“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
Book reviews have been a staple of my blogging since I started years ago. In fact, before I moved to WordPress, I had a Blogger that was entirely reviews (books, films, etc.). It’s exciting to be able to share my opinion with other readers and writers, and sometimes even the authors themselves now that social media is a standard platform for published writers. Yet most of all, reviewing books has reminded me that I have a responsibility as a reader and writer to be respectful of my peers and humble of my own abilities. Everyone should choose kindness, but it’s something book reviewers, workshop writers, and editors especially should be aware of.
Whether you’re a writer in a workshop or a reader with a blog, feedback should always start with kindness. No work is completely without merit. When we find things that we dislike overall, sometimes it’s hard to focus on smaller details within those works that are successful. If an editor or reviewer starts off feedback bashing the work, a lot of people won’t stick around to hear the good, or they’ll be so put off by the negativity that the positive comments will be tarnished. When given the choice between hearing good or bad news first, many people choose the bad so that they have something good to look forward to. This doesn’t work when people are offering feedback to an individual’s creative work; nobody wants to put all that time and effort into something personally meaningful only to face criticism right out of the gate.
In college, my professors insisted that every workshop start with positive comments, what was working in the piece. Few feelings are worse than when a pause follows this request. Even if it’s just people gathering their thoughts or it’s an 8 a.m. class and people aren’t ready for critical thinking, a few seconds is like a lifetime to the author waiting to hear what’s good about their personal creative work. Opening with compliments to our peers was a way to let them know that they had talent and stories worth sharing, that we supported them as fellow writers, and that we were there to help them versus tearing them down.
Articulating the good can be harder than the bad. You don’t have to explain the good. Good can be simple. You know how having someone notice your haircut or send you a text out of the blue can just light up your whole day? No writer would turn down a four-page essay on Why Their Writing Rocks, but the fact of the matter is, we just want someone to say something nice. “I like this,” “This scene is funny,” “This character is so quotable.” It’s so easy to be nice! Just knowing someone read our work and enjoyed it brings great joy. When people mention specific moments that they liked, go into detail about why they liked things, or ask follow-up questions that show their investment? Good golly, it’s like your birthday and Christmas and landing on the moon all at once. But you know, “I like this” still tells the author that they created something, wrote something, that resonated with another person. Every. Writer’s. Dream.
The only downside to the simplicity of kindness is that critique requires more real estate. If you like a character, you can simply say, “I like this character,” whereas if you dislike a character, you need to explain why and give the author feedback so they have another perspective to work with in future drafts. Explaining why changes need to be made takes more time to avoid coming off as a flat insult, so often the “critique” part of a workshop or a book review is longer than the “praise” part. If all reviewers say is “I dislike this character,” it comes across as an opinion versus a suggestion of how the author can improve that character. Therefore it’s easy for authors to blow off comments like that. In the world of book reviewing, the work is already published, so the characters clearly worked for somebody; explaining why they didn’t for you gives other readers context and may speak to those who have similar taste.
As editors and book reviewers, it is key to differentiate between “opinion” and “fact.” There are critiques that are objective, from spelling and grammatical errors to historical discrepancies. Most critiques, though, are subjective, meaning that not everyone agrees that a point needs to be changed. In workshops, it’s helpful for authors to hear how different people interpret and react to their characters, for better or for worse. A character the author finds funny may be bland to readers, or a scene the author thought was a throwaway could be the one most readers respond to. In particular, when authors write beyond their personal demographic (i.e., writing the opposite gender, a different faith or culture, etc.), it can be tremendously helpful to have feedback from readers within that demographic. In my personal experience, notes from male classmates improved my ability to write male characters or validated that I was writing realistic male characters, and I hope that my responses to their female characters were likewise.
When I first started reviewing books on Blogger, I didn’t shy away from criticism, and I’ll admit that not all of it was constructive. If I didn’t like something, I insulted it, which was not only unhelpful as a guide for potential readers but unkind and unprofessional towards other writers. Instead of pointing out the good, analyzing what I felt didn’t work, and ending on a short-and-sweet recommendation to read or not (my current formula), I complained and made snarky comments, thinking myself very important. My experience in workshops and my older and wiser perspective as a writer who would be heartbroken to read a review like the ones I once wrote have made me more mature as a blogger. I want to pass that positive attitude on to anyone and everyone I can.
Nowadays I mostly review books that I like because saying nice things is better for both my readers and myself. Book publishing and writing are competitive industries, no doubt about it, but getting swept up in negativity is no way to break into them. Support your fellow readers and writers, talk about things you like and what makes you happy, and remember the importance of positivity.