Now here’s a topic you almost never see raised in writers’ groups. For good reason—by-and-large, it’s much more helpful to approach this topic from the opposite, positive perspective: that is to say, how to give and receive a constructive review. (Note: throughout this blog post I shall use the terms “critique” and “review” interchangeably.)
So first, let’s enumerate the attributes and practices of a constructive reviewer (of which Sue, Tom and Atthys—among others—are masters).
A constructive reviewer will:
1.) Flag problematic areas of text without resorting to snark or sniping.
2.) Find something genuinely positive (supported by the writing) to highlight.
3.) Frame suggestions as “I thought at this point” or “have you considered?” or “this puts me in mind of _____; did you intend . . . ?” Shun emphatic: “You really f#cked up here, pal!” declarative statements.
4.) Avoid commenting on how the writing impacted their emotional state (unless positive).
5.) Read the writer’s text carefully.
6.) Understand that a self-deprecating sense of wry humor and/or “in-the-trenches-with-you” camaraderie engenders trust and openness. (Animals expose their bellies to show trust. Proffering your manuscript to another person and asking for a critique is, existentially speaking, a similar act.)
7.) Always remember: Respect earns respect.
8.) Be more coach than oracle. (Quick: Who were your favorite teachers in school? The coldly imperious, doctrinaire and/or sarcastic set? Those who talked at you instead of with you? No, I didn’t think so . . .)
9. Respect the reviewed writer for taking chances, even if—in the reviewer’s opinion—the writer failed to accomplish what they set out to do.
10. Critique the writing for what it is, not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean that the reviewer should refrain from addressing errors in the text (of grammar, historicity, inauthentic dialogue, etc.) It means that the reviewer doesn’t react to a writer’s tragic text by telling them it would work better if it were a little less tragic—a comedy, perhaps. Or a one-panel New Yorker cartoon. (“Does it have to be a story?”) That kind of thing.
One note before proceeding: a neutral review is not a destructive review. A neutral review (usually given when the reviewer is pressed for time) simply highlights what is not working in the text for the reviewer in as direct and succinct a manner as possible without cushioning “rah-rah” statements to soften the blows of critique. I prefer neutral reviews of my work. As I’ve stated: It saves time. The reviewer isn’t racking their brains for positive things to say immediately before and after highlighting a problematic area of the text. This technique is called “the critique sandwich”. (Example: “Your story moves at a brisk pace until that extended info dump re: malfunctioning doggie squeak toys on pp. 23-25—did you intend the reader to be amused as well as somewhat overwhelmed by insider industry knowledge?—though overall the book’s pacing and deft, incisive strokes of characterization . . .”) The critique sandwich certainly helps “the medicine go down”—but can be mentally exhausting for the reviewer, as well as somewhat patronizing to the reviewed.
Now let’s talk about the destructive review. Dear literary gods in their manifold heavens, where to begin?
Perhaps by listening to a quote of Joyce Carol Oates: “I believe that any form of art is a species of exploration and transgression. … Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.”
If you write an effective piece of fiction—albeit one that demolishes unexamined verities and/or probes the circumstances and motivations of the darker, more perverse aspects of human nature—brace for snarling contempt, histrionic outrage and bitter vituperation from some quarters as your reward. Or baffled confessions that are actually thinly veiled protestations: “Why did you choose subject x? Employ technique y? Adopt tone z? It made me crazy! I don’t know what you’re trying to do here…”
That’s if you write an effective piece of fiction. Now if you should stumble and write an ineffective piece of fiction . . .
We all might wish that the professional literary world be full of warm, compassionate human beings who communicate their empathy, intelligence and professional wisdom by expressing themselves with tact, courtesy and rueful good humor to all and sundry. Yes, we all might so wish! Alas, this is not the case. And there is no one better skilled at flaying with words than a practiced writer. You think your uncle Joe’s or cousin Suzie’s offhand, inarticulate comments misreading your text were upsetting? Wait till an accomplished fictioneer starts in on you! For economy of motion and maximum impact in the deliverance of “death-by-a-thousand-cuts-criticisms” the work of a pro cannot be matched. It is a thing of beauty: oftentimes as ID-tickling amusing as it is abrupt, nasty, idiosyncratic and censorious. (See: Poe vs. Longfellow, Hemingway vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Foster Wallace vs. John Updike, Mark Twain vs. Bret Harte, H. G. Wells vs. Henry James, etc.)
Exhibit A: I am now going to share with you a critique experience I recently had with a professional writer who considers themselves a friend. (Name withheld to protect their privacy.) Not solely to vent (though of course there is that aspect to the matter) but because I think others can learn from it.
Disguising certain particulars of what exactly was said, here is how my professional reviewer delivered a critique of a couple pieces of writing I asked him to review. He:
1.) Made repeated references to how the writing had negatively impacted his emotional state. (No warning of “don’t send me triggering stories concerning subject X” beforehand.)
2.) Urged that I directly quote a writer mentioned in one of my texts. (But I did quote that writer: twice. In that very same text. What were we saying about close reading, please?)
3.) Smarmily and testily informed me that I should be billed for causing him to “read 32,000 words of Carl E. Reed text” over the course of five stories. (I sent six. And specifically noted beforehand: “Please choose one . . . or two . . . to comment on. I’ve submitted six to give you review options, not homework; good grief!” I could not have been clearer in my intentions/expectations. Mind you, this whilst simultaneously working my way through one of his 500-page novels. “I should bill you for reading 175,000 words . . .”)
4.) Suggested I have my protagonist (in a horror story) fight someone or something to be “more like Indiana Jones”. Then—comically, almost in the very next sentence—objected that the three black-robed antagonists my protagonist did fight toward the latter end of the tale put him in mind of “Luke Skywalker fighting in the tree”. So . . . no fighting, then? Or fighting that doesn’t—in any way, shape or form—put one in mind of fighting done by someone else, sometime earlier or later, elsewhere? I’m confused.
5.) Made absurd, off-the-wall suggestions re: multiple stories that would have completely demolished or transformed beyond all recognition authorial narrative flow, plot, tone and theme. (Example: complained that a bookish, sociopathic, high I.Q. juvenile monster in one of my tales wrote glowingly in his journal of the writings of Ayn Rand and others instead of being influenced by TikToc videos.)
6.) Ignored themes and metaphors (literalized or otherwise). My reviewer was completely blind/impervious/indifferent to same. I mean, nary a word mentioned regarding what is to me the central justification for the existence of literature: what the machinations of plot and the collision of divers characters within a story mean; what it all adds up to re: commentary on the human condition.
7.) Made cutting comments throughout the text whenever he encountered wordage deemed problematic. (Full disclosure: He apologized in a prefatory email for the many “dyspeptic comments” my writing prompted him to articulate.)
8.) Flagged as textual “errors” subtleties that were lost on him. (Example: In one instance, I described a person smoking a cigarette exhaling “blue-gray smoke”. Later, a passing truck backfires and emits a pungent whiff of “blue-gray smoke”. This is an intentional highlighting and callback to the fact that the truck is emitting a whiff of smoke every bit as toxic as the smoker’s cigarette: the identical phrasing of similar events in differing instances serving to create a leitmotif, which itself underlines and dramatizes the hot-house, claustrophobic toxicity addressed in the tale.)
9.) Seemed more interested in crafting cutting comments than in reading closely, deeply and well. One story (whose tone, plot and thematic material was influenced by my currently reading Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us; Simon Critchley) I submitted to him for review opened with the following epigraph:
Tragedy is built of one part fate, one part willing surrender to nihilistic impulses and perverse compulsions. It is both existential horror and chaotic mystery, striking the person of Apollonian and Dionysian temperament alike. Above all else, tragedy crushes the spirit and breaks the mind, leaving psychic ruin—and manifold death—in its wake.
A richer, more lapidary and polysyllabic than normal use of the mother tongue, perhaps; but hardly impenetrable or so confoundingly recondite that it defeats comprehension. It draws upon philosophy, psychology, mysticism and ancient Greek theatrical art (tragedy) for its meaning. His response?
“Wow, this quote! I had a tough time following the bangs of this nailgun procession of ideas. I’ve torn it apart a couple of times and it still doesn’t make sense.”
I could go on, but to what end? Why include an entirely superfluous point #10? I think you get the picture. My industry professional (20+ novels and counting to date) “friendly” reviewer was angry, distraught (remember: triggered by the material), contemptuous, sarcastic, belittling and resolutely downbeat throughout his back-handed, teeth-gritted, unforgivably sloppy critique of my work. It amounted to an act of intellectual violence.
Yes, there were occasional helpful suggestions made and errors flagged during the course of the critique. (Example: He flagged the use of the word “astronaut” in a 1930s pulp sci-fi tale as an anachronism. Nice catch! And quite right. I changed the word to “spaceman”.) The problem is, the ratio of these constructive-to-destructive comments was running at something like 20-to-1. Nevertheless . . .
The trick when receiving a destructive critique is to salvage what you can from the morass of misreading, misattribution (of authorial intent and accomplishment + references back to things in the text that simply aren’t there; or that are there and were slighted/overlooked/denigrated), sarcastic comments and wildly wrong-footed, bizarre suggestions. (Sarcasm kills communication, which is exactly what it is intended to do. It is the lowest form of wit, as the joke is always assumed to have been made.)
So . . . How did I react?
With as much decency, kindness and appreciation as I could muster.
His bad day did not mean that I needed to become completely unglued. Though it hurt. Maaannn, it hurt . . . ! (Don’t deny the reality of your feelings; acknowledge and manage them. Stay grounded and real. And remember: to the world-at-large this is a meaningless—even somewhat comical—overwrought piffle. Writer drama; heh! :::person pulls up chair; dives hand into bag of popcorn:::)
I thanked him for putting in so much time (you always—always!—owe your reviewer thanks; no exceptions), demurred re: a couple of his factually wrong/misreading comments (citing brief, pertinent reasons proving why he was wrong drawn directly from the texts he disparaged), and stated (not apologized) that I would never have submitted material to him that was intentionally triggering. Then I assured him that the overall message he’d communicated was well and truly received. Crystal clear. Five-by-five. As a postscript, I closed by offering truthful, sincere and measured praise of his penultimate novel. (Be a class act!)
And now we come to the over-arching, brutal, dispiriting truth of the matter, friends and neighbors—fellow knights of the quill—earnest midnight (or is that crack of dawn, or mid-day?) tireless scritch-scribblers: As you begin to get noticed in the particular genre in which you write, the venomous bitchy darts directed your way from certain quarters (“friendly” and otherwise) only increase in number, toxicity and force. Those who have made it are oftentimes annoyed that a new “proud bird, beautified with our feathers” dares to preen and strut his or her colors before editors who have turned a considering, speculative eye your way. Many writers have a zero-sum view of the publishing game: If you are on the rise, they must be on the decline. (“Whenever a friend succeeds, I die a little.”—Gore Vidal) Or you’re “doing it all wrong”: Your choice of subject matter, perspective, and/or technique offends and irritates. It’s not what they do or the way they do it, you see. Or they’ve simply taken it upon themselves to properly initiate you into the blood guild with the requisite amount of sneering contempt and/or self-transfixing snide witticisms. (“My, aren’t I clever/funny/tough!”)
At some point in their writing life (amateur, semi-pro or pro) a writer will have their work subjected to destructive critique. Count on it. The trick is to weather this distressing experience with as much dignity as you can muster. Do as little self-defensive squawking as possible, earnestly endeavor to recognize and implement the constructive criticisms proffered by your savage reviewer, and most of all—most especially of all—continue to write afterward.
If you are truly a writer, you have no other choice. You must continue to write—with courage and skill, heart and intelligence—as best you know how.
Believe that your ideal reader is out there.
Have faith that practice in the craft will improve your literary skills. (And read, read, read—everything that interests you, regardless of whether or not it falls within your chosen genre.)
Have I mentioned that your ideal reader—the one who “gets you”—is out there?
You deserve to find each other.
And you will—if you continue to write . . . and learn . . . and grow.
:::::Dispatch from the forward edge of the battle area 10/28/22: Yours Truly, Carl E. Reed:::::