In this final post about reviews, I am going to talk about writers and criticism. I am still mulling over the NY Times article about buying positive reviews for $99 each, especially the comment in it by a writing coach that “nobody likes to hear their baby’s ugly.” My answer to that is “grow up.” Some critics are destructive, but others are invaluable. Even in business, writers get torn apart almost daily, more from ignorance and ego than from anything else. You should listen, but you should also not let it destroy you either.
The Right Kind of Criticism: Constructive
When I was in graduate school I worked as a research assistant for Morton Cohen, an editor of the Lewis Carroll letters, who also mentored my dissertation. When I went we met about my first draft, he gave me an ultimatum. I don’t remember exactly how he said it, but the gist was that this draft was pretty awful. If I wanted, he would closely edit the piece for me, but only if I promised to pay attention to what he said since he didn’t want to waste his time. I said okay, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I did four complete drafts of that dissertation (a critical biography of a little-known Edwardian playwright), but luckily only the first was revised from shreds. I used to joke that this was how I learned to type, but, of course, I learned a lot more – attention to detail, discipline, structure, audience, and, in the end, confidence. It was one of the greatest gifts anyone ever gave me, and I have a hard time dismissing critics out of hand because of it.
Finding Your Audience: Intelligent People Can Disagree
Writers need to understand that two intelligent readers can disagree completely. For example, when I was growing up, my sister and I both read mystery novels. She was devoted to Agatha Christie, and I was devoted to Georges Simenon. She thought Simenon was boring, and still won’t read him (or Donna Leon), and I still think Agatha Christie is a snore. Does this mean that Christie is better than Simenon or Simenon better than Christie? Nope. They are just different, and a writer needs to find his or her audience.
What’s the difference? I think Simenon concentrated on character and sensual details (you always know what the weather is in Paris and what his detective Maigret is having for lunch – and where), on beautifully described eccentric characters, and not so much on plot. On the other hand, I think Christie’s clever plots are brilliant, but her characters tend to be wooden and her settings almost like stage sets, which is why films of Christie’s novels are often wonderful. The clever plots are very satisfying, and the actors can give the characters the life that they don’t have in the novels.
Choose Your Critics and Value Them
A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that most people turn up at a movie theater and just pick a movie by time and favorite actor or actress. “They don’t read reviews?” I asked in astonishment. Could it be true that most people don’t go to metacritic and look at a film’s composite score and read the opinions of A.O. Scott or Manohla Dargis and Roger Ebert and Peter Travers before spending their hard-earned money on it? Do people like to waste money and be bored out of their minds? No wonder they text and talk and sleep in movies and walk the aisles like they are on an airliner.
We live in a time (thanks to the Internet) when everyone’s a critic – and it’s not surprising that the logical outgrowth of that is buying and selling positive reviews since people make decisions about movies (and books) based on buzz and hype. This is nothing new (the Victorians screamed about Philistinism), and a great way to waste your time and money.
To writers I say value good criticism when you find it and don’t be afraid of it. I suspect good criticism (smart and useful) will migrate to the Internet as some of it already has. I am searching daily and will let you know what I find.