Critical Thinking is Good
Not only were Jerry Seinfeld's observations good for a laugh, they pointed out obvious redundancies or stupidities. It's not hard to find lists on the Internet of Seinfeld's observations that point out human silliness. For instance, "What's the deal with people who put carpeting on the lid of their toilet seat? What are they thinking? 'Gosh, if we have a party, there may not be enough standing room. Let's carpet the toilet seat, too.' " And, "Would somebody please explain to me about those signs that say, 'No animals allowed except seeing eye dogs.' Who is that sign for? Is it the dog or the person?" And this classic: "Why do we have to pay someone to rotate our tires? Isn't that the basic idea of the wheel? Don't they rotate themselves?" It's a mindset of critical thinking and I firmly believe in the good of critical thinking and discernment, of thinking for yourself, of reflection and having an opinion. But I'm weary of the flippant quip about someone or something. It's feels dismissive and shallow and critical in a "this is not cool" or "you are not cool" way.
We're Not All the Same
So what does all this reflection on Seinfeldisms have to do with writing? It's not Jerry Seinfeld's fault, actually, but it seems like critical thinking has been taken to the far right to morph into extreme criticism. Reviewers have taken evaluation of a book to a place of criticism without respect. Criticism for the sake of taking pleasure in pointing out perceived flaws. It seems like the mentality of a popular kid pointing to another kid in school and hurling insults for the personal fun of it. It makes me cringe.
J. Robert Lenno suggests in a post for Salon that critical reviews are important, but criticism is not the same as cruelty or evisceration, and there shouldn't be a detectable sense of glee in picking apart the writing. There should be R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
"Even if you don’t like the writer you’re reviewing, not even a little bit, acknowledge, at least to yourself, that some people do, and that this fact is not meaningless. In your review, let your reader know what it is other people like about this writer. If you disagree, say so, in a non-condescending manner. The goal is to explain and persuade, not to hurt," he wrote.
According to Daryl Campbell in a post for The Millions, reviewers have historically delighted in their ability to dissect writing and reflect on its effect on them. But he suggests reviews today have become lackluster, even in their negativity.
"…all of these reviews consist entirely of the initial response and a subsequent explanation, and no self-reflection about whether there might be more to the the book – and to the reviewer’s response – than that initial, emotional decision," he wrote.
A reviewer himself, he defends the negative aspect of reviews. But I admit, it's hard for me. Almost daily I read about an author's hurtful experience with a review of his or her book. And I wonder, does the reviewer who calls a book "Dumb!" or gives it an "F" really have that kind of authority? Does she speak for everyone's taste? I don’t think so. It's just an opinion. Hopefully it's an informed and some sort of an expert opinion, but it doesn't necessarily speak for me. Nor does it always speak for the masses. Author-reviewers who panned the Twilight series didn't speak for all the readers who put it on a best-seller list. Ditto for the author-reviewers who dismissed The Hunger Games series. Opinions vary, even with agents and editors. What writer hasn't read about editors – arguably experts of a sort – who rejected books that went on to acclaim and even classics status, such as Gone with Wind, A Wrinkle in Time and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as the Harry Potter books. So though standards of quality are important, opinions vary. I'm glad there is room for all kinds of writing or we might have missed, or miss in the future, some lovely books.
On the other hand, the present discussion about Amazon deleting certain reviews points out a possible weakness in the practice of authors reviewing authors. Silly to think authors shouldn't review other authors when they're read the book, but the review can lose value when it's always plus, plus, plus. There needs to be balance.
A Neutral Eye
Reviews and criticism are a part of the landscape for a writer. I know that for a writer, getting a book reviewed holds the possibility of attracting more attention for the book. We all believe in our story and expect that others will see a good story in it, too. It doesn't always work out that way and a reviewer may have a challenge offering a balanced review from a neutral point of view. I wonder why reviewers so often lately can't let readers know what's what with a book and still be mindful that a person wrote it, a writer, and offer a balanced assessment.
As a reader, I find value in getting someone's opinion of a book before I start a new book. It's input. But honestly, I am more likely to pan the reviewer who is disrespectful of a writer's work than I am the book being reviewed. I work as a freelance editor, and sometimes I read writing that I don't fall in love with. But I still can think it has value if it meets my criteria for subject expertise, grammar, and typos don't get in the way of the story, and there is a level of competency in presenting story elements. That I can acknowledge even if the story itself is unappealing to me.
But don't get me wrong, I've been guilty of saying things among my friends and fellow writers about books I have read that I thought stunk. In truth, though, those books had been accepted by a publishing house, had been edited, and had found an audience. So it's just my opinion, for what it's worth, that they were bad books.
I'm a reader and I read reviews to get a sense of a book, so I believe in the review process. I'm also a writer. I want my books to get good reviews. I want everyone to love my books. But I've been the recipient of a low rating on Amazon. I don't like it. I can say I've learned and improved since that book so I hope my next reviews show that, but it still stings a bit.
There is a Buddhist principal that suggests we humans should not get very excited about praise or criticism, not give much weight to either one. I’m working on that.
These thoughts are only my opinion, and that changes, too. I'd love to learn what the personal impact of reviews, as a reader and or a writer, have been on you. Have you written a review? Have you found reviews align with your reading experience? Share?