Criticism is not the enemy of collegiality

by Sunita

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 We see almost daily examples invoking outdated and inaccurate stereotypes of romance novels, their readers, and their authors, and while you can get used to it after a while, it still stings.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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