Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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There is a fine line. I think for new authors reviews, which are comparative in nature, are not so effective or useful as criticism, which is more of an evaluation of the book's structure and the writing. Negative criticism can lead to insight for an author, at least, and help them grow. One could say that certain aspects of the book seemed to work or did not, were underdeveloped, that there were pacing issues, etc.


It seems to me that the issue is wider than that of the feelings or education of the author: it's a question of maintaining healthy debate. Litbloggers can be more of a creative cultural force if they are engaging on every level and not simply responding to those books they like. And another point: isn't it somewhat patronizing and indeed naive to assume that readers will swallow everything a blogger says about a book, and read it or not as a result? (I often read books for the very reason that they've had bad reviews, to see whether or not I agree, and am often pleasantly surprised.) What I value most in reviewers is thoughtfulness and as far as I'm concerned very few books can pass thoughtful consideration without at least one or two flaws being exposed.

Caroline Wilkinson

I also will end up reading a book after coming across a negative review. I will buy a book precisely because the element that a reviewer finds objectionable--the difficulty of style, a political point of view--is something that appeals to me.

I believe that reviews of small-press books should be more rigorous. It becomes especially important to have serious, thoughtful critiques when so many books are being purchased online and not in stores. I often can't see a book before I buy it, and I want to know as much as I can about what I'm purchasing.

Another point on this subject that ties into mainstream publishing: a few years ago, a study was done on how reviews in The New York Times affect book sales. Negative reviews, it turns out, do drive up sales, not as much as positive ones, but they are still significantly effective. From a personal perspective, I can understand why. I frequently like books that get less-than-glowing reviews. Last year, for instance, I read *Bloodletting and Miracle Cures* by Vincent Lam after reading a lukewarm review in The Times. I thought I would like the book more than the reviewer did, and I was right. It ended up being one of my favorite books of the year.

Robert Nagle

I keep a reading/watching log , which keeps track of everything I read and write. I don't consider myself a critic, so perhaps my glib pronouncements about a work aren't interesting, but at least I list everything --good and bad. Bad works simply don't evoke a lot of excitement or a desire to write about them. On the other hand, I frequently sit through mediocre plays and movies and find myself trying to rewrite things in my head and understanding why it didn't work. With literary works, on the other hand, I just would prefer to skip it.

That said, I think it's important for readers to take chances on things they wouldn't normally read one way. Once or twice a year I like to buy a random paperback from the store and read it from start to finish. (Last year it was Dino Buzzati's amazing Restless Nights). Obviously, I need to make some preliminary choices. If it's a Harlequin, for example, I'll probably ignore it. But the joy of reading derives partially from giving everything a fair shot.


It seems like Baines is following the tried-and-true dictum of "no such thing as negative press." Sure, any mention of her work is a positive in the marketing sphere, and even as a writer, to be publicly read and discussed, even negatively, provides some small affirmation on a basic level.

However, I think it's more important to focus on the review v. crit idea mentioned by Daniel above. Reviewing is much more a function of taste, so that I can read a negative review and still enjoy a book. Same with music and movies. Criticism is a deeper issue. Assuming a level of competence, the litcrit is much more a function of quality as it pertains to whichever literary elements are being highlighted.

I guess I would rather have people hate me than ignore me, or hate me than not even recognize my writing at all. I'm a big boy, I can handle criticism and bad reviews. Baines may be taking the same sort of adult/professional tack.

FictionBitch (Elizabeth Baines)

Well, I agree with this last, ie that I'd rather have people hate me than ignore me, or rather my book. But as I tried to say above, it's not simply a matter of marketing (although all of these things are necessarily tied up): ie it's not just that I want my books to sell, it's - much more importantly - that I'd like my work, and the things it says, to be taken seriously and at least read, and this isn't so likely to happen if no one ever reviews it. (Indeed, personally speaking, I can suffer making no money whatever from a book as long as it's a visible part of a healthy literary debate.)

FictionBitch (Elizabeth Baines)

Oh, and another point, Dan: I have been trying to work out why your reference to those authors 'who can take it' (negative criticism) strikes such dismay in my heart. I think it's because it implies a literary hierarchy, and although I guess you're really talking about a commercial hierarchy (McEwan et al can take it because they've got big publishers and thus big readerships anyway), it worried me that an implication which could be taken from this is that small press authors are necessarily further down the food chain in literary competence, development etc.

But even if you do mean the latter, and even if it's true, then I don't think that ignoring them and avoiding negative comment will help either them or literary culture in general.


Parenthetical Fiction Bitch- I started writing a bit about the complexity of marketing and just reaching an audience, but it was too much for an off-the-cuff style comment on a litblog. It is about being read, whether taken seriously comes into contention or not.

I'm not bothered by the idea of a literary hierarchy, that's the idea I have in my head when I fantasize that I'm as good as some of the wellknown authors my readers compare me to. I need James Joyce to sit at the summit and Milan Kundera and Tim O'Brien and Kafka, Federman and Pamuk all around me.

I spend a lot of time thinking about publishing- commercial v. small-press v. "self" and I look back at all the writers I admire. Few have had largescale publishers behind them from the beginning. Most writers I love are products of small houses and worked their way up the ladder based on a scaffolding audience. Today there are as many voices out there as ever, and I'm sure the small houses have a fair share of quality, but the bellcurve promises more middling and as many crappy books. In this case, a bad review, or negative criticism is more than warranted.

However, if Dan or some other blogger I admired and read with excitement took all his or her time to share bad books, I'm sure I'd be unhappy at a certain point. I do enjoy criticism that is pointed and insightful, even if the target is ultimately derided. But I would rather my literary reading lead me to something positive, something worth and something delightful.

I always say "the truth is not an insult," but I can't go around shouting truth at everything, can I?

FictionBitch (Elizabeth Baines)

Hm, Brewdog. I wouldn't even want Dan to waste his time on bad books. But isn't the point that it's not always easy to tell whether a book is bad, and also that one review is not necessarily the last word (though I guess you think Dan's are!), but can be the start or part of a dialogue. ie what's most important is the DEBATE.

Dan Green

Elizabeth: I did mean "withstand criticism" mostly in a commercial sense, but also to some extent in a "reputation" sense. Ian McEwan can certainly withstand the occasional negative review because at this stage of his career he already has readers who aren't really going to care what reviewers say--especially lowly bloggers like myself. His books are almost reflexively going to receive a large number of reviews, although paradoxically they probably count for much less.

FictionBitch (Elizabeth Baines)

Ah, right, Dan!

Jacob Russell

For a book that provoked a blank... a blank is all one might expect.

But if you have a response, if the book has, in your opinion, been bad or good enough to elicit a response... you owe it the author to put that in print.

Lloyd Mintern

Congratulations, Dan Green, for inspiring the most pathetic debate possible. Who do you think you are? Obviously you have nothing on your plate. Writers who think in terms of "food chains", as Miss Fiction Bitch appears to be, couldn't possibly be writing anything worth reading to begin with, and might as well starve, or be well fed, if that will shut them up. Lowly blogger, indeed.

FictionBitch (Elizabeth Baines)

Thanks, Lloyd. I don't think in terms of food chains, I was hoping that Dan Green wasn't. That's the whole point I'm trying to make. The idea that small press authors necessarily require different 'softer' treatment.

FictionBitch (Elizabeth Baines)

ie I'm trying to challenge that last assumption.

Dan Green

Lloyd: If you think the debate on this blog is pathetic, I'd suggest you stop reading it. Your own contributions are doing nothing to raise the level of debate.

Lloyd Mintern

Just this one topic, Dan. Generally, I like your blog; don't be so sensitive. I will take a break from Commenting though, since you find me so irrelevant.

Dan Green

Lloyd: Your opinions are not irrelevant, but I can't say they're being expressed in a way that would make anyone want to engage in a reasoned debate with you. What kind of response do you expect to get with an outcry like "Who do you think you are?"?

Lloyd Mintern

You are being way too harsh on me. That is hardly an outcry. It is a tease, maybe--and an honest question, to a person who is acting like they are an authority and a judge of literary merit.

I don't know why you don't put my blog BLACK MIRRORS on your links list. That is what I am really about: getting readers for serious literary work--not just mine, but others that I link to. This kind of spiraling introverted dialogue is indeed fatiguing.


My own experience from the time my first book was published 29 years ago is that people honestly can't remember if a review was positive or negative and that just by its getting reviewed the readers usually remember the review as positive.

Maybe a dozen times people have sincerely said to me that they read the "very good" review of a book of mine somewhere when I know the review was mostly negative.

So I would always prefer a negative review to no review. It is a pleasure to receive a negative review like the one I got a couple of years ago from a blogger that did me the honor of taking my work seriously and analyzing, in his opinion, exactly what was wrong with it.

Do I brood about negative reviews? Yes, for a day or so. When my first book came out and I found the Kirkus review my publisher tried to keep from me (I discovered it in the public library), I was so devastated that I went to bed for the rest of the day, but by evening I had "recovered." Now I see that the reviewer did, in fact, make a couple of valid points.

Dan, I would be thrilled to get a negative review from you any day of the week because I respect your seriousness and intelligence.

Angela Young

Bit late to catch up with the debate - from Vulpes Libris and Elizabeth Baines to you - but in my short being-reviewed life (one year, first novel, published by a small press so reviews have been almost invisible anyway)I would rather some comment than no comment at all. And a constructive negative comment/review can set my brain whirring about ways towards clarity, better structure, better dialogue ... or whatever it might be, for the next one.

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