Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review vs. Critique: Which word applies?

When I was reviewing books for the long-defunct Rave Reviews magazine back in the late 1980s, we had a very limited amount of space in which to describe both the book and our reaction to it.  Certain aspects, however, were pretty much taken for granted:  We knew the books had been reasonably edited and typeset so we didn't have to worry about massive numbers of typos or poorly formatted pages.  We could therefore devote our 300 or 400 words to a brief summary of the contents and to our opinion/recommendation.

A longer review, for example a professional review in Publisher's Weekly or The New York Review of Books, might go into more detail about the writing style, the author's background, the wider cultural impact of the book.  But again, those details of basic presentation were taken for granted:  The books had all been professionally edited and printed.

The reviewers, whether the well-known mavens at the big publications or eager amateurs like myself, knew that there had already been a screening process.

At the same time that I was reviewing for Rave, I was judging contests for RWA and reading material written by the members of my critique group.  For those manuscripts, I knew there had been no screening.  These were coming directly from the authors and had not been edited at all.  Sometimes they didn't even meet standard manuscript formatting, but that, too, was part of the process.

Though I can't speak for anyone else who judged RWA contests or belonged to a critique group, I can at least say that for myself I looked at the entire product, both content and presentation.  Every aspect of the manuscript was important, from the quality of the printing to the running of spell check to the use, misuse, and abuse of commas and semicolons.

As an author, I knew that the submission (I still hate that word) of a manuscript to an editor required the author to take into consideration any and all  factors that could impact that editor's decision to buy or reject.  I wrote often enough that editors didn't look for reasons to reject books, but when they found reasons, they rejected.  Those reasons could include poor grammar and spelling, sloppy manuscript preparation, even character names that were difficult to pronounce.  For one thing, carelessness in manuscript prep could indicate carelessness in story construction too, but it also meant the editor would have to invest more labor -- and more of her publisher's money -- to fix the problems.

Publishers, unlike authors, are all about the bottom line.  Anything that takes away from a book's profitability makes it less attractive to purchase.

As an author I knew all this, but I also knew it as a reader.  I couldn't -- and can't -- turn off my analytical self when I read.  That's why a really good book, one that engages me and keeps me turning the pages and not wanting to put it down to fix supper or let the dogs out, that's a book that hits on all the factors.  The writing is good, the formatting is clean, the story is compelling.

When judging a contest entry or reading a critique group submission, I took the task seriously and looked not at just a few errors but all of them.  I was often -- and I do mean often -- accused of being brutal.  I pointed out spelling errors and I complained if the pages weren't clean with regular margins and standard type size.  I told one member of my critique group that she needed to change her heroine's name because it belonged to a well-known film actress.  And yes, I know people have the same names as other people.  I went to high school with a girl named Elizabeth Taylor, and she married a guy named Dean Martin.  Seriously.

But when your heroine's name is "Rehnee" and you tell me you want it pronounced "Rainy," I have to ask you why you don't just spell it "Rainy"?  After all, you aren't going to be there with every reader to tell her personally how to pronounce the name and keep her from hearing it in her head as RenĂ©e or Renny.

A critique covers all of that.  Or at least it should. 

In fact, when I instituted my local RWA chapter's "Hot Prospects" contest in 1994, I designed -- because I'm anal that way -- an elaborate scoring system so judges had a broad array of aspects to judge each entry on, everything from characterization to writing style to internal consistency.  I have a feeling it intimidated a lot of judges who really didn't want to be that analytical about the entries they were reading.

Such a score sheet also, however, was designed to help the aspiring writer judge become more analytical about her own writing

Of course, those who were the most intimidated by a detailed score sheet were also often those most reluctant to admit that they didn't know enough about plotting, about character motivation, about conflict logic, to write a salable romance novel.  Whether through the critique process or through thorough contest judging, the writer was expected to learn and grow and improve.

One judge, who had three manuscripts to score, returned them all with perfect marks.  I think the highest possible total was 200 points, and she had given all three of them 200 points.  I asked her why she did that.  Did she find nothing wrong with any of them?  Were all of them absolutely perfect, with no room for improvement?  Oh, no, she admitted they were far from perfect.  But she felt the authors needed encouragement more than they needed criticism.  When I asked her how she thought a perfect score was going to help them improve, she said she didn't know.

Can you tell I was frustrated with her?  As a writer who entered a contest to learn how to make my writing better, I'd have been furious with a perfect score that told me nothing.  As a writer whose work had already been rejected numerous times and had not won any contests, I'd be frustrated that someone was essentially telling me something I already knew wasn't true.  And the judge had already admitted to me that her perfect scores weren't honest.

In the 20 years and more since my reviewing days, the screening process provided by agents, editors, and publishers has been removed.  We readers never used to have ready access to the books that had been rejected.  The advent of digital self-publishing has not only brought those rejects into the marketplace, but it has done so without the benefit of the editing and revising the publishing process imposes on even the accepted books.

Some of these self-published authors may have availed themselves of editing or proofreading services, and their books may have gone through a process of independent critiquing and revising.  These authors will have dealt with the negative comments that every book receives during its development. 

But many other authors who don't have access to or haven't availed themselves of writing contests are putting raw manuscripts into digital publication with no concept of the often painful journey a story takes from conception to polished publication.  They don't understand that a critique of a work in process, perhaps of the opening chapters, isn't a personal assault; it's an attempt on the part of the reader to put the author on the path to success.

The author who has labored for months or even years on a novel with no input from qualified critics may be understandably upset when that first "review" comes in and points out the massive spelling and punctuation errors, the plot holes, the historical inaccuracies.   And whether a "review" is supposed to be just for other readers or for the author as well, it's difficult for any author to read a negative review and not think it's at least somewhat directed at her.

I know that few, if any, self-publishing authors pay much attention to my blog.  I know that a few have taken exception to some of my comments, and maybe they're even reposting them on their own blogs.  I don't much care.  Because I also know that those who disagree with me have not yet been able to prove me wrong. They may not like what I say or how I say it, but no one so far has been able to refute the validity of what I've said.

Critiques are not only an inevitable part of the writing-for-publication process, they are also essential.  And the writer who doesn't prepare herself for the inevitable is only hurting herself.  Denying the criticisms is absolutely the wrong thing to do.  "Flushing" the one-star reviews by unpublishing and republishing under a new title doesn't improve the book. 

Real writers know this.  Real writers know that it isn't enough just to have written the book.  Real writers know that writing a book is an accomplishment, but rewriting a book is a triumph.  Real writers know that writing is indeed rewriting, and you can't effectively rewrite unless you get feedback, evaluation, opinion, criticism.

The reader, whether she has paid $9.99 or picked the book up as a Kindle freebie, only sees the words in front of her.  The only story she cares about is the one that unfolds through those words.  The author's trials and tribulations and excuses don't matter.  Whatever comments the independent reader cares to make, whether they are a brief gush or a short slam or a lengthy analysis of all the novel's shortcomings, become equally valid because they become part of the process as it has evolved over the past two decades or so with the changes in publishing techniques and technology.

There used to be a big difference between a "review" and a "critique," primarily in that the former was applied to a product that was explicitly finished.  The reader knew the book had been accepted, edited, printed, and presented for sale as a final product.  The reader knew the book had been produced to meet basic industry standards.  Now, however, many digital books have not been through that complete process, and the reader is fully within her rights to react more in the role of contest judge or critique partner evaluating a work in progress than just as the reader of a final product.

It's my opinion, therefore, that both reviews and critiques are equally valid, provided of course that they come from independent and honest readers.  Not paid shills, not friends and family members, not reciprocating or disgruntled authors out to enhance their own offerings.  Those authors who wail and protest against the detailed critique-reviews should thank their lucky stars (pun intended) for each and every such review they receive, whether on a mega-site like Amazon or on a smaller review website/blog; and if they don't like dealing with negative reviews in public, then they need to remove their books from publication and get the private critiques that come from a good contest and/or a good critique group.

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