For many years now I have been reviewing books. In truth I had been reviewing for a long time before I ever thought about writing a book of my own. But when I became an author I began to meet some of the people whose books I had reviewed. It was an uncomfortable feeling to say the least. Still in most cases I had been kind, and I had always been honest.
What I stress to people is that a review is just one person’s opinion. It is no better than anyone else’s, but it is also no worse. Plus if you are a professional book critic someone pays you to review and that is a plus. Your work gets seen by more and more people and you intentionally or not gain a lot more influence. I never realized this until I began reviewing books for “The Huffington Post.” Suddenly people were making comments about my reviews and they were being picked up by numerous other locations.
Should someone be upset by something I write? I hope not. I never set out to be cruel or harmful. Still sometimes I just have to say I don’t get the style of writing, the content, or the plot. But even then I try to balance it all with something I do like.
Last week I taught five classes of memoir writing at the “South Carolina Writers Workshop.” I also was asked to “critique” samples of two writers’ work. Other people on the faculty at the Workshop also did critiques. I had people in my classes who couldn’t concentrate on what I was saying because they were so worried about their upcoming “critiques.”
I really did lecture my students about not making it the ultimate determiner of their writing skills. They all smiled and said they wouldn’t but then I saw some of them after they had received their critiques and they were devastated. In one case there had been a lot of positive things said and one negative thing. The person could only remember the negative aspect.
We writers are fragile people. We never are overconfident about our work. We just know there are hundreds of flaws which could be pointed out at any time. When we go to writing groups and get critiqued with our hearts are on our sleeves. This places a huge burden on the person doing the critiquing. They need to be fair, honest and most of all encouraging.
One student told me that she went to a writing seminar and the instructor said up front that no positive comments would be allowed. It all had to be negative so they could all grow. I wouldn’t have lasted in a group like that for five minutes. Negatives should always be balanced with some positive. Who wants to destroy someone like that!
The truth is most writers are better than they think they are. Both of the works I critiqued showed real promise. As a matter of fact one was excellent and I can see a publisher grabbing it up (when it is finished). I told the writer over and over it was good and he kept asking me to tell him the bad. I finally pointed out some nitpicky things and he seemed satisfied. I would rather have just gone over with him the best things he had done.
Being a critic or a critique-er is a huge responsibility. People place their writing careers in your hands and wait for your comments. I feel you can be honest and still be encouraging. That is how I would want to be treated and in this arena “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” certainly applies.
Jackie K. Cooper will be teaching a “Memoir Writing” course at