Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dishing It Out and Sucking It Up: Critique and Reviews

There is a general perception that our genre is an embattled one, unfairly ostracized and intellectually snubbed for the explicitness of what we write and the sexual arousal that our texts seek to invoke in the reader.

But it is not entirely fair to lay the cause for all the derision layered upon the genre at that door alone.  Nor is it useful, since you and I are not going to stop writing erotic literature, and the Western world is (GOP convention aside) becoming more and more inured to the shock of sexual explicitness.  We have a generation of teenagers growing to adulthood who've been watching porn on the net for years.  I've just finished the first season of Spartacus, which has, I'm convinced, set off a new craze for fucking up against walls.

A serious and completely resolvable part of why we're looked down upon has to do with the quality of writing pervading the genre.  Remember that a huge number of readers meet their first erotica on blogs and listserves and other places where no editorial oversight takes place.  The quality of much of our published work is certainly no worse than a lot of bestselling thrillers, which is neither a boast nor a criticism. But then, the thriller genre doesn't have the added challenge of overcoming social stigma as well.

One of the best ways we can hope to raise the standard of writing in this genre is by critical engagement with the work. As givers and receivers of clear, fair, constructive criticism.

Most people fear criticism. They have a very hard time separating themselves from their work. This is especially true for erotica where much of the subject matter may be partially autobiographical or may hint at the writer's own sexual tastes.  I don't have any pat solutions for this. I think only time and acclimatization take away the sting of a rough crit or review.

But I'd like to ask you to think of it another way.  Wholly positive and laudatory crits or reviews of your work will never make you a better writer. They may make you a more confident human being, but that shouldn't be the business we are in here. We should be in the business of improving our craft and the genre as a whole, not nurturing the egos of our fellow writers.

Critiques and reviews are two different things, and I'd like to make those differences clear. A critique is done upon an unpublished work where changes can be made to the text before publication. A review is a response to an already published work, which will not, usually, be subject to change.

Critiques

Critiques are a cooperative process embarked upon with a view to making the work stronger. The target audience for a critique is primarily the writer, and sometimes other writers who read it and identify mistakes that they also make.  Finally, critiques are a strong learning tool for the critiquer, because you can often see the flaws in the writing of others that you find hard to see in your own.  But the process teaches you how to look for those flaws in your writing later.

Critiques should point out both the weaknesses and strengths in the writing.  They can be as practical as finding spelling, typing and grammar errors, address issues of voice, style, POV, characterization, motivation, plot structure, poetics, believability and realism, and, to some extent, intended meaning.

Subject matter is not the purview of a critique. What I mean by that is, if heavy BDSM generally offends you and you feel that you cannot see past that to read the work with a modicum of objectivity, you have no business critting it.  On the other hand, if you find the subject matter so arousing that you cannot overcome your wholly positive feelings, then, again, you're probably not the right person to give the piece a strong critique.

In any case, it is always polite to start a crit by owning any factors that might cause your criticism to be overly subjective. "I loved this story and found it so erotic, I'm not sure if I was able to give it the critical eye it deserves," or "I'm afraid that I've always found watersports profoundly disturbing, so what I have to offer might be coloured by that limitation."

There is no such thing as a wholly objective criticism, but we have a framework of solid aspects of good story structure and good writing practice to help us be as objective as possible.

In giving a crit, you are entering into a partnership with the writer, where the shared goal is to make the work the best it can be. It isn't a kindness to overlook errors with a view to nurturing a new writer.  It gives them a false sense of security that will, inevitably, be blow apart at a later date, to their dismay and you won't be there to take part of the pain. It's not nice to set someone up for an ambush, which is exactly what you're doing.

Finally, offering solutions to problems in the work can be problematic. For beginners, it can be very helpful because they don't yet have the craft to figure out how to fix the problem themselves. For more advanced writers, an offer of a solution can sometimes seem like an offer to re-write their work and appropriate their story.  On the other hand, I always like them, and will sometimes ask for them. There are multiple was to solve a problem and the more I know, the wider my options are.

Taking criticism is as much an art as giving it. There are a number of things it is good to keep in your mind: the person giving you the crit is doing you a service that is entirely voluntary and aimed at allowing you to produce a better piece.  Even if you disagree entirely with their critique and implement none of the changes suggested, you need to acknowledge that this person is a reader. Their reaction is a reaction to your text. So if they have 'misread', you need to acknowledge that other readers might, too.  Yes, of course, all texts can have multiple readings, but if your critiquer's reading strays too far from your intended meaning, then there is a problem you need to fix.

Yes, all critiques are subjective, but so is your writing, and so is a reader's reading. We are in the very business of eliciting subjective reactions in readers, so not all subjectivity makes a criticism invalid.  And positive subjective readings can be - in fact, usually are - far more misleading than negative ones. Positive feedback is wonderful, but it doesn't actually improve your work. And that's what you've gone into the process to do, isn't it?

Ultimately, the writer is responsible for their work.  It comes out under their name. So the choice to take and implement any given criticism is yours. It is very hard for another writer not to want to read something the way they would have written it.  It's just the nature of the beast.  As a receiver of a critique, you need to decide what to keep, what to change, based upon a voice that is true to you.

Reviews

Reviews should not be aimed at the author. The target audience is potential readers of the work, or readers who have already read it and want to compare their reading experience with the review.  Both are equally rich interactions with the work.

There are a lot of shoddy reviews out there, and I'm not particularly skilled at them myself.  But the basic aim of a review is to contextualize the published work for a reader, give them some options for how to approach it, highlight elements that the reader might miss. The point of it is to enrich the reading experience, not to ruin it.

Often good reviews will survey a particular author's work in the context the author's entire oeuvre, or they may address it the context of other works within the genre.  Rarely does a review address the novel in its entirety. Once past the short synopsis, reviewers will pick out and discuss the dominant themes in the novel. But I've seen amazing reviews that only addressed the writer's use of poetics, or archetypal characters.  A review of a book doesn't need to be everything to everyone

Any review that starts with "I hate BDSM and I hated this BDSM novel" is not really a review at all.  Similarly, "I don't usually read m/m romances and now I know why," is a sign that the reviewer did not approach the novel with an open mind.  One of the reasons why many of the recent literary reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey are so illegitimate is because they off by stating that they don't think explicit sex has any place in a novel.

If you've never written a review of erotica, I urge you to consider doing it.  The rise in the phenomenon of the user-review and its varied implications is a topic too long for this already huge post.

However, before you give your writer-friend five stars and a glowing review because she's your friend and you love her and she wants to sell her books, please consider the cumulative consequences of doing so. It does not serve our genre, and doesn't encourage excellence in writing.  There is no such thing as a perfect book, and so there should be no such thing as a perfect review.

Solid critical reviews are a tremendous compliment to the author. Someone has taken the time to truly care about your work and deep-read it. No author should be upset that someone has pointed out the flaws in their book. Every book has flaws. And having a reader know what they are in advance will often lessen the impact of them. "Well, the character of the husband is weak, but I knew that was going to be the case. Read on."

Our genre desperately needs us to take it more seriously.  We need solid criticism and robust reviews. We need to believe that we are strong enough to take them, and to stop thinking that every negative criticism is going to imperil our existence. It won't.

But, most of all, we need to believe we are worthy of being treated as equals within the larger literary community.

14 comments:

  1. Fantastic post, RG. I'm about to send the link to every author I know!

    One technique I use a lot in crits (which actually, I picked up from C. Sanchez-Garcia) is to ask questions in order to get the author thinking about issues that might not be in the forefront of his or her consciousness. For instance:

    "Why is Joe keeping his mouth shut about his previous sexual experience? What is he afraid of?"

    "What is the relationship between the two narrative threads in this story - what common idea ties them together?"

    "Would a virgin really be this uninhibited about swallowing a guy's come?"

    And so on. I'm not suggesting specific changes, just raising issues that I think the author might need to consider.

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  2. Hey Lisabet,

    Yes, I think you're right. Chris is a very deft hand with the critique and his question approach is at the core of it. Because the subtext is: "I care about this piece, I'm engaged, I'm asking questions because I like it."

    I really appreciate specific suggestions from writers when they have reached a certain level where they are no longer asking HOW can I write this but... of the many ways I can write this, which one is going to work best for this?

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  3. Wow! You've nailed these topics perfectly. I was very lucky to start off my writing career at Desdmona's FishTank. I learned how to dish it out and how to take it. Des stressed that it was important to point out the good parts as well as the areas we thought needed work.

    Crits are so important, it helps the author think outside the box, to open the mind to other possibilities. Personally, it helps the critter as well.

    Reviews are different. Some reviewers attack the author and some are so off the wall it makes a person wonder if they actually the story. Of course, there are great reviews as well. It's important to remember that it's only one person's opinion.

    I'm fortunate enough to have a beta reader who makes me think and work hard to polish my gem. He bombards me with questions. Sure there are moments I want to strangle him, but his method works and my stories shine.

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  4. This is really worth reading, it has too much details in it and yet it is so simple to understand, Thanks for sharing :)


    Online GED Diploma

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  5. I must say it's been enlightening, if that's the right word, to spend time on the self-publishing forum for Kindle, where there is a view espoused by many that reviews are meant to influence an author's monetary intake and therefore livelihood.

    Thus, if you like indie authors in general, you would wish them to get more money, and therefore you would exchange with them "honest reviews" (not my phrasing, but a pretty common one) in the hopes that you'll each earn more. Reading the book isn't a requirement.

    Conversely, the only reason to leave a review of 1 or 2 stars or that contains any criticism is to deliberately damage the writer's pocketbook--therefore such reviews must have been left by jealous rival authors or bitter ex-lovers or something.

    The conversation about the actual merit of the text has been left far behind.

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  6. In light of all the recent kerfuffles over authors attacking reviewers and authors purchasing reviews or creating sock-puppets to post good reviews of their own books, I think it only makes the points you've made about them all the more necessary. If you're going to take the time to write one, it needs to be well written and thoughtful. There has to be some effort made to discuss why you did or did not like the work, the good and bad in detail, otherwise it holds no value.

    Great post, RG!

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  7. I continue to find the whole "review" debate completely baffling.

    Sharazade: that works for traditionally published work, too. I recently saw a traditionally published author claim that anything that's not glowing and gushing and full of love and five stars is an attack on the *effort* and *self* the writer put in. It's "trashing" and "tearing down" the very heart and soul of the author. The assumption appears to be that all written material is, I guess, labored and birthed as a work of art, and giving anything less than 5 stars is up there with calling a baby ugly.

    I can't see giving *any* piece of trope-heavy fiction 5 stars. Ever. And, on a scale of 1 to 5, I don't see a 3 as being a "bad" review. I see a three as "I liked it." This bit where readers are supposed to LOVE it, and want to marry it, and provide adulation and praise because you only produce life-changing works of literary genius? I don't get it. I don't know if it's a fandom thing that crept across all genres. I don't know if it's some sort of weird generational thing from the 'everyone gets a ribbon' set. I don't know.

    Given the current angst, I stopped giving out stars at all. My Goodreads is just a record of what I read. The generally accepted wisdom seems to be that corporate-style "networking" trumps all--don't go upsetting someone with a less-than-glowing review. They may be your next career stepping stone.

    I do sort of wonder to what extent, particularly in romance, erotic romance, and erotica, female interpersonal relationship conditioning is happening. Is this sort of like the thing where no one has the heart to tell her that her pants don't fit?

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  8. I think a big part of the issue is that a lot of erotica writers in particular are writing erotica in such a closely held way. When there are critical questions, whether they are technical issues or story issues people tend to take it as being some kind of personal thing.

    I've seen this happen in the broader lit world as well. It seems like these days a lot of people cannot distinguise between hating, quality serious critique of craft or premise etc and interpersonal problems.

    After a row with an author who got very angry with me because I questioned their work in a critical way I honestly just don't anymore. I have too much work of my own to do and would rather not spend time wrestling with some jackass with an over inflated ego and hurt feelings.


    Frankly I just cannot deal with those type of problems and they have populated the lit worlds I like to travel in.

    I think the solution to a lot of these issues is unpleasant. People have to be grown ups, there is work to be done on both a personal level and professional level (dealing with hurt feelings etc) and because it is very hard work, a lot of people just don't want to do it.

    I think this part of what Shar said above:

    The conversation about the actual merit of the text has been left far behind.

    Is the dirty bottom of these problems. And of course she said it far more succinctly than I did.

    Excellent post I think I will be writing about this myself today.

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  9. Great post RG! What is confounding to me are the reviews where we find nothing more than a (very poor) rehashing of the entire plot. Why would anyone want to know the entire story before they get to actually read the book? I suppose spoiler is a perfect word for it.

    When I was an art student, I would often remark at the ridiculous notion that any one with sight can attempt to be an art critic. IMHO, there are some prerequisites to understanding the relevance of the art you are looking at. Without proper context, a review is skewed. There is something called, "just not getting it." What is different in writing than in the visual arts is the expectation that everyone should be able to "get it", simply because they can read. I truly believe a good, productive reviewer tries to leave their personal tastes, preferences and life view (ie. I would never do that)out of the review.

    I often judge a book on the story telling and original content rather than my enjoyment of the subject matter. I feel my enjoyment is somewhat irrelevant, since I am not the next person. They can determine whether they enjoy the subject matter on their own.

    Your call for authors to be more critical of their peers for the sake of the genre is taken to heart. Still I think a private review in the case of a highly critical feedback is perhaps the happy medium between fluff and snuff. Bad reviews can kill an author's sales and I for one am not in a rush to do that to anyone. I feel my loyalty is to the author and not so much his/her potential readers. My need to share my opinion of the work is best served by benefiting the author.

    -Alyssa

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  10. As usual, RG, you've nailed the subject. I can't imagine how this could be better-expressed. Either your description of crits or your description of reviews would have been a valuable post, but you've given us both together.

    The one thing you haven't said explicitly (which I read into your description of reviews) is that good reviews are close to literary criticism (i.e. analysis). One of the first things students are taught not to do in university English classes is to pat the author on the head ("Shakespeare was good at writing sonnets as well as plays") or express personal squicks ("I'm writing this essay on Poe because it was assigned, but I think he was too morbid").
    Thank you for this.

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  11. Hi Alyssa,

    There is something called, "just not getting it."

    Oh, there so is! And it happens with books too. All the time.

    "Still I think a private review in the case of a highly critical feedback is perhaps the happy medium between fluff and snuff"

    If it's for the author, it's not a review. There has got to be some consequences, especially with the rise of self-pub, to putting out badly spelled, grammar-deficient crap. And perhaps a harsh review of a really bad book will make people think twice before publishing badly-written, unedited drivel.

    Yes, I know I sound like a cunt, but honestly, if an author has the disrespect for readers to not even bother with the basics of decent writing skills, then I have no problem ruining their career. Sorry.

    There is tremendous opportunity for beginner writers to show their stuff off for free and get all the stroking they want.

    If they're going to charge me for it, I expect a modest level of skill.

    You wouldn't so blithely complain in private about buying a car that wouldn't start, or ordering a vibe that didn't run. You'd be angry and want to say so.

    The same is true for bad writing.

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  12. An excellent post and excellent comments. I totally agree that a higher quality of writing in erotica will help the genre be taken more seriously. There are other obstacles like deeply-ingrained sex negativity, and the fact that many readers are more comfortable when the depictions of sex are stupid and ridiculous, but quality will make a difference.

    Alyssa's comment also reminded me that many people think if they can read and find "imperfections" that they're qualified to critique and review. But giving a truly helpful critique requires much more. Even if it's just a thoughtful reader response--what felt slow, what confused you--you have to have an awareness of your subjectivity and a respect for the author's efforts. To go to the next level of story structure, interwoven themes, natural dialogue, well, not everyone can do this. It takes practice to do it well, and it takes practice to accept criticism. Even if you think you have a thick skin, a novice writer has no idea how hard it is, even when the beta-reader is experienced and considerate. This is a relationship of deep trust, and I know some writers who won't let their own spouses do it (fortunately my husband is a great reader now, but it took us YEARS to get it right).

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  13. "To go to the next level of story structure, interwoven themes, natural dialogue, well, not everyone can do this..."

    It takes having examples of good reviews! That's how I learned.

    Hugs,

    RG

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  14. Totally agree with all you say, there is a huge tendency within our genre for people to say they love a persons writing because they are a friend. Often the comment is not warranted I feel.

    Me I'm a coward, and tend to say nothing if I have nothing good to say. I often shy away from saying something critical for fear of hurting a friends feelings. I agree with what previous commenters have said too. Not everyone is qualified to give that opinion and hence I feel perhaps I'm not quite qualified to give that opinion either.

    I however welcome constructive criticism as otherwise how will I ever know if I am improving or even any good? I know I welcomed your help with a piece I wrote and I hope that the comments you made have improved my writing. Perhaps we should all be looking for that?

    Excellent and thought provoking as usual RG!

    Phoenix
    x

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