Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
February 2013

On Criticizing Other Authors

There is a point in a beginning author's career (often before publication) when it is easy to criticize other author's works. You may do this aloud to friends or other beginning authors. You may do it on-line on your blog or on Goodreads or on Amazon. I am not going to tell you not to do this. But I am going to talk a little about my experience criticizing other authors and my experience being criticized and I will offer at the end some suggestions for different possible ways that you can continue to engage in the reading community as an author and still be seen as a professional.

In the early days, I remember talking to my husband about how first novels by many authors seemed to be startlingly new and wonderful, and that second novels weren't as great. Also, it seemed to me as a reader that many authors got worse and worse, wordier and less innovative as their careers became more and more lucrative. I remember vowing that this would never happen to me, that if the problem was that editors were not editing me anymore, then I would hire new editors out of my own pocket, because I would never allow readers to feel cheated in their experience with my books.

Does this sound familiar?

I also remember in those early days recommending books to others or having books recommended to me by others. Sometimes I liked the book as much as the recommender did (Lois McMaster Bujold's books were first recommended to me by my oldest brother who is an inveterate reader) and I recommended them in turn. I remember the delicious feeling of getting the right book to the right person. I also remember far more often being bewildered as I tried to read a book that seemed terrible to me and wondering how anyone else could like it. I remember offering a book I loved to someone else and feeling the crushing sense of disappointment when that person just shrugged and admitted they hadn't been able to finish it.

Does this sound familiar?

When I was very close to being published, I remember being in critique groups with other aspiring writers and occasionally thinking to myself that this writer would never be published. Nothing they wrote was any good. They did not seem to be learning anything or improving in any way month after month, no matter how good my critique was. I was part of a critique group that went "elitist" and actually changed our meeting time and place on purpose to avoid those we thought weren't as good as the rest of us, and whom we no longer wanted to be in the critique group.

Does this sound familiar?

In the early days of my career, after a particular well-known book came out, I read it, enjoyed it, but still participated in the vehement discussions of the book's flaws. I joined in mocking the author and those who loved the book. I found myself parroting a lot of the critiques I read that were based more on a superficial reading of the book than a deep one. I felt myself superior to the author of this book, who was vastly more financially successful than I was. And perhaps I congratulated myself on my higher literary standards in part as a compensation for my lack of similar financial success.

Does this sound familiar?

After I had several books published, I was determined to continue to read in my field voraciously, as I had in the years I was working to be published. I wanted to be cutting edge, so I read 20-25 books a month. I reviewed these books on my blogs. Sometimes I added them to my recommended list. Other times I gave a simple star rating to books. I remember one author who saw my star rating of her book emailing me to ask me about what I had thought of it and feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

Does this sound familiar?

I am embarrassed about almost all of the above choices. I wish I had been better able to be as relativist as I talked about being when in my graduate lit classes. No, not really that. In my graduate lit classes, I was trying to sound impressive, not actually be more tolerant and understanding. I wanted to pretend to be what I wasn't because I didn't have any experience yet.

Now, years later, I remember the advice that a few authors more experienced had offered me along the way which now echoes in my mind and which I wish I had paid more attention to.

1. I was told that there were not as many good or bad books as there were books that followed certain reader expectations and books that didn't. There were books that worked for certain people and books that worked for other people. Books were not moral choices. Books were simply stories that resonated or did not. Some books might use bigger words. Some books might be edited better and have fewer typos. Some books might be more innovative. That is all.

2. I was told that an author should be careful about posting reviews online for the simple reason that at some point in every author's career, you will end up meeting every other author. And many of those authors will remember the review you gave of their book with piercing clarity, far more than you will yourself after writing it. You may not be able to get past this in a casual conversation, let alone a deeper one that at some point you may wish to have with this other author.

3. I was told that no author should ever engage with critics or reviewers of any kind. I have seen some of the biggest disasters when authors have done this, though I have also seem some authors do it well.

4. I was told that authors should avoid reading reviews of their own work on Goodreads, Amazon, or anywhere else. And that, in fact, reviews are for readers, not for authors and that a review will not actually help you write your next novel or, in fact, help you to improve as an author, because a review is just as likely to stunt your growth as an author as to help. And even if you take it well, the review may be criticizing the very thing that another reader will love most about your book.

5. I was told about an experience in which a room full of women argued about the particular book that I had congratulated myself on not writing. I found that all of my arguments (repeated from others) were repeated here, as well. None of them were particularly original. I realized that these kinds of criticisms were often aimed at women writers and never at men. I also noticed that I had good things to say about the book and that my good things to say were perhaps less popular but were also more original.

I have come to my own rules in the world of criticizing other authors and these are they:

1. I only ever praise books I love online or publically. I never praise books I do not love simply because I am asked to do so as a favor. I'm lousy at that sort of game-playing or favor-trading. But if I say I like a book, I really like it. And there are fewer and fewer books that I really like, though I read fewer books that I don't like. In the end, I may perhaps read the same number of books I like. I just don't read books I don't like anymore.

2. If an author asks me directly about my opinion of a book that s/he knows I have read, I tend to offer things like "I think I am not in the audience for that book" or perhaps "it didn't work for me." Just because it didn't work for me does not mean it won't be a New York Times Bestseller. Plenty of books I haven't liked are NYT Bestsellers. And while I am sometimes tempted to say that means most people are stupid, it probably isn't always true. There are also people who simply like different things than me. I am a rather strange person, so why should that surprise me?

3. I avoid places like Goodreads and Amazon. I don't often read reviews of my books. This is simply because after years of being in the business, I find that I can't get the voice of the reviewer out of my head (good or bad) for days afterward and it interrupts my next work. It can also paralyze me creatively. Other authors may experience criticism differently than I do. That is fine. It doesn't mean they are better authors or people than I am. They do what they do. I do what I do.

My final piece of advice to others: Be mindful that authors are people. They have feelings. Their feelings can be hurt. If you hate a book, perhaps you only hate the book and not the author. You may actually like the author even if you hate the book. It happens.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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