March 26, 2013

Critic & Consumer Reviews: Why We Need Both

Image (cc)  Tom Murphy VII

I am a fan of both critical, literary analysis as well as reviews by the "average Joe." Both are very, very different from one another but I find them both to be helpful and necessary. 
First off, professional book reviews tend to come across as a traditional literary critical analysis of a piece (like reviews in the New York Times, for example). I can understand when people think they could be boring or dry, because that type of criticism doesn't work for everyone...and some of it is, in fact, boring and dry. 
But I think professional criticism is important because it speaks to the whole literary vs. genre debate that's been going on forever. Basically, it's literary = smart = good, while genre = dumb = bad. Or something to that degree. But critical analysis of a work, whether it's of popular fiction or of literary fiction, tends to employ a specific standard across the board:
  • A work will be examined for how its meaning or "statement" reflects or addresses a greater truth of some kind (a universal experience for readers, or society)
  • A work will be examined for its use of language--voice, tone, diction--as well as imagery, form, and function
  • Narrative choices will be discussed, such as point of view, use of tenses, the rhythm of the language (narrator vs. character)
  • The historical context in which the work is written (how the work reflects an ideology or style of the time, past or present) in order to enrich an understanding of the text and its themes
If you use the same standards to analyze popular fiction and literary fiction (as in, you look for and write about the qualities listed above), you have helped level the playing field. Using literary criticism techniques to analyze genre fiction pretty much shows that genre writers take the craft just as seriously as any other kind of writer. There's a universal love and appreciation for style, story and language that appears in any kind of writing.
So, as a writer of the much-maligned genres of fantasy and horror, I appreciate professional book reviews because they help legitimize what I write. If my writing shows that I adhere to the basic tenets of literary criticism, then technically my writing qualifies as literature. Ideally, there shouldn't be any issues of superiority in the popular fiction vs. literary fiction debate if each text is examined and qualified in the same way. 
Of course, the things that are examined in a professional review don't always appeal to the masses. Most of what I list above isn't really covered in an Amazon or Goodreads review because most people don't care about it (there are always exceptions, of course).
Image (cc) by Tom Woodward
Some reviews on Amazon, for example, are just throwaways ("Amazon shipped me the wrong book" equals a one-star review even though it has nothing to do with the author, the book, or its quality). Sometimes books get one-star or two-star reviews because the book cover doesn't match the physical descriptions of the characters (again, out of author control) or the person who ordered the book clearly didn't pay attention to what they were ordering (complaining a book is too violent, even though it's a crime novel whose description clearly suggested it would be). One of the reviews that made me laugh out loud was for The Riddle-Master of Hed, which I recently had to read for a genre class. The person one-starred it and said, "I have no idea what's going on in this book. If this is the future of fantasy, we're in trouble." (The Riddle-master of Hed was published in 1976).
Basically, all the public cares about is a good story that makes them feel things. As in, they turn to a book to get some kind of emotional fulfillment (more than just entertainment), and if they don't get what they came for, wham! Bad review. 
As authors, we can overlook a lot of the "dumber" reviews that have nothing to do with anything (shipping errors, cover choices, etc). But even for something as silly as, "I have no idea what's going on in this book" can tell you a lot. That person gave a one-star review because the book made them feel stupid. 
A series like the 50 Shades Trilogy, which has a devoted following while reputedly being very poorly written, gets high ratings on Amazon and Goodreads because the book made its readers feel sexy and dangerous. It has fulfilled the wishes of its intended reading audience.
Books that are popular and rated highly by the public, regardless of quality, are successful because of the emotions they've generated in the reader. 
Not that professional book reviews don't contain some sort of emotional connection the reviewer has with a book, but it doesn't drive the review. The emotion isn't the most important thing to a professional reviewer, it's stuff like craft and theme and application. When it comes to reviews by the public, emotions are what count.
Emotions tend to drive every review I've read. When people comment on a book's characters, it's usually about how the characters made them feel:
  • "The villain was really, really scary." 
  • "The romantic lead isn't good enough for the hero because she's stupid and selfish."
  • "The sidekick was annoying."
  •  "I'm so sick of reading fantasies with a Chosen One." 
  • "If I read 'Inner Goddess' one more time, I'm going to kill a puppy."
Similar criticism goes towards the plot and narrative, where the public may comment on scenes that felt unnecessary, or the dialogue was repetitive and annoying, etc.
The thing about emotions is that they often aren't very logical at all. These reviews may provide zero evidence in the text to back up what the reader feels--but the point is, the reader felt something, and that experience cannot be overlooked.  
As writers, we can't please everyone, of course, so there's no way to prevent a negative professional review, or a one-star Amazon review, from occurring. We also shouldn't read every single review and take it personally.  But if you want to learn something from the reviews, the key is to identify how your work spoke to each type of reviewer. 
Image (cc) by Lin Kristensen
If you see a trend in reviews--whether positive or negative--you can identify something to work with on your next book. If the relationships between your characters was what kept people reading, you know you can work that angle in your next peace of fiction. If people couldn't understand your book at all, look at the numbers--if ten out of a hundred didn't get it, oh well. If forty out of a hundred didn't get it, you may want to ask yourself why they might have come to that conclusion. Or you can ignore it. Your pick. 
But as long as professional and amateur reviews exist out there, I say both are necessary to get an understanding of what people think of your work.