Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Ugly Nature of Peer Reviews

Eons ago, before I embraced my inner poet and pursued a career in publishing, both my husband and I were immersed in the world of musical theater.

As it so happens, we were members of the same vocal master class, which is actually how we met. (This is a long story that I'll shed light on another day.)

Everything--from pitch, tone, carriage, projection, selection, and even appearance--was criticized. No one was safe in that class.

Not gonna lie: sometimes it stung.
Most of the time the critique was warranted.
Occasionally it wasn't.

Regardless, the critique was necessary in order for each of us to succeed, both as performers and as professionals. It was so much better to receive that critique in a controlled environment where we could make necessary changes rather than see it blasted in the newspaper's review of our performance in a show.

The Continuation of Criticism
For centuries, the art of peer review has been a vital foundation upon which success is built. It doesn't matter what industry you are in; criticism is required. It's part of what you sign up for when you put yourself out there with a product or talent.

When you feel deeply about something and put yourself out there with that deep emotion, you have to be prepared for a deeply felt response.

No one is immune. Here's a great example:

"I haven't any right to criticize books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice', I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone."
That's Mark Twain weighing in on Jane Austen. [Read more at Authors dissing Authors] (While my personal opinion of Austen is that she liberally stole themes, characters, plots, and style from Francis Burney, Austen is heralded worldwide as an author of extraordinary literature.)

Jane Austen--who wrote such wildly endeared characters as Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, characters and stories around whom the Arts now revolve--received crushing reviews, both upon publication and posthumously.

Let's Put It in Perspective
On rare occasion I receive requests from authors regarding the reviews their book(s) have received. Most authors get it; they understand the review process and that every reader is entitled to his/her own opinion.

But in that occasional request, the author demands that I make the review disappear.

Even if I could, I would not do that.* It's not fair to the author, the book, or the readers.

It endangers our rights of free speech.
It disrupts the entire system of peer evaluation and reader approval.
It is no one's business but the reviewer.

What I wish I could tell to every writer (not just authors, but writers of all genres and platforms) is this: a review is simply an opinion.

We are allowed to--encouraged to, in most cases--express opinions on politics, news, celebrities, education, products, etc. Usually the literary field is the champion of that freedom of expression.

How hypocritical for us, as writers, to then retract that allowance simply because our feelings were hurt.

So, dear writer--whether you are a high schooler writing a poem, a polished professional submitting articles or stories for publication in periodicals, or an established author--don't become so wrapped up in your world of words that you forget that other people's opinions matter too.

If something written or said in a review stings, you might want to consider the validity of the claim. Perhaps there is truth somewhere in that review, truth that you are reluctant to accept.

As author Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, one of my favorite workshop leaders ever, once said (and this is a very loose paraphrase!): "Your writing is your baby. You invest time, effort, and labor into it's creation and delivery. You are proud to show it off, because it is an extension of you. But when you show it off, someone might say, 'My, your baby has a big head.' You can get mad and offended, but what good will it do? Your baby probably does have a big head, and until you recognize and accept that, you can't fix the issue. So then your baby will always have a big head and no one will take it seriously!"

Again, the above is a very loose paraphrase from one of the first workshops I had with Jeffers, but it's stuck with me over the years because of the truth of her statement.

The Secret
Not only will mastering The Secret (which follows below in italics) enhance your career as a writer, but it can also change your life.

When criticism rears its ugly head, take an emotional step back. 

Using reason, consider the main points of the criticism. 
Are they worthy of consideration? 

Look at the issue from someone else's perspective. 
Is there need for change? 

Sometimes this requires seeking the advice of someone you respect. 
Does the change support your long-term objectives? 

Once you've ascertained the validity of the critique and evaluated the need for change, follow through with the necessary actions to implement the changes, working toward a better final product.

But above all, don't let criticism--constructive or not--keep you from writing. If Jane Austen had let the criticism still her pen, where would we be today?

Question: Think back to when you were stung by someone's critique. Was the critique warranted? Did a change support your long-term goal? How did you handle the critique, and how did you implement the change?

*There are exceptions to this case, specifically when a review criticizes something unrelated to the writing, such as a diatribe against an author, a retailer, etc.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny you mention this. I just had a review that was good, but not great. I was bummed until I realized that I had actually received a compliment the previous day that my book had changed the life of an individual. Once I remembered this, the review didn't seem so important.