Encouragement vs. Support
A book review is not the same as a writing workshop critique. Writers sometimes fail to see the difference – regardless of whether they are giving or receiving, and this makes it hard for some to do either. Over on the blog Daily (w)rite, Damyanti asks, “Does Encouragement equal Support for #IndiePub Authors?” It’s a fair question, prompted by Andrew Leon’s post, “Encouragement Does Not Equal Support (an IWSG post)” on the blog StrangePegs.
The basic premise of Leon’s post is similar to something I heard from Tae Kwon Do Grand Master D.W. Kang, many years ago: It takes little effort to offer a few quick words of praise, but it takes deeper thought and effort – not to mention minutes out of a finite, precious few we’re given on this earth – to give real support. To Kang, constructive criticism was teaching, and it was a true gift of time and knowledge – not an insult or offense. To give constructive criticism was to help another person improve and grow. To hand a student a strip of black cloth and tell them to wear it as a belt might get them killed. They had to earn it, and not just have their feelings validated by being given one after a few weeks of classes. As students advanced, their achievements were celebrated at an awards ceremony by their respected teacher and their fellow students – not just acknowledged with a quick smile and a “nice job!” Because of his teaching, a lot of poorly performing, at risk students became disciplined, polite kids and grew up to have better futures.
That’s what a good workshop or critique group can do for a writer – before the book is published. Its members can support each other in developing the work and their own skills, and they can help to ensure that when the book is published, it is the best it can be.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with quick and easy praise, if it’s sincere. It counters some of the thoughtlessness in the world and it feels good. But let’s not confuse it with support. To go back to the martial arts metaphor, encouragement is standing on the sidelines yelling, “Go get ’em, Tiger – you’ve got this!” and cringing when your friend takes a punch in the face. Support is joining in the fight or calling 911 when your friend is being beaten to a pulp. But further, it is giving your friend a ride home, applying salve to their wounds, and suggesting that maybe, next time, they not try to take on the entire Navy in a bar fight – especially when they’re drunk and recovering from a broken foot.
A book review is the observer’s assessment of just how entertaining or cringe-worthy the bar fight was, after the fact. Was the outcome predictable from the start? Was there enough build-up of dramatic tension prior to the first punch? Would it make a great Hollywood movie or a weird artsy film noir – or was it just one of those Fridays that would have been better spent at home, watching Netflix?
Manuscript Critique vs. Book Review
A book review is guidance to buyers.
It also supports the author, in that it is free publicity. It’s not about the author, though it does help to draw attention to the book. If readers don’t know there’s a book, it’s worse than a one-star review – the poor book never stood a chance. A potential buyer might feel inclined to quibble with another reader’s assessment, but to do that, they’d have to read the book. A good book review doesn’t have to carry five stars, but it ought to reflect the reader’s honest thoughts about the work in question – not just consist of a few hastily penned lines or clever quips made up after riffling through “Surprise me!” on Amazon.com.
BUT – a book review is not the time for constructive criticism from one author to another. The book is published. It’s done. It is the difference between telling a woman who is trying on a dress in the shop, “That dress does nothing for you. Those zig-zag stripes make you look frumpy and that pale yellow makes you look like you’re recovering from the flu. The green dress, over there, brings out the color in your eyes and has a much more flattering cut…” vs. telling her the same thing when she’s wearing the awful dress at a party, just before she goes on stage to receive a professional award. The first is helpful, because she can do something about it (buy a different outfit); the second serves only to erode her confidence and make her wish she could take it all back and not get out of bed – it taints the whole evening.
The book criticism in a review is fine – IF it’s written reader to reader: “If you love the idea of true love at first sight, without there ever being any meaningful dialogue that might lead to a meeting of the minds, then this book will provide the sort of treacly romantic entertainment you’re looking for. It’s a great summer beach read – the kind of book you can pick up and immediately put back down without regret the minute a gnarly wave calls your name.”
Snarky, maybe, but not personal – and fully cognizant of the fact that it’s too late to rewrite this book. It focuses on the book and the potential readers, leaving the author’s personality, politics, gender, religion, sexual preferences, qualifications, and future books well out of it. An author’s qualifications are only important when reviewing works of non-fiction; we are all qualified to tell stories, whether we’re any good at it or not. The example, above, is not exactly a glowing endorsement of the romantic novel, but if a reader secretly knows they’d prefer a light read on vacation to hauling War and Peace to the beach, it’s not off-putting even if one reviewer gave it a single, lonely star. Reviewers should play fair and admit to their personal perspectives, bias, and tastes, so that readers can make informed decisions based on their own.
The only time typos and grammatical errors need to be mentioned in a book review is if the story cannot overcome them, or when they are glaringly obvious – but rather than assume they are solely the author’s fault or an indication of mental deficiency, a reviewer could say, “poorly edited, rife with mechanical speedbumps, but perhaps that kept me from tearing through the story so fast that I missed all the subtleties of character development. Had I not taken the time to look up whether gnusunce was a real word, I might have missed a vital clue to solving the mystery that was so central to the contorted plot.”
To writers – if you find yourself on the receiving end of a critical review, remember that not everyone likes The Holy Bible or Shakespeare or James Joyce and move on with life. Bashing reviewers who are brave enough to express an honest opinion in public, just because it stings and hurts your ego, does nothing to encourage anyone to support your writing efforts.
To readers (including the writers among them) – don’t be shy. Please support your favorite authors by buying, reading, and reviewing their books. Just play fair and be honest – focus on the book and what you’d say to a book group or a friend who’s looking for something to read next.
Bonus: Amazon Smile
How awesome is this?
To learn more, see http://smile.amazon.com/about
A New Leaf for Lyle is an Amazon Smile-eligible product!
What was I saying? Oh, right! Please remember to support your favorite authors (and encourage them, too)! You can even help your favorite charity, now, while doing it.