Category Archives: Critiquing

A particular reader’s relationship with a particular book

Reviews are not for authors. They’re not even about authors. You do not need our permission to write about our books. Because once they’re published they cease to be ours.

Reviews are for other readers. A review is about a particular reader’s relationship with a particular book.

Justine Larbalestier


Something that might endanger

[W]e’re bringing up generations of writers who think of [reviewing] as something that other people do, far away, or something that might endanger their fellowship, their recommendation, their job application, their grant application, their ability to get blurbs or to receive the coveted invitations to this or that conference, residency, or institute. This makes me uncomfortable, and it also makes me kind of lonely. I still think the writers are the smartest, most interesting, funniest, weirdest people in any given room. I miss hearing their voices.

Stacey D’Erasmo

This book has an owl in it

[Reviews that] don’t bother to provide the reader with an accurate description of the books’ formal or verbal properties [are untrustworthy]. To say that something is “boring” is not a statement about a book, although the speaker may think that it is; it’s a statement about the reader’s poverty of equipment. … The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together. By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless. They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.”

Charles Baxter

We’re all being far too polite now

[F]or the first time, authors have been sitting in on the entire Canada Reads process, and I don’t think it’s done the program any good. … authors got so in on the action, that their personalities became inseparable from the books in question. Relationships through social media developed so that it was impossible for many to read these books without a conflict of interest. The books themselves ceased to be the point at all.

What’s more ridiculous though is that no one having this conversation. I’ve refrained from saying anything until now, because I don’t like to talk shit about books, but we’re all being far too polite now, and I fear that authors attending our book club is most of the reason why. It’s why book bloggers are celebrating these books without question, not a word of criticism, though there is plenty to criticize, but how can we  criticize when the author is our friend on Facebook, and our favourite Twitter pal?

Kerry Clare

This. I’ve mentioned I feel like a weirdo on Goodreads because I give ratings other than 4 and 5. At the same time, I’m not immune to what I’ll call the six degrees of politeness. If you like a writer, personally, even if you only know them via social media or reading their blog, it’s really, really hard to say that their book disappointed you or even that you just didn’t like it as much as you thought you would based on how much you like their thoughtful blog posts or hilarious tweets.

On Goodreads, if I realize I’m hedging, I find it helps to ignore the numbers and rate based on the descriptions: “didn’t like it”; “it was ok”; “liked it”; “really liked it”; “it was amazing.” At first, they sounded a little facile, but you know what? You can pretty much stick any book into one of those categories without hesitation. It works, I think, because it makes it subjective. You’re not making any great objective pronouncements about the quality of the book. One-star says: “I didn’t like this book.” Not “this book sucks” or “you will hate this book” but “I didn’t like it, ymmv.”

This, btw, is the same problem I came up against with my master’s thesis. The urge to be kind rather than critical is strong even when you’re “just” a reader, even when you’re doing your best to stand at arm’s length and not develop a conflict of interest. You get to know people through their writing, and if you like them, the urge to protect them is strong. What’s funny, though, even just sticking to reading, I developed favorites (as one does) and I worried that would show through. Obviously, I didn’t want that because the thesis wasn’t about who had I had the most in common with or who had the best friendship potential. Anyhow, I guess I needn’t have worried, because no one picked up on that at all.

(It still surprises me that it was read as a “negative review” so to speak, when my goal was a more positive reading of personal blogs than I’d come across in traditional media and academic writing. In fact, my big concern was providing a positive viewpoint without being uncritical about the aspects I did find problematic. In the reading, though, all the focus seemed to be on the criticisms. Then again, maybe the negative perception isn’t so surprising. We writers do have a tendency to glaze over compliments, regardless of how large, and obsess over criticisms, regardless of how minor.)

Not liking something I’m trying really hard to appreciate

[T]here are cases where I like an artist a lot but hate their work. And that’s much harder for me [than when I dislike the artist but like their work], for some reason. The most common case is when it’s a friend, because then not only do I end up not liking something I’m trying really hard to appreciate, but I have to see them afterward and talk about it.

But there are people who I don’t know who I feel that way about. … I think it’s odd that if I like someone’s work, them being a jerk on a talk show has no effect. But if I hate a band and they turn out to be cool people, I’m likely to try really hard to like the music. Even after I already know I don’t!

Monty Ashley

Giggling with desolation

It’s all there in [Frank Kermode’s] early years, of course, or a lot of it—the mother with no parents, no family, no past, but with a rich sense of language, both Manx and English, along with a practiced, lively social style that was deferential to strangers yet easy with them, to whom Frank owed, as he put it, not only his “early training in politeness and motiveless civility” but also the “association of gaiety with terror, giggling with desolation.”

Elisabeth Sifton
quoting Frank Kermode

Vacuum of Enthusiasm

[The acid of the Fug Girls is] what I want from my design blogs (among other things), but I can’t find it. I feel trapped in the vacuum of enthusiasm.

It is nice to be part of a supportive community, especially in a downturn. And there is a lot of beautiful work out there. But the economics and tempo of blogging mean that most design sites present us with pictures of up to ten beautiful things per day. The text is often just a tweaked press release. I am not sure what I am supposed to do with this, beyond a second’s admiration. If I happened to be looking for wallpaper, or tea towels, or a new poster, I might click through to buy, but most of it just passes unprocessed before my eyes.

Alexandra Lange

On Critiquing

Bloggers with rabid fans (e.g. Dooce, Miss Snark) fascinate me. Or, rather, the fans fascinate me. Anything the blogger says they will agree with. God forbid they disagree with the blogger and get banished!

So, I was pleased to see that some of Miss Snark’s fans actually disagreed with some rather dubious advice that she gave recently.

A snarkling had read a writing buddy’s manuscript and found some aspects of it lacking (this is a shock? It’s a draft by an unpublished writer…) and asked Miss Snark what to do. The snarkling seemed to be baffled at this development, like the possibility that the manuscript wouldn’t be ready for publication hadn’t even crossed her mind.

Miss Snark:

You say “I was glad to read your novel. I never offer comments but I can answer questions about it.” General questions like “did you like it” can be answered truthfully with “not as much as I hoped I would after reading -and this is where you insert the name of the work you did like.” You’ll know she has no idea about character development if she doesn’t ask anything about it.

What?! Give the poor writer a critique, goddamnit. You’re her writing friend, not her mother. Don’t be mean, but do be honest. Tell her what she’s doing wrong. (If it’s an unmitigated disaster, pick your battles; choose whatever’s worst and start there.)

You don’t say: “Your novel sucks.” That’s being a jerk. You say: “I didn’t find your characters believable because *insert reasons here*. I suggest you do this.” This is constructive criticism. There are three parts to it:

1. Make it an “I” statement: “I think…” “In my opinion…”
2. Give specific reasons why the characters (or whatever) aren’t working.
3. Suggest what could be done to fix the problem.

I know it’s hard. Do it anyway. Both of you will be better writers for it.

If she takes it well, she’ll have an awareness of her writing that she never had before; this may be a turning point for her. If she takes it badly, you’ll know not to offer to read/critique her work again. Regardless, you will learn so much from critiquing. It will make your writing better. Honest.

Thankfully, some of the snarklings offered suggestions along this line. In fact, this time, they offered much better advice than Miss Snark herself. Read the comments.

Cheese Puffs, Part 5

(Parts One, Two, Three & Four)

Impressions of TOFGB:

The first sentence reads awkwardly. It tries to cram too much information in. The bit about being an account executive, etc. should have been a separate sentence. “The court date fell on the Friday of what had been a very bad week for me.” was enough information for the first sentence, though, even at that the construction seems off.

Paragraph 1 establishes that the protagonist has a regular guy, oops, chick job, that she hates because (a) she thinks selling airtime is bad and (b) because she sells airtime people treat her like crap. I’m really not sure why asking people if they’d like to advertise on TV would inspire such venom. Because we’re told that the job is bad, rather than shown why it’s bad, I can’t sympathize with the narrator. I have no context to do so.

With its references to pantyhose and a skirt, paragraph 2 lets us know that the narrator is a woman. (In the part I snipped out, there was also a reference to having cramps, which… yeah. Woman’s in a bad mood; she must have cramps. Sigh.) I guess the reference to putting runs in not one, but two pairs of pantyhose, and the spilling of coffee on the favorite (not just any) skirt, is supposed to endear the reader to the narrator by imbuing her with a lovable klutziness. Me: *groan* I suppose every woman has, at some point in her life, put a run in a pair of pantyhose, so the reader is supposed to identify with this detail, but honestly, without something more (how the run got there, for example), it’s just not all that interesting.

She drives a car she self-describes as “crappy” even though it’s her own damn fault that it’s crappy because she doesn’t maintain it. (She doesn’t seem surprised by the fact the car needs a jump, so this probably isn’t the first time it hasn’t started. It probably needs a new battery, which is not a major fix, nor a major expense.) Then she needed to get male assistance to start her car—implying stereotypical female helplessness with things mechanical. Yes, to jumpstart a car, you need a second car and a set of jumper cables. But why did it have to be a nephew who helped out? Why not a niece? Why not the landlady herself?

After all this, she tells us that she’s in a bad mood. Yes, we got that.

The Mother Teresa reference seems a tad cliched, too easy. Like something you’d put in the first draft as a placeholder. Or in a blog entry. In a novel, I want to read something more original.

Now that we’ve established that grrrl power doesn’t extend to car maintenance, we get into the lawyers are evil rant. Full disclosure, I read this right after I graduated from law school, but at the same time, all-lawyers-are-evil is trite, trite, trite. Please. Some lawyers are evil, some are Mother Teresas (heh), and the vast majority lie somewhere in between. Just like any. other. profession.

Then readers are told that the HG&E executives are “sleazeballs”. Why are they sleazeballs? (And no, just the fact that there was an accident doesn’t automatically make them sleazeballs.) We’re told that the defense lawyer is evil by extension, because if you’re representing “sleazeballs” then you must be one yourself. Never mind the fact that everyone is entitled to representation.

The protagonist nicknames the defense lawyer “Pencil Face”, because why should he get a real name? He’s a weasel. He’s cross-examining her, the evil, evil, man. Doing his job? Bah. Craziness. He should just agree with her, say “no further questions” and sit down. Right.

When that doesn’t happen, our narrator gets so mad at being cross-examined, at the defense lawyer having the temerity to try to discredit her, that she attempts to punch him.

Okay. So there’s a certain amount of humor in this scenario. Who hasn’t been in a situation where they wanted to punch someone, but didn’t? What would happen if you did? That’s the premise of this book. And it isn’t a bad one.

But here’s the thing: after she attempts to punch the defense lawyer, she hits her head, and ends up in a coma. When she wakes up, she decides to change her life, since it’s clearly out of control. Great. So what do you think would be first on this list? How about clearing up the assault charges she’s facing after attacking the defense lawyer? Well, that would be a fine idea–if there were any! She’s not charged with assaulting the defense lawyer, which I mean, come on! She tried to punch a lawyer in a courtroom in front of a judge! Honestly, I just couldn’t get past this. I know it’s supposed to be a light romantic comedy and all, but you don’t go around punching officers of the court and then just walk away tra-la-la. This needed a resolution. How about some community service?

Overall impression: I found the protagonist irritating and the plot development is unrealistic. It’s not just that it verges on the absurd. A comedy of the absurd can work. It’s the giant plotholes. It also relies too heavily on stereotypes and clichés as shortcuts. I’m as fond of a cliché as the next person, but in a novel I want to see fresh writing.

Thinking: the old “show” vs. “tell” axiom was really apparent here.

Which brings me back to where I started: fluffy books are about turning off your brain and being taken for a ride. As long as you don’t think about them too much, they’re fun. Sure, they fall apart the minute you start thinking, but the point is: most readers aren’t thinking. They’re in it for a good time.

The problem is that when you write, you read as a writer. Before I wrote in a serious way, I could (and did) read anything. And now, I simply can’t. The minute I get that “I. am. reading. a. book.” feeling, I’m done. On the other hand, I’ve quite enjoyed several movies/TV shows based on books that I just know that I could not get through (Sex and the City, for example). And I think partly it’s that the acting/directing adds nuances to the characters and plot, but also that because it’s a different medium, I’m able to sit back and be entertained in a way that I can’t with a book.

So two points to conclude. There’s nothing wrong with creating and consuming pure entertainment. Not everything has to have a deeper meaning or greater purpose. But the fact remains that not all books are of equal merit, and fluffy book writers, being writers, have to know that.