Criticism is not the enemy of collegiality

The debate over whether authors should review each other never seems to (1) be resolved or (2) just go away in the romance blogosphere. For a variety of reasons, the topic has resurfaced over the last month or so. Even authors who regularly review are careful to say that they speak only about their own choices in stating their opinions, or that they review only outside their own sub-genres or publishing houses. And almost no author seems willing to argue that snarky reviews are acceptable (although they all defend the right of a reviewer to offer one).

I am only a reader in this community, and there’s no reason why romance authors should listen to what I think about how they should behave when it comes to reviewing. But as both a reviewer and an author in my day job, I continue to be puzzled by the apparently widespread belief that critical reviews work against against the ambitions of individual authors in particular and the goals of the genre and community in general. The former is of course a self-fulfilling prophecy: in any community with shared norms, violators of those norms will be punished. The only way to change that outcome is to change the norms, which seems unlikely here, at least in the short run. But the latter point, that critical reviews work against the goals of the community, I find harder to understand. In a recent post at Dear Author, Jill Sorensen made the point succinctly, so I’ll quote her here:

Good will between authors is essential in the romance community because so many people look down on us as smut-writing dimwits. We field negativity from all sides and don’t expect it to come from within.

If I understand her correctly, she’s saying that with all the criticism coming outwith the community, those within it should be supportive of each other. And I can certainly see where Jill and others who take this position are coming from. We see almost daily examples invoking outdated and inaccurate stereotypes of romance novels, their readers, and their authors, and while you can get used to it after a while, it still stings.

I do take issue, however, with the idea that avoiding criticism inside the group is a good strategy to strengthen the community and the genre. Let me offer relevant examples from my professional life. In my academic discipline, there have been two successful attempts to change the importance and acceptability of sub-fields within our larger field of study. Both groups scored substantial victories, but the victories were of quite different types.

Group #1 was on the margins of the field and regularly scoffed at by those in the mainstream for doing work that was arcane, overly specialized, and largely irrelevant to the concerns of most scholars in the field. Group #1′s response was (1) to keep trying to publish in major disciplinary journals despite frequent rejections through peer review; and (2) to develop graduate student training that incorporated some of the mainstream’s criticisms while maintaining their core interests, even though for many years their students were less likely, other things being equal, to get the top jobs. Group #1 closed ranks against their critics, defending each other to the “outside world.” But internally, the members were ruthless in their criticism of each other’s scholarship, pushing the good researchers to become better and the mediocre researchers to become more competent. They refused to expand their reach by elevating members who didn’t meet their standards, e.g., they would write accurate rather than inflated peer reviews at every level from conference proposals to tenure reviews. The result: today, the top departments all feel they must have a substantial percentage of their faculty doing research that is either in the core of Group #1 or supportive of it. Some top departments are run by Group #1 members.

Group #2 was in the mainstream of the discipline for many years. In the last two decades, it felt that dominance slipping, in part because of Group #1′s ascendance. Group #2′s response: (1) create a community where disaffected Group #2 members could talk to each other and provide support, excluding Group #1 members and anyone who seemed overly sympathetic to that group; and (2) force the discipline’s professional association to recognize Group #2′s importance institutionally, in part by creating an entirely new journal whose editors would be members of or sympathetic to Group #2. In terms of scholarship  and graduate student training, there was little change. The result: Group #2 continues to lose ground in the top departments, and its graduate students do not place well in top jobs, especially compared to Group #1 or the new #1/#2 hybrid students. The new journal does not challenge the dominance of older journals (or Group #1′s hold on them), although Group #1 members are happy to publish in it.

I really think the difference between the two experiences is that members of Group #1 constantly pushed themselves to produce better scholarship and to show how that scholarship fit into non-members’ interests. Group #2 concentrated more on status issues and assumed their scholarship was fine, which is deadly in any academic field, since we can all do better work than we have done in the past. Move forward or die, as they say about sharks. Or, to continue the tortured metaphors (in case it wasn’t crystal clear I’m not a fiction writer), circling the wagons is a losing strategy unless you’ve got something very fine indeed inside the circle.

I worry that the anti-criticism approach romance authors are espousing is uncomfortably close to the Group #2 strategy. When the outside world treats you with disrespect, you don’t make up for it by being extra-supportive, or at least not only by being extra-supportive. Rather, you make up for it by doing the work the outside world should be doing. If mainstream magazines and newspapers won’t review romance novels, the community should do it, and it should use high standards.

Long story short: Constructive criticism within the community, whether diplomatically or snarkily offered, can make the genre better. Stop worrying about the delivery method and focus on the content.

Group #1 is a tighter and more collegial set of scholars than any other in my discipline. They manage to rip each other’s work to shreds (if necessary) without ripping each other to shreds. And when they think the work is good, they don’t stint on the praise. Its not because they’re better people, because goodness knows they have their quota of immature crybabies (and as in the academic world more generally, it’s a generous quota). But for the most part, they’ve managed to separate the work from the individual. If we can just learn that, the community will profit.

Non-author reviewers will always be around, and I like to think we’re useful, especially to fellow readers. But author-reviewers bring a different set of skills and benefits to the table. The genre is weaker without them.

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3 thoughts on “Criticism is not the enemy of collegiality

  1. Well said.

    Even authors who regularly review are careful to say that they speak only about their own choices in stating their opinions, or that they review only outside their own sub-genres or publishing houses.

    So far I’ve been doing the former but not the latter. I do review within my subgenre (and for that matter, publishing house, though at this point the only contract I have is for a very short story). With regard to stating that I only speak for myself, I have done that on occasion, but it’s the truth for all reviewers, isn’t it?

    I suppose I say it not only because it’s true but also because it helps lessen the discomfort I sometimes feel as a writer-reviewer. And if I were braver I might not feel the need to say it, but if I were less brave I wouldn’t review at all. I could wish that Jill Sorenson didn’t feel the need to focus on author camaraderie in her opinion piece, but I’m glad she’s brave enough to review f/f, f/f/m and lesbian books for DA.

    And almost no author seems willing to argue that snarky reviews are acceptable (although they all defend the right of a reviewer to offer one).

    I don’t follow you here because I see no difference between the two. Are you saying that authors defend the rights of reviewers to do something they think is unacceptable? If they didn’t think it was acceptable, why would they defend the rights of reviewers to do it?

    I’ll say right now that snarky reviews are acceptable. More than acceptable; they can be an art form in and of themselves. I personally try not to write them, but that has to do with my personal comfort level , esp. in the context of the letter-to-the-author format that we use at DA. But I absolutely think they are acceptable, more than acceptable — the same way I think some clothes that I wouldn’t personally feel totally comfortable in can look beautiful on others (and I include authors in “others”).

    I do take issue, however, with the idea that avoiding criticism inside the group is a good strategy to strengthen the community and the genre.

    I agree completely. But (maybe because my viewpoint on this point is so similar to yours) I didn’t take Jill’s words to mean that that’s what she thought. I interpreted her words to mean that she felt avoiding criticism within personal relationships, or of books by authors she might know personally, was a good strategy for fostering camaraderie with those people — in other words, good for her relationship with them.

    I also took it to mean that from an empathetic standpoint, Jill doesn’t want to inflict any emotional hardship on her fellow writers because they already feel so much of it as writers in a despised genre.

    Both of the above are things I can understand and relate to. But ultimately, I agree with you that the health of the community, of the genre as a whole, is at least as important and that the present culture of silence when it comes to literary criticism isn’t good for it. I still mourn the death of the paperbackreader website, as I say whenever the subject of authors reviewing is brought up in my hearing.

    Group #1 is a tighter and more collegial set of scholars than any other in my discipline. They manage to rip each other’s work to shreds (if necessary) without ripping each other to shreds. And when they think the work is good, they don’t stint on the praise.

    Speaking as a veteran of several writer’s workshops and critique groups, I feel that feedback is crucial to a writer’s growth and all writers must learn to withstand it if they hope to become good.

    Yet I wonder if it is harder for fiction and other creative writers not to take criticism of their writing personally than it is for academics. I’m not sure of course, because people are sensitive everywhere, and because there are genres and communities of fiction writers where criticism is more common and accepted than it is in the romance genre.

    The reason I wonder is because of something Josh Lanyon wrote in that piece on editors you linked to the other week. I didn’t read the whole piece, it was too long, but I’m referring to this paragraph:

    At the same time, a work of fiction—even light and pulpy romantic fiction—is a deeply personal thing. It’s not like putting together a sales report. It’s not like writing any kind of non-fiction. It is the stuff of one’s dreams and fears and fantasies. This is why writers don’t react well to negative reviews. The reviewer may say that it’s nothing personal all she or he likes, but one’s fiction is the most personal thing out there.

    When I read that, it struck me as being true. Not that authors always react badly to all negative reviews — I’ve seen plenty of authors react well in public. But I think even for many of those authors who react well, fiction does feel very personal. I know for me, even though my characters are different from me in many ways, and I actually try to write about people whose realities are far from my own, the reason I do that is because it frees me to dig into really deep emotional places, and those places must exist inside me. I don’t know if there is anything comparable in academia.

    I don’t think that any of this prevents, or should prevent, authors from reviewing. But it does pose an emotional obstacle for some, and I think that’s partly where all the talk of karma (a concept I dislike in this author-reviewer context) comes from. I also think that (if I’m understanding her correctly) that is the reason behind Jill’s reluctance to review within her subgenre.

  2. “If I understand her correctly, she’s saying that with all the criticism coming outwith the community, those within it should be supportive of each other.”

    I was saying that there is an *expectation* of support among romance authors because we are often put on the defensive by outsiders. I actually consider reviewing an act of support, so I didn’t mean to imply that criticism = attack.

    “I do take issue, however, with the idea that avoiding criticism inside the group is a good strategy to strengthen the community and the genre.”

    Yeah, I don’t think avoiding criticism strengthens the community. Like Janine said above, my decisions about reviewing are based on feelings and personal relationships. I would hesitate to use the word strategy, but I definitely consider my own best interests over that of the community at large. Most authors do the same. And even though I spoke of camaraderie, authors are very independent people. Improving the genre through peer criticism is not the top priority; writing the best book we can is.

    Janine: “But I think even for many of those authors who react well, fiction does feel very personal. I know for me, even though my characters are different from me in many ways, and I actually try to write about people whose realities are far from my own, the reason I do that is because it frees me to dig into really deep emotional places, and those places must exist inside me. I don’t know if there is anything comparable in academia.”

    This is such an interesting point. I’m not a member of academia but I think you’ve hit on something here.

    Also agree that snarky reviews are acceptable and useful. I’m all for them.

  3. The number one rule is that everyone can and should decide for themselves what works best for them. If an author is also a reviewer and is comfortable with that, then that works for her.

    Two things keep me from wanting to combine my role as an aspiring author and my role as a blogger by posting reviews about any specific book or writer. First, I’m aware that although I’ve been a reader of romantic fiction for over 40 years, my ongoing efforts to learn how to write fiction have changed how I read. I still love a well-honed romance, but I can now see technical details that I would have missed years ago.

    In theory, that might make me a better-qualified reviewer, but I find it just makes me crankier. If all I did was review, being more perceptive in my critiques could be a good thing (see Rule Number One above) but I don’t and it doesn’t, because of the second thing.

    I empathize with the authors — yes, even with the authors of books think are bad. Because if I ever get published, I know I’ll be super sensitive about my mistakes not because I disavow any knowledge of them but because I’m hyper-aware of their existence. If another writer says, publicly, that something I’ve written has flaws, I won’t disagree, but I’ll probably be hurt that she didn’t tell me privately so that I could continue to improve as a writer.

    Yes, the romance genre needs a larger number of professional (in the sense of well-trained and highly competent, not in the sense of getting paid) reviewers. That would better serve the genre in the way Sunita suggests. Reviews by readers can serve that purpose, but they often just tell us whether the reviewer liked the book — or even just her feelings about the protagonists. A bit like reviewing “North & South” by saying how much we love Richard Armitage — no one doubts our sincerity, but are we qualified to comment on his acting abilities?

    But — and this is just my opinion — if I publish a review of another writer’s romance novel, no matter how well-reasoned my comments, my motives are suspect. If the review is critical, I can be accused of professional jealousy or worse. If my review is favorable, I’m sucking up. In order to combat those assumptions about my motives, I’d need to develop a reputation for fair and well-reasoned reviews…which gets us back to professional reviewers. I find I don’t have the time.

    It’s the publication of one author’s opinion of another author’s work that worries me (subject, of course, to Rule Number One, above). Is that review really published so that authors can learn from each other? Or is it published for another reason entirely? And if I can distrust the motives of the author-reviewer, isn’t it likely I’ll dismiss her comments?

    Take publication out of the equation — so that critiques are communicated privately — and another writer’s comments to me about my work will come across as more sincere and helpful.

    But, Rule Number One is still the number one rule: everyone can and should decide for herself what she thinks is the best thing to do.

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