Monday, March 18, 2013

Do Critics Know What They're Talking About?

Saw this on twitter:

"A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car." ~ Kenneth Tynan

At first I kind of snorted and went "yeah". Then I got to thinking about it. The tone of the quote is condemning. But should it be?

Are navigators to be derided because they can't use a stick-shift? It is possible that someone can gain an understanding of what makes a story work, without having the skills to build a successful story themselves?

I think I'd have to answer that question with a resounding "Yes."

You see, whether or not I agree with critics and reviewers, there is a skillset they have personally honed: reading. They know what they like. They know what works for them. And the really good ones have identified what works for a big slice of the population. So, yes, I believe it's possible for an analytical mind to become adept at identifying a good story, whether or not they're capable of creating one.

I think the real reason many writers get up in arms about critics and reviewers is because, let's be frank, they criticize. They tell us our babies aren't perfect. They imply (or bluntly state) that we could have done a better job. And they pull our flaws out of the piles of all our carefully constructed words, flapping them in the wind for all to see.

Never a pleasant experience.

So, here's the thing: While I'll never condone a reviewer or professional critic who slams a writer personally (seriously, how does that even come into the equation?), I think we have to give at least passing consideration to genuine critique.

Note the phrasing there "...give at least passing consideration to genuine critique." I'm not suggesting we try to please everyone. That's impossible. And it's unlikely we're all going to perfect techniques for a flawless finish. But a negative review is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves and potentially improve.

After all, even if we consider their feedback and determine that it isn't work the paper (or screen) it was written on, at least we've opened ourselves to the possibility of improvement. And when we do that, it means we'll be more open next time useful feedback comes in.

So, yes, in my world there is definitely room for negative reviews, and definitely time for critics who aren't themselves "successful" writers.

Of course, at this point all my negative reviews have occurred behind closed doors. Maybe I'll feel different if (when?) my literary undergarments are flapping in the breeze?

Your Turn: Is there room in your world for negative reviews? How do you feel about critics who inform the masses, but aren't writers themselves?


  1. I don't mind negative reviews if they are genuinely insightful. Meaning they give reasons that they didn't like something. I know I'll never please everyone, but if the reason is something like "too much cliche" then I can learn, grow and work on that. If it's "too many typos" I need a better editor and so on. And sometimes a negative reason given just shows me they didn't get it. That could mean I didn't clearly get my idea across so I need to work on clarity and details.

    So yeah, I agree with you that there is a place for real reviews that are negative. It's the trolls that irritate me.

  2. The thing about reviews-- from a writer perspective-- is that once the book is out, there is nothing the writer can do to change it anyway. You can apply general criticism about your writing style to your next project but you can't fix issues with a published book. I think that reviews are really for other readers. As a reader I appreciate hearing from reviewers with similar taste in books.

    1. Yeah, me too. If I read a review and end up agreeing with the reviewer, I head back to them later to find more reads.

  3. I agree that there's room for critics. I value them because the good ones are able to give the public a rundown of what to expect, what the artist does well, and where some drawbacks might be. Since writing is too close an industry for me to comment on, I'll switch over to music: I read reviews of albums by my favorite bands (Rolling Stone has fair, objective critics, and most of them mesh with my taste). What I really love about them is that I'm not a professional musician, or a music theorist, or anything, so they're able to suggest to me what to listen for in order to appreciate my favorite bands better. I feel literary critics are usually able to do the same, which I respect.

    Great topic, darling! <3

  4. Yes, I agree too. As Jody said, reviews are there for the benefit of readers, not writers, so as long as the critic is an educated reader and explains WHY they liked or disliked something, there's no problem with them not being writers themselves. That's like saying because you're not an actor or director, you can't review movies. Good topic! :-)

    1. SO good to see you back, Cally!!! :) And I agree. While I hadn't actually identified it, you're right that it's the whys that make a review worth listening to (in my opinion).