But I didn’t like it — book reviews

This article at Slate.com got my attention today. The author discusses more the role of critics and such as social media rises, but it had me thinking about other things.

I haven’t reviewed much, either here or on Amazon, although I’d like to. Problem is, I’m a critical reader and while I’m willing to let certain things slide, I’m not going to give a glossy review to something I think is below par. I don’t want to become known as a troll or anything, because I know how hard it is to write something, polish it up and put it out there for the world at large to read and criticize. So I hold back.

A few months ago, an online friend asked me to a review a story (maybe novella length) that they’d written and post it on my site or Amazon or both. I read the story and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t think it was very good, and my mind did not change when he told me it had been reviewed by an editor. All I could think was that the editor must not have been very good. I thought the basic premise was good but the writing was kind of clunky, the dialogue was awkward and a few other things were problematic. We’re still friendly but I doubt they will be asking me to review any others. And if you looked on the Amazon page for that book, you’d see at least a couple of 5-star reviews (I haven’t checked in a while).

Sometimes, people don’t hold back. Go to this page at Amazon for 50 Shades of Grey, and read the comments, both good and bad. I have long since decided I will read this book when I am lacking anything else interesting to read, like the fine print on my cell phone contract, and when I can get it for free. I read the sample on Amazon, and before I even go to any of the sex, I was baffled by the newspaper editor sending her roommate to interview someone, when it seemed more logical she’d send one of the staff. If you can’t be logical from the beginning, then sorry, I’m out of there.

But as the Slate article points out, a lot of reviews are basically done by friends of the author, who are going to say it’s good, even if it really isn’t. In my previous situation, I simply refrained from writing a review. I didn’t want any hurt feelings, but I sure wasn’t going to lie and say it was good. Could I have found good things to say? Sure, in that kind of double-edged way, or in a vague way. Here is, in fact, a review of the story I disliked:

This was a great read. The story is interesting, with good plot twists. The romance is strong, and the characters well developed. I look forward to more work from this author.

Is that all true? Not to me, but everyone has an opinion, of course. I would have spelled out my problems with it, because a review like this doesn’t tell you much. And it wasn’t that I thought the story wasn’t interesting — I thought it was poorly written, and that is something no one seems to want to take issue with, whether it’s mechanical issues like spelling or content issues like plot inconsistencies.

Back to 50 Shades — check out those reviews and you’ll see some who are just astounded by the sex. But a few others will note that there is better sex available. And there is, and it’s not even all that hard to find. There are plenty of authors at Amazon, you can see a few blogs on the right side of my page and you can always go to sites like Literotica or LushStories and poke around a little. Still, people who are impressed by poorly-written erotica probably haven’t read much of it to start with.

Can’t we be honest? I don’t mean I want to trash people, because like I said, I know how hard this is. But when I had stories published by Republica Press, my editor/publisher made no bones about things she didn’t like in stories, errors she’d thought I made, whatever. And I thought it was my duty as a writer she was publishing to at least hear her out. However, it seems like once someone says something’s fine, it’s almost impossible for a writer to hear any criticism, even if it’s constructive.

In my short experience with writing and publishing, both for free and pay, I’ve learned you need a thick skin. Not so thick that you can let everything bounce off of you, but not so thin that you become defensive at the mere mention of a contrary opinion. If you have given your story to someone for their opinion, you’d better be ready for their opinion to not be glowing. And criticism isn’t a bad thing. It can help you improve. If someone says your characters are inconsistent — and best would be if they gave examples — then check it out, because maybe they are, even if an editor said it’s good.

So while I appreciate the effort that goes into a story, I’m not going to blindly praise it if the grammar is awkward, the punctuation incorrect, or the characters contradictory. That’s not doing anyone any favors, least of all the writer. I thought from the start that if you want people to take the time to read your story, then you can take the time to make it readable in both mechanics and content.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by blue on August 4, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    this is a good issue to discuss in writing forums…i’ve been an avid reader of several stories in Lit (bec they are free) and it’s been my observation that whenever some member critiques a story, no matter how well said it was or well meaning, someone shoots it down and in turn insults the critic by saying s/he shld write a story of her/his own before criticizing another’s work…i, myself, am not a writer nor am i dreaming of becoming one but i do read – A LOT so i’ve read really great stories and not-so-well-written ones and if i feel that the author could do with some advice, i’d like to think that what i have to say can help in improving his/her writing…i assume the reason why one writes and submits it to someplace like Lit is not only just to arouse themselves and others but to also see if their writing will be good enough to be published…it becomes a disservice to the author if someone who only wants to help someone improve writing gets shot down by others saying basic grammar isn’t that impt esp in a place like Lit…

    that being said, OF COURSE being tactful while giving critiques should be standard! as you’ve pointed out, writing isn’t an easy thing to do as well as getting up the courage to let others read what you’ve written.

    Reply

    • I definitely think that you can be a reader and critique without being a writer. You can learn about movies, for example, and critique them without being a screen writer, director or actor. I think anyone can learn about a craft (or anything else) to the point where they can weigh in with opinions.

      I agree that a key here is tact. Even if the editor is a pro and being paid by somebody, that wouldn’t excuse rudeness. I’m projecting a bit, I guess, because I like things framed in a calm, agreeable way. I think most of us are more receptive to something this: “You have a good foundation, but you need to work on your plot. For example, in Ch 1 you have X but in Ch 3 you have Y, which contradicts it.” That’s a whole lot easier to take than “For God’s sake, learn to spell, you moron!”

      It’s easy to get defensive about your writing, and truth is, I think it’s okay to do that and not respond right away. But you do need to step back. As a writer, I’m closer to my story than pretty much anyone except perhaps my beta reader, so I need to consider that perhaps I’m too close. It’s easy to miss repetition, for example, and that’s one thing I know I’ve had issues with, especially posting serially. It takes fresh eyes to point those things out.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Lady Falcon on August 6, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    Taste is subjective. There are a whole lot of followers in this world. I read a lot as well and I have decided not to read “Shades…”. Some co-workers who aren’t usually big readers were reading it and couldn’t stop talking about it. They were so enamored and titillated by the story and the sex. I just smiled and said I hadn’t read it yet. However, I was saying in my head if you think that is intense I should send you a few links to some stories on Lit. So, again taste is subjective and also reliant to some degree on our own experiences or influences prior to encountering the new “thing”.

    Reply

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