In my previous post, I wrote about the steps many new, digitally self-published writers have skipped on the road between writing and publishing, and how I believe very strongly that the lack of criticism that's gained via critique groups has led many writers to publish works that really are far from ready for publication. After I had put that blogpost up, I thought of another aspect of that process, and I considered revising the post to include this other point.
I've decided instead to give it its own post. I think the issue is sufficiently important.
I am somewhat notorious for my DNF reviews of self-published books, and it's not likely that I'm going to change that habit. A single page is often enough to tell me the writing in the book is so far below standard that my time would be better spent teaching my Australian shepherd to sing "Largo al Factotum." Unfortunately, any such review is an opinion expressed in public. A review is not meant for the author; it is meant for other readers.
The author had her chance. Before she published her novel, she had all the time in the world to make sure it was well written, that her grammar and punctuation were correct, that her plot had no holes, that her research was accurate. Once she publishes, she in essence certifies that she's done with it.
The reviewer's comments may in fact read like a critique, and those comments may be harshly critical of the writing. They may be the first critical words the author has received, and if she doesn't have the experience of dealing with criticism, she may react vehemently to them. If her reaction is extreme and it's in the public arena of an Amazon or Goodreads review, she may become labeled a "badly behaving author."
Which leads me to the purpose of this post:
A critique group is small and private. The comments made in it are personal, but they are not public. No matter how outrageous the author's errors, no matter how poorly written her work is, she does not have to endure the criticism in front of The Whole World.
I've mentioned here before an evaluation given to one of my novels by an author unknown to me and to whom I had not given my consent to critique the book. I was quite stunned by some of the comments she wrote on the manuscript, and I was outraged that the penpal/critique partner I had shared it with took it upon herself to give the book to someone else. Regardless, whatever pain, embarrassment, anger, outrage, or other emotions I felt at the time, there were only three people who knew about it. I could physically rip the manuscript to shreds, burn it, bury it in a dresser drawer, and no one would be the wiser. I could tell everyone, "Oh, I just decided I didn't like it all that much," and who was to argue with me? I could lick my wounds in private, then when my pride healed a bit and my anger cooled, I could look at the comments again and see if maybe the critic hadn't had some good points after all.
It's much easier to learn how to deal with criticism if you don't have to deal with it right off the bat in a public place.
So it's not just that many new writers have never had the kind of constructive, work-in-progress criticism that comes in Steps 2 through 7; it's also that their first taste of criticism comes where they're least prepared to deal with it: in public. If their friends and family members have given them unconditional support and encouragement, and posted five-star reviews, these authors may be utterly gobsmacked when someone they don't know blurts right out on Amazon something like "This is probably one of the worst written books I ever read. Do not buy it. Do not pass Go and do not collect $200. Just run away from this garbage as fast as you can."
No one wants to be humiliated in public. Private humiliation is bad enough, but in public it's even worse, and the temptation to defend oneself is enormous, almost irresistible. Fortunately, it is very easy to spare yourself the grief of having the book you labored so hard over ripped to pieces by an online reviewer. If you're a new writer, one who hasn't gone through any form of private, personal critique, do yourself a favor and don't publish your book until you get a truly qualified, independent opinion of your work. Not a friend, not a family member, not a paid editor. Someone who is qualified and who has no incentive whatsoever to lie to you. And get it in a setting where you, your book, the critic's evaluation, and your reaction are all out of public display. Keep it private.
In this age of instant electronic gratification, many writers may not have the patience to go through the process. Those who do, however, will probably end up not only with better written books but also with the thicker skin that will allow them to weather the crank reviews, the stupid reviews, the retaliatory reviews with a mere shrug while they go back to writing their next -- and even better! -- book.