November 25, 2008

Personal essay: How to critique -- a not-at-all definitive guide

This autumn, I was invited by the publishing company HarperCollins UK to be an occasional guest contributor to the official blog for their online experiment authonomy, which Americans can think of as a "Project Greenlight" for books -- writers are encouraged to upload their unsigned novels, at which point they are read and rated by other unsigned writers, with the top-ranking books each month getting "kicked upstairs" to actual HarperCollins editors. Even better, they've graciously given me permission to reprint the essays here at the CCLaP site a few days later. Below is the latest; and you can find all the rest if you want at the main personal essay master list here at the site.

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How To Critique: A not-at-all definitive guide

As members already know, one of the key aspects of authonomy is the writing of book critiques; this is mostly what authonomy is about in the first place, after all, unpublished writers rating and reviewing the work of other unpublished writers, with the top results every month being "kicked upstairs" to editors at HarperCollins to look at, and with peer critiques being written all the time in an effort to influence those ratings (and God forbid, to actually help out one's fellow writers a little). And in fact this is one of the more common complaints about the service as well, that most members seem more interested in manipulating book ratings than in delivering substantial notes to other authors, leading to a system that is long on submissions but short on feedback.

But you know what they say, that you reap what you sow; or in other words, if authors wish to receive more feedback about their books, the absolute best way to assure so is to start by critiquing others' books on a regular basis, a fact that several members have now asked if I could point out here sometime, as well as pass along any tips I might have on efficient reviewing of full-length narrative novels. I'm an authonomy member myself, after all, and also write around 125 reviews each year of finished books over at my arts center's website; and so since several people have asked, I thought I'd indeed devote some time today on detailing how exactly I do such reviews myself, and how other members can hopefully add some quick and easy elements to their own critiques, to make them both better in quality and more helpful to the authors in question.

So first, let's address right away the issue that seems to give so many reviewers problems here, which is how to handle the pacing of a three-act storyline told over the course of an entire full-length book. Because let's not forget, even though you will probably only read 10,000 to 20,000 words of any random submission here, in relative terms that's only 10 to 30 percent of the entire story! It's tempting to judge a title here on short-story terms, when you're only reading a short story's worth of the manuscript; but never forget that the part you most likely read (the beginning, that is) consists almost entirely of setup, exposition and character definition, and is not reflective of the pace once more of the action starts kicking in. But that said, it's also true what literary agent Noah Lukeman says in his industry guide The First Five Pages: that the quality of writing in any particular book will almost never under any circumstances get any better than what's on display in the first chapter; and that if you think the writing itself is lousy at that point, there's almost no chance of it somehow becoming miraculously brilliant two-thirds of the way in. It's a balancing act that a critic must perform with unfinished books or ones not fully read, between not rushing a naturally unfolding storyline in one's head while still being able to recognize the overall quality of the writing itself.

So that said, what's the best way of sitting down and formally judging the quality of a book, anyway? Well, in my case, I start by watching for what most consider the three pillars of Western narrative fiction:

--Does it tell an interesting and well-paced story?
--Are the characters complex, compelling and realistic?
--Does the author tell the story in an engaging and unique style?

Of course, how a person interprets these questions can vary wildly; to cite just one well-known example, some readers enjoy a more erudite writing style that contains bigger words and poetically constructed passages, while others prefer a much more stripped-down writing style, containing smaller words and paragraphs that don't cause undue attention to themselves. This is part of your job as a reviewer, is to establish where your opinion lies with all of these issues; and that's part of an author's job when analyzing such criticism too, of going through a critic's other reviews and understanding where they're coming from with their opinions, whether that's the same or opposite place than the author themselves. In general, though, I think when it comes to nice, simple, informative book critiques, a person could do a lot worse than to mostly concentrate on these three proven fundamentals in literature, and to base one's review mostly on how well or badly that author handled them.

Of course, because of the special nature of authonomy in particular, there are other more special issues as well to be considered in book reviews here: for example, just how commercially viable is the concept for that book, and how easy or hard of a sell would it be to the general public? This is an issue I never tackle with finished books at my arts center, frankly; but with all the manuscripts at authonomy being unsigned ones, and all the authors deliberately trying to come to the attention of paid editors at a mainstream publishing company, a title's commercial appeal is not only a relevant detail in these cases but something I'm sure a lot of writers would appreciate some feedback concerning. And in fact, there are a whole plethora of specific details that one could add to an authonomy review if they wanted, not necessarily appropriate for a lit-crit magazine but certainly the kind of stuff an unpublished writer would appreciate hearing about: Is it too long a story? Too short? Does it seem too slow at places and too fast at others? Are there elements that could potentially offend some audience members without the author having realized it yet? Is it full of pop-culture references you don't get? Regional slang you don't understand? Did the sex scenes make you giggle uncontrollably when they were meant to turn you on?

All of these kinds of details are appropriate for a critique of an unpublished book, especially when the author is doing something like posting it publicly and specifically asking for feedback; although I don't think every review needs to contain such a high level of detail, my main point is the same as these members who have written to me on the subject, that any of this stuff is better than the usual "it was great" or "I loved it." In order to make a critique both useful and influential, it must be both specific and backed by rational arguments; and as long as you're not deliberately being mean or cruel, as long as your comments are more about making things better than simply pointing out weaknesses, I've found that most serious writers will actually welcome such honest feedback, not resent you for it. Do this on a regular basis, the theory goes, and the sheer quality of your feedback will drive people to your own book, just to see if you write fiction as well as you do critiques; and that's the real way to bring legitimate and deep attention to your title here, not through friendship ponzi schemes and other examples of "gaming the system."

As always, I welcome your comments and dissenting opinions below; and if you have a subject you'd like to see tackled here in the future, by all means drop me a line directly at ilikejason [at] Happy reading!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:33 AM, November 25, 2008. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Literature:Fiction |