Critiquing the critics

Credentials are essential to every reviewer’s credibility

Chad PelleyCredentials are essential to every reviewer’s credibility

One of the first novels I read in 2013 was a gorgeously written debut. I thought its strength was its style, but a Globe and Mail review slammed its “thwarted prose” and “effusive detail that adds little depth to the story.” Were it not so difficult to leave a comment to the contrary, I might have respectfully defended the author’s right to write how she wishes. Yet the review was intelligently constructed.

This conundrum got me thinking: How does one become a critic? Think about it; no one lets the doctor remove the ruptured appendix until he’s been taught the procedure, yet a critic needs no such certification to dissect a book. Fundamentally, a review should ascertain the author’s intention and assess how he or she succeeded and failed in that regard. Many critics know this, but many do not.

As an author who has taken some knocks alongside some highs, I might sound like a guy with his back up here. I’m not. Criticism serves many roles in our industry, from taste-making to academic discourse and even marketing of books, and if authors can’t stand to hear that they’re imperfect, maybe they shouldn’t be writing. Also, because review space is so scarce, no writer should complain about receiving a bad review (if it’s fairly worded), as there are so many writers out there whose work isn’t even getting reviewed. Surely, being ignored is worse than being talked about. Personally, I crave constructive criticism. Praise is nice, but hearing “I love your writing” will never make me a better writer.

However, this mode of thinking about bad reviews as an acceptable part of the industry depends entirely on reviews being professionally rendered. Having to swallow unfounded statements about your work—statements that speak more to a critic’s inability to review a novel than a writer’s inability to craft one—is needless and plain unfair. The consensus among writers and critics I admire is that if the author learns nothing from a bad review, it’s sloppy journalism.

Lisa Moore is one of our country’s finest writers, but like many of us, she’s had to endure some sloppy reviews over the years. I asked her whether it’s uncouth for writers to respond to bunk reviews. “I learn a ton from some of my negative reviews when they are written by people who know what they’re doing,” she says. “Let’s face it, the gig doesn’t pay very much, the deadlines can sometimes be punishing, on very rare occasions the job draws the disenchanted and sour. But most reviewers are reviewing for the love of literature, and it’s from them we learn to be better readers. Even if the sting of an insightful-but-negative review leaves me raw, I can be very grateful for the insight. Those sorts of reviews can mean that literature really matters. It matters enough to argue about.”

I suppose it all comes down to the level of integrity behind the bad review. If anything, this article is merely a plea or warning to our country’s newspapers and magazines: your publication is only as good as the professionalism of your contributors. We readers are talking more than you think we are about your articles.

Written By

Chad Pelley is the editor of The Overcast. He has received numerous literary awards; his latest novel is Every Little Thing.

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