Monday, October 10, 2005

Not as easy as it looks

Ever wonder why romance novelists rarely say anything negative about each others' books? It's no mystery. The world of published romance writers is a small one, and many of us have forged some strong friendships within it. Also, it's disloyal for an author to trash the books of someone who writes for the same publisher she does. But although nobody can spot the faults in a romance novel quicker than another romance novelist, the primary reason we don't publicly criticize each others' books is that we all know how hard everyone else is trying.

I liked what Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout had to say about critics and criticism:
...criticism is not written in a vacuum. It touches real people, people of flesh and blood, and sometimes it hurts them. If you don't know that—and I mean really know it—you shouldn't be a critic....
He goes on:

Writing for the Kansas City Star taught me that lesson, and it also taught me that critical standards have to be appropriate. You don't review a college opera production the same way you review the Met. That's another reason why critics should ideally have hands-on experience in the areas about which they write: It teaches them proper respect for what Wilfrid Sheed calls "the simple miracle of getting the curtain up every night." It's hard to sing Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin, or to dance in Concerto Barocco. It's scary to go out in front of a thousand people in a dumb-looking costume and put your heart and soul on the line. Unless you have some personal experience of what that feels like—of the problems, both psychological and practical, that stand in the way of getting the curtain up—then you may err on the side of an unrealistic perfectionism, and your reviews will be sterile and uncomprehending as a result.

I think Terry's nailed it. If you haven't tried writing a romance novel, you can have absolutely no concept of how difficult it is to write even a bad one. And writing a book is only half the struggle, anyway. Try selling one. Try submitting your pride and joy to editors and agents knowing that the odds are wildly against you receiving anything but rejection letters. And if you do manage to sell, you'll be in for yet another gut-wrenching experience: waiting to hear what the critics think of your work.

Anyone who suggests romance novels are slapped together by people who have little regard for quality writing is ignorant of the most basic facts of writing for publication. Given that most writers will never be published and that most who do achieve publication will never make a big splash in the book world, just how logical is it to assume that any romance writer would produce anything less than the very best work she's capable of? Trust me--we're all writing our hearts out.

Romance novels are character-driven. By definition, the books are deeply emotional. So if you've just figured out that romance writers must be people who feel things deeply, you're catching on. Yes, we're sensitive.

Again, Terry puts it beautifully:
None of this is to say that criticism should be bland and toothless. Sometimes it’s your duty—your responsibility—to drop the big one. But you shouldn’t enjoy it, not ever. And you should always make an effort to be modest when writing about people who can do something you can’t, even when you don’t think they do it very well.

14 comments:

Robin Bayne said...

By the way,Brenda, I've been meaning to talk to you about some problems with your book. . . .. hee hee hee

Good post. Important topic.

Anonymous said...

don't you just love it when we razz ya!
janice

J. Mark Bertrand said...

If romance writers aren't critical of other romance novels, and those who haven't written romance novels aren't qualified to review them, who does review romance novels? :) I agree that criticism is sensitive business and that writers are probably the best folk to do it, but if they won't -- and I understand why they might not want to -- then who will?

Brenda Coulter said...

Um...PBS, perhaps?

Sorry. ;-)

First, romance writers are often highly critical of others' romance books--they just don't like to say so in public, for the reasons I outlined. But romance reviewers need not write romance themselves in order to write honest, helpful (to the reader) critiques that don't rip apart the souls of authors.

Terry Teachout cautioned critics against erring "on the side of unrealistic perfectionism." Surely someone who has never tried creating the kind of art she's reviewing is much more likely to slip into that error. But if a critic who lacks such experience is mindful of that pitfall and studiously avoids it, I think she could write some very balanced reviews that would convey useful information to consumers without stomping authors' hearts flat.

Which is not to say reviewers should never "drop the big one," as Terry says. Just that when they do, they should be fair and reasonable about it and not appear to derrive any pleasure from the exercise.

Karen said...

Hmmm, are you trying to say that romance reviews by readers aren't as valid as romance reviews by writers?

If so, I think you're incredibly short-sighted.

Reviews written by other authors are all fine and dandy, if they can be honest, but having read a lot of reviews written by peers, I can honestly say that I trust the average reviewer to be more honest in their assessment of books than other writers.

Some authors who review have their own agenda, and others simply don't want to publicly castrate one of their own, which all adds up to biased reviews however you look at it.

Brenda Coulter said...

Hmmm, are you trying to say that romance reviews by readers aren't as valid as romance reviews by writers?

Not at all, Karen. My post wasn't about the validity of anyone's criticism, but about the unnecessary, often apparently gleeful harshness of some reviews. A good reviewer should be able to explain why a particular book is terrible without suggesting that its author is a moron.

Candy said...

You don't review a college opera production the same way you review the Met.

By implication: are romance novels the college opera production, with other genres professional productions at the Met?

I do my best at my job, too (writing and illustrating technical manuals). But if somebody tells me I got something wrong or that the instructions/illustrations I came up with are confusing, I don't sniff about how those people must be PMSing and jealous of my l33t AutoCAD sk1llz and so, SO wrong because THEY DON'T KNOW WHAT IT TAKES TO PUT TOGETHER A MANUAL AND IF THEY'RE SO SMART THEY SHOULD LEARN INDESIGN AND INVENTOR AND CORELDRAW AND AUTOCAD AND MAKE THEIR OWN MANUALS FIRST BEFORE CRITICIZING MINE WAHHHHH. I suck it up. A lot of the time, they have a point. Some of the time, they must've been smoking something good because the error they see just isn't there, or they're requiring clarification above and beyond what would be necessary for anyone with two brain cells to rub together.

I don't see how this is too different from what authors and other artists go through.

I'll still revel in my evil, evil glee in skewering a bad book when I come across it. Lord knows it's the only pleasure I get out of the whole enterprise.

Brenda Coulter said...

By implication: are romance novels the college opera production, with other genres professional productions at the Met?

Ha! You're really trying to get a rise out of me, aren't you, Candy? ;-)

I don't see how this is too different from what authors and other artists go through.

I don't suppose it is. Except that while many (most?) other artists are "sensitive," romance writers as a group are more so. They have to be, or they couldn't write the emotionally wrenching stuff they do.

I'll still revel in my evil, evil glee in skewering a bad book when I come across it. Lord knows it's the only pleasure I get out of the whole enterprise.

No, I didn't imagine you would embrace the Teachout Method of Humane Criticism. ;-) But thanks for stopping by.

Suze said...

I don't suppose it is. Except that while many (most?) other artists are "sensitive," romance writers as a group are more so. They have to be, or they couldn't write the emotionally wrenching stuff they do.

I was with you on some levels until this.

Puh-lease. If romance writers are so "sensitive", I think they should probably think twice about putting an artistic product on the market for sale and keep their art pure and untainted by the stench of commerce.

I'm a professional writer, too, and I've had to endure idiotic comments thousands of times and good ones a few hundred. But, you know what? I'm a professional who gets paid for what I do and if I'm sensitive about it, well, that's something I just have to deal with privately.

Reviews are for readers. Period. If writers don't want to hear honest reactions designed to guide readers making choices about their hard-earned money, they should probably confine themselves to writers lists and blogs.

I'm old enough to know that women often sabotage themselves. Saying that romance writers -- who are overwhelmingly women -- are overly "sensitive" is just another form of self-sabotage since the implication is that they're just too delicate to stand up to criticism.

And that's really unfortunate.

Amelia said...

I like the way Teachout stresses the importance of context, both artistic and human, when writing criticism. But I think that such an understanding can be gained by non-musicians and non-writers through experience. A non-singer who has spent twenty years going to see college and professional opera productions has a huge foundation of knowledge to draw upon when criticizing a particular performance, regardless of whether or not she has ever sung a note or performed on a stage. I would argue that such a person might have a better perspective from which to judge a performance than, say, a student singer who has performance experience but is still learning what she can and can't do and might be inclined to judge others uncharitably as a result.

Likewise, lots of romance readers read voraciously, both in and out of the genre, and have a huge literary/artistic context against which they can measure a particular novel. We may not know how difficult it is to write a bad romance novel, but we know how difficult it is to read one, not to mention dozens or hundreds of them. Conversely, we know how rare it is to find a really great novel, and are aware that such books are rare because they are difficult to write. Why should our reading experience not qualify us to write valid criticism? Yes, I think critics need to keep in mind that writers are human and have feelings (although I agree with suze that it's a bad idea for any number of reasons to try to claim that romance writers are especially sensitive); but writers who complain about reviews should remember that readers are human, too, and sometimes we take crappy books very personally, especially when they are written by writers whose previous work we've loved.

Anonymous said...

I don't suppose it is. Except that while many (most?) other artists are "sensitive," romance writers as a group are more so. They have to be, or they couldn't write the emotionally wrenching stuff they do.

Oh, puuullleezzzz!!!!!!

If that's true, then Steven King must be insane or worse to write what he does.

And if criticism of one's work is hurtful to the point of causing the writer to be juvenile, then editors and agents should never reject mss/queries because it's just hurtful and mean.

My point? If you can't take criticism, then you shouldn't be published.

Brenda Coulter said...

Apparently, this little post of mine has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented. In the past few days some 400 people have come here from five or six other blogs to see if I am, in fact, as stupid as I have been painted.

Oh, I may be stupid. But as regards this particular issue, an awful lot of people have been putting words in my mouth. Here are some of the things I have not said (and do not believe):

1. That published romance writers make better reviewers (of romance novels) than those who don't write.

2. That reviewers should never call a spade a spade and say that a book just plain stinks.

3. That romance writers should "get a break" and reviewers should go easy on them because they're women and sensitive creatures.

When a blogger excerpts material from another blog and comments on it, her readers don't always get an accurate picture of what the original blogger meant. That's what has happened here. I've been asked why I haven't responded to the more outrageous comments on other blogs, and all I can say is that I lost interest in this discussion days ago, when I started seeing how many people were willfully missing the point of my post because they were so eager to rant. ("Ranting" is popular in some blogging circles because it increases traffic. And if you really want to increase your readership, just whip up a good catfight.) It just seemed a little futile to point out that my post was nothing more than a call for critics to display a modicum of class when they review a work they find to be seriously lacking in merit.

Honestly, I just don't have the time and I have even less inclination to go around to all of those other blogs and set the record straight. Those people aren't interested in what I have to say, so what would be the point?

As always, these comments will remain open as long as you folks keep it clean. But I think I'm finished here.

Robin said...

"When a blogger excerpts material from another blog and comments on it, her readers don't always get an accurate picture of what the original blogger meant."

Unless, of course, they come over here and read the entire piece AND the comments both to and from you.

Rather than set up a stand off between what you think you wrote and what I think you wrote, I'll just reference the passages in your post and your comments that keep emerging for me as your central thesis:

From Teachout: "Writing for the Kansas City Star taught me that lesson, and it also taught me that critical standards have to be appropriate. You don't review a college opera production the same way you review the Met. That's another reason why critics should ideally have hands-on experience in the areas about which they write: It teaches them proper respect for what Wilfrid Sheed calls 'the simple miracle of getting the curtain up every night' . . . . Unless you have some personal experience of what that feels like—of the problems, both psychological and practical, that stand in the way of getting the curtain up—then you may err on the side of an unrealistic perfectionism, and your reviews will be sterile and uncomprehending as a result."

To which you respond right afterward: "I think Terry's nailed it."

Then you expound on his argument: "If you haven't tried writing a romance novel, you can have absolutely no concept of how difficult it is to write even a bad one. And writing a book is only half the struggle, anyway."

And then this, from your comments: "Except that while many (most?) other artists are "sensitive," romance writers as a group are more so. They have to be, or they couldn't write the emotionally wrenching stuff they do."

I'm not ignoring the fact that you also wrote this: "But romance reviewers need not write romance themselves in order to write honest, helpful (to the reader) critiques that don't rip apart the souls of authors."

Or this: "My post wasn't about the validity of anyone's criticism, but about the unnecessary, often apparently gleeful harshness of some reviews."

And I can appreciate the feeling of being offended at what an author perceives to be rude or unnecessarily harsh criticism. As a professional writer myself, I know how that feels.

BUT, whether it's what you intended or not, or what think you said or not, you did, IMO, make some pretty affirmative statements about 1) the importance of reviewers having practical experience on the other side of the equation, and 2) the special sensitivity of Romance authors. I didn't get those points from reading an excerpt from your post, but by reading the whole thing in it's entirety, including your PS comments.

As for the sensitivity issue, personally, I'd vote a boatload of literary figures above Romance novelists for that prize. Ditto the emotionally wrenching, often character-driven prose. And in literary fiction, criticism and writing go hand in hand, because it's as much about reading as it is about writing.

As a professional writer myself, who HAS experienced how hard it is to put yourself out there with your work, I have a different view on the criticism issue. While it's a drag to get snapped by people whom I feel don't have the knowledge to truly appreciate what I'm doing, what makes me far, far more uncomfortable is the idea that there isn't a mechanism to distinguish my work from that of others -- that stuff I just think is crapola is being offered with the same claim to excellence as my stuff. So if criticism from other writers in my field or those who read what I write might have a downside of being harsh sometimes, it also has a very powerful upside of elucidating very real differences in quality, articulations which keep me on my toes, as a thinker, as a reader, and as a writer. Not only have some powerfully harsh critiques over the years actually helped me become a better writer, but they've made the praise that came with that growth sooooooo much sweeter and more meaningful. Personally, I'm far more wary of gushing, unqualified approval.

evilauntieperil said...

Hi Brenda. Hope you don't mind me dropping by, but I've re-read your article and comments here and on other sites a few times now (and always a couple of times before making any comments, btw) and wanted to add a few thoughts I've been chewing over this weekend.

First, my initial reaction was centred more on your follow-up comments rather than the main text of the article itself. I also have some issues here, but Robin's already detailed this very thoroughly and better than I could. I don't want to echo her, but I did want to provide some more clarification on the issue in your article that you feel has been misinterpreted.

Brenda, please feel free to slap me down hard here if I'm wrong, but I think your original post was prompted by a dislike of a certain kind of negative review, rather than all negative reviews. I get the impression you don't mind the ones that read: "This book is very well-written, but the characters could have been slightly more well-developed. Also, although very intriguing, there are a few issues with the plot, etc." However, you don't find the ones which take the tone: "If only I had decided to watch my freshly-painted fence dry rather than read this book, my time would have been spent more profitably..." to be constructive or useful.

I think that by using Teachout to provide a framework for your arguments, you're doing yourself a disservice, since his arguments have led you to make certain assumptions and conclusions that have clouded your initial premise. These are also the basis of many people's strong reactions to your article (including my own).

Negative reviews come in a range of styles from carefully constructed, polite critiques to hatchet jobs which gleefully skewer a book's flaws for the entertainment of both critic and reader. Clearly, the latter can more easily slide into the realm of perceived personal criticism. Even if they're not directly personal, some scathing reviews can seem to be motivated by a desire to be scornful and demonstrate the critic's superiority (take Peck, for example). Others may appear to be a reaction to publicity or fame rather than the actual book.

But, even if the review is none of these things, it's possible to feel that anyone who takes an apparent delight in poking holes in your masterwork is not treating it, and therefore the author, with the respect they deserve. Hence your request for more in the review process. This appeal has also been made by the literary types haunting the pages of "The Believer" (Heidi Julavits' article in the inaugural issue sets their viewpoint out quite clearly).

However, the key point here is that reviews are not written for the benefit of the author, but the reader. Certainly, reviews are part of a greater cultural dialogue, and authors are free to react to them, but they can also ignore them. Unlike critiques, which are solicited by an author in order to improve their writing, the essence of a review is a reader's gut reaction to a particular work. Most readers of a book review aren't looking for helpful tips on style, they're looking for entertainment, debate and opinion.

The very fact that someone is published is a fairly reliable indicator that they have a better grasp than most of the fundamentals of their craft. But this means they should be held to higher standards than the rest of us. As a passionate reader I feel any disappointing book is a betrayal of trust. I want to hold the author accountable. A critic who revels in a bit of well-aimed vitriol expresses the emotion many readers feel when they are let down by a book. To this reader, such a reaction seems more honest than an anaemic review which may smack of career concerns or timidness.

A well-written and vivid review will make me remember a title and author more than one that reads like a book report. Not only are the reviewer's biases more apparent, but humour, no matter how black the sarcasm, is very appealing. Even if it's negative, I still may look out for the book and want to read it. Why? Well, I've never been comfortable having other people form my opinions and if the review is engaging and strongly worded I'll want to participate in the discussion on some level.

Unlike the other arts, critics work in the same media as those they critique. So there is always the haunting possibility that a critic will show as much or more talent in the review than the author they criticise. Indeed, some of the most effective reviews will demonstrate in abundance what the critic thinks the book lacks.

It's harder to dismiss these reviews than ones that are badly written ones and full of blatant abuse. But in addition to the fact that this sort of excellence in review writing is as rare as it is in fiction, I don't think this is really a problem for a good writer. After all, Twain was pretty scathing in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses", but it didn't do either of their careers much harm, did it?