Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Everyone's a Critic, Right?

That's right; everyone has an opinion about something.
Some folks criticize to correct someone and challenges them to help them grow.
Some folks criticize to demean and destroy.  Cue: Snark

But, there is a flip side to criticism - both good and bad.

But what IS criticism?

For reviewing purposes, I chose this explanation: The analysis or evaluation of a work of art, literature, etc.

That's a basic definition and it applies to reviewing. It's the part that takes a story to task for failing a reader at certain points. I admit, it can be incredibly hard to be a constructive critic. Human nature has a tendency to go overboard sometimes.

But the hardest part about being a critic and exercising critical thinking is when a reviewer is conflicted.

What puts a reviewer in such a position? To feel torn, or obligated? When they are asked to crit a friend's work - doesn't matter if it's about a book, a screenplay or a poem.

When a person is emotionally vested in a relationship, whether personal or professional, the ability of a person to be objectively critical is compromised and feelings oftentimes are in the driver's seat.

If you are asked to review a friend's book, do you? As a rule, the answer should be no. I'm not talking about a situation where you really don't want to read and review their book, but when you do want to. And along with that wanting to read their story and offer up your opinions, you run the risk of getting on your own emotional roller coaster - and it's not a pleasant ride.

Guilt will plague you.
Worry will haunt you.
Second guessing yourself will torment you.

Are you being too harsh? Will whatever you point out as 'wrong' hurt your friend's feelings? How accurate can your crit be if you are constantly trying to couch your suggestions so as to not hurt someone, or worse, make them angry? How fair are you being? No wait, are you being unfair? I think you can get an idea as to where this is going.

I guess a lot depends on the kind of relationship you have with the person whose work you are critting. If you are lucky, there's an established trust where the author has a thick skin and understands the vein in which the crits are presented thereby allowing you to honestly share how the book really affected you - the good, the bad, and the hilarious.

But, I believe one of the worst case scenarios is of a reviewer taking on a book to review for someone, and by virtue of feelings of obligation, duty, friendship or hero-worship, gives a glowing, gushing high-five write-up that whitewashes the whole book into a shining example of perfection, when it's possibly anything but.

That does an author a huge disservice.

I repeat, giving a carte blanche glowing review no matter what does not benefit the author in any way, except perhaps, ego. But that's ephemeral at best.

Another point about that practice, and let me be clear, is that it hurts a reviewer's credibility. The damage doesn't necessarily stop there either. If you review for a professional review site, it could compromise their reputation. If you give a book a top rating whereas all the other ones are much less, it calls into question the veracity of the review, and by association, the review site as a whole.
Now, before you jump all over that last sentence and remind me about reviews being opinions, let me explore that difference.

If a book is riddled with errors and blatant plot holes and objective points of criticism that would always and everywhere lower a rating in a review and THAT book still gets a glowing gushy top rating from you with absolutely no acknowledgement of the well known issues that have come to light in other reviews, then it stands out like Jeff Foxworthy at a mime convention.

Another compromising position for a reviewer is one who is a diehard, devout fan of an author or series.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with following a series. Nothing at all. If, and that's a big IF, the reviewer can step back from his or her fandom and view the book objectively. That means being willing and able to point out any inconsistencies or plot issues like they would have for any other book and not only mention them, but rate it accordingly.

As long as a reviewer can do that, then review away. Because let's face it. There is no way an author can consistently have top ratings or best book ratings for every single book in a fifteen book series without at least once or twice dropping the ball and falling through a plot hole, get confused on a head hop or create a character so flat, they don't even warrant the title of pancake. Authors are human too.
The bottom line?

Review with honesty.
Review with a pragmatic approach.
Review without guilt or pressure or perceived expectations.
Be willing to give constructive criticism.
Be willing to say no.

And if you can't say 'no', or are totally crushing on wanting to read that story, then do yourself and the author a favor.

Rate the book on how it really is, and NOT on how you think they'd want you to rate it.

All authors want to hear their baby is great. It's human nature. But as kids need braces to fix oral misalignment, so too do authors need to hear what doesn't work, so they can correct it and write a better scene the next time.

Yes, everyone can try be a critic. But not everyone knows how to, or when not to. And that's the difference.