Reviews and Criticism: Some Things to Think About

This post is aimed at writers.  As we in the science fiction community deal with some ugliness that has taken a quasi-political form and had a powerful negative effect on many writers, here are some things you may want to consider.

I will sometimes read reviews of my work. I will go to Amazon and click the 5-star ones, and read others that are full of lavish praise. I do this because sometimes I need cheering up–I need to remind myself, “Yeah, I can do this.”  I mean, in my more cynical moments I believe that the way to tell if you’re a “real writer” is that you sometimes think you’re not a real writer.  It’s good to have ways of pulling yourself out of that, especially if it has a bad effect on the quantity or quality of your work; if you’re lucky enough to have reviews out there that will help you do that, hey, what the hell.

With a few exceptions, I do not read negative reviews of my work, or even pay attention to the negative comments (“My only complaint is….”) within a positive review.  The book is done.  Moreover, if there is something someone hates about it, it is a gimme that it is the same thing that someone else likes, so I’m not “learning” anything from it.  I have a list of people for whom I have a great deal of respect, and to whom I listen when they speak about what needs improvement, either in a particular work or in my writing in general; nothing good can come of listening to anyone else.  The exceptions, with reviewers, are people who, over the years, I have determined are smart, perceptive, know what I’m trying to do, and can articulate where I failed to do it (yes, Jo, I’m looking at you).  These reviews can, in fact, give me useful information.

I can see you nodding along with me.  Good.  We agree.  I’m glad to hear it.

Now consider, for a moment, reviews or criticism that call you, for example,  a racist, because you didn’t include anyone of some particular race, or you did but someone thinks you were stereotyping, or being insensitive, or whatever.  These comments are every bit as legitimate, in my opinion, as any other sort of criticism, and deserve exactly the same consideration.  To wit: if you’re getting the comment from someone you know and trust, take it the way you would any other comment, give it due consideration, and decide.

I mention this because one of the things I see going on around me, is that reviews and criticism that focus on these things are treated as if these comments are special–particularly if aspects of the personal identity of the reviewer (race, sex, disability, sexual preference, &c) is a factor in the review.

I beg to submit that these sorts of reviews are no different from others, and deserve no special status.  If it is coming from a reviewer or critic you trust, then it should get the same consideration as any other sort of criticism; and if it is not, by making an exception, you are, in my opinion, doing yourself and your writing no good whatsoever, and are granting people you have no reason to trust, far, far too much power over the work you produce.


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20 thoughts on “Reviews and Criticism: Some Things to Think About”

  1. I’m chiming in as a non-writer, but I completely agree. I’ve never read any reviews at all until fairly recently as part of some research, and I am amazed at both the angst and arrogance some of these people display in their write ups.

    I wish I could say I don’t understand it, too, but I get what they’re doing, even if I think it’s foolish.

  2. Another non-writer (well, barely a writer), but I’m interested to see that you trust people on everything or nothing. I’d have imagined that you might trust somebody on race relations, somebody else on characters, somebody else on prescriptive grammar, etc.

  3. Jerry Friedman: The issue is “somebody.” I can imagine given, particular individuals, whom I know, whom I trust on certain sorts of questions but not on others. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?

  4. I think maybe people who say “I am an X so I am qualified to write about discrimination against Xes, and I say this writer discriminates against my kind and so I want everybody to boycott him” then you have to judge just how much clout the X agitators have.

    If there are so many of them and they are so influential among your readers that they can significantly cut your sales then you have to pay some sort of attention. Either find a way to genuflect enough to them that they get off your case, or accept that your income will go down, or somewhere in between.

    Luckily I doubt there are very many that are that important right now.

    Historically it seems like the most important of them has been the anti-communists, and they didn’t stop you. If you just ignore stuff that’s equivalent to blackmail threats and write the best stories you know how, you might get hurt by it but on the other hand maybe most of your readers will be people who like your stories regardless what reviewers say. It isn’t like you really are writing stuff that’s bad for X.

  5. J. Thomas: ” then you have to judge just how much clout the X agitators have.”

    You are missing the point in an important way. This is not about boycotts, or about the influence of the reviewer on anyone except the writer. Too many writers–particularly, new writers–are reading these reviews and taking them to heart and letting it harm their work.

  6. I am not the kind of writer you had in mind, of course. In my public work, I write short non-fiction essays. What concerns me is not stripping agency from the people I’m writing about. So if I am writing about people with disabilities, and people with disabilities come to me and complain that I am silencing their voices, I’m likely to pay a lot of attention to that. I’m not sure, though, if the analogy stretches to fiction writing.

  7. Worries me too. Write the stories you want to write. I think just understand that homogeneity of race, sexuality, whatever are choices you make as an artist, not a default?

    That said, there are a LOT of books out there with all white characters written by white authors, so Aspiring’s fear is, I think, unplaced. But perhaps I’m wrong. Not my world of writing.

  8. skzb: “You are missing the point in an important way. This is not about boycotts, or about the influence of the reviewer on anyone except the writer.”

    If it becomes something about boycotts, then it is a different problem. Then it isn’t a question whether you accept a reviewer as an authority on how you can write better, but instead it turns into a question about who you want your target audience to be and what you should do about that.

    Until it reaches that point, it’s a question about who you choose to accept constructive criticism from.

    Or possibly who you choose for a personal demon to torture yourself with, which is likely to interfere with your writing, your publication, your sales, etc.

  9. I’m curious. Are the people who influence you as to whether to read others the same ones who you trust to make constructive criticism? After all, serving as a filter (this is worth spending valuable time on) is different from being able to tell you how to better make your work worth spending valuable time on. The question is are they? That is are there some people who you read for reviews of others work, but would ignore for your own?

  10. “That is are there some people who you read for reviews of others work, but would ignore for your own?”

    Oh, yes, certainly. I think of it as a “review” in some sense every time a friend says,”Have you read THIS? It rocks.” And there are many people whose judgement I’d trust on that, but not on the details of stuff I’m writing.

  11. There’s nothing you can write that someone, somewhere, won’t like.

    Make that, “lots of someones, all over the place, won’t like,”

    At least book reviews aren’t like the comments section on YouTube, which seems to have become where the crazies went to after they left the alt. newsgroups. Someday someone will mine YouTube comments for a doctoral thesis on net.rage and angst.

    A handful of authors seem to prefer outraging their public to actually writing for money. (“public”, not necessarily readers) Vox Day and Requires Hate, for pathological examples…

    The reviews you see on Amazon etc. don’t seem to have the level of outright crazy seen on YouTube, but the times I’ve bothered to read any… I wondered if they’d actually read the book they were foaming about. I’m betting just the author name, title, cover art, or even the genre was all they needed before going off into Standard Rant #3.

    Asimov once said something along the line of, a thousand words of praise were quickly forgotten, while a few words of sincere criticism would bother him for weeks.

    The operative part there being “sincere”, not the rantings net.whacktards who haven’t been taking their Prozac and lithium lately.

    While I have your attention (look, I have my net.whacktard hat on!), I’m glad to see you’re finally flexing your mad author skillz outside the Dragaeran Empire again… I hope to see more new stuff.

  12. I can understand looking for a sign of recognition in the reviews of your readers. I write and have read some of your tips on writing. I believe therein you have listed some principles that rely on a ‘theory of that which is cool’. Authors write about what is cool to them. In reading reviews you hope to find that others find the things you have written as cool as you do. This is an affirmation that what you write is legitimate and spurs you to keep writing. Having invested something of yourself in everything you write, and writing being an expression of the things that make your world seem bright and worth living, attacks like those by RH strike at something very personal.
    I’m not sure what the answer is and I don’t have some clever political viewpoint or response but I feel that it’s important to point out that it’s more than just a story that’s being assaulted.

  13. This might be out of place, but since I love your books, I do value your opinion. Are there any newish (last five years) authors of sci-fi or fantasy that you’d recommend? I just haven’t been reading that much lately because it seems much of what I look at while I’m at the book store just sounds like I’ve already read it (which is why I enjoy your books – always a little different even from book to book).

    Thank you.

    On topic, I rarely read online reviews for anything because I don’t know who these people are so I have no idea if they like what I like or if they are complete idiots.

  14. Thank you for this post, Steven. That a well known writer like you thought about my concerns enough to dedicate a post to the problems I voiced is deeply moving.

    I hope I can overcome my fear of becoming the victim of some -fail or -gate. Normal criticism and – hopefully to come – Amazon reviews I can deal with (I’ve been in a crit group and when left it was because the members changed and the feedback was no longer as useful), but not a Twitter witch hunt. But still, after your encouraging comments I channelled my stubborn streak and, for the first time, won Nano and wrote 50K words in a month, decent enough words that I can edit them into shape. The story has turned trilogy on me, though. :) This is one of the historical fiction projects I was playing around with, and I can now see how to make it work.

    I’ve also told myself to ignore those internet wars that keep coming up every few months. That should help with the double thinking about my NiPs as well.

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