped up a while back and said she looooved Author CBC's books. Did anyone know if the author was going to the romance conference? Well, the huge 'fan' finally confessed (after someone wrote her off-list accusing her of being the author) that she was the author's daughter-in-law. I personally still think it was the author. In any case, her first note to the list, asking if anyone knew if the author was going to a certain romance conference was a bit, oh, artificial?? Fake. Misleading. Dishonest. This is a case of Terminally Stupid Author Syndrome. The way for an author to push her books on an email list in disguise is to participate regularly. And after everyone is comfortable with her, post rave reviews of her own books. I just don't understand how authors can pop up on lists and start out by immediately pushing their books. They don't seem to have a clue about elementary psychology.

 

Adele Ashworth at AAR

 




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