Critical Reviews & Critical Advocacy

I’ve blogged before about being authentic. About being critical. About speaking up and not being afraid to not “be nice.” And even though I believe every single one of those things, they’re all things I struggle with regularly, especially when it comes to blogging about books.

In the last couple of weeks, there’s been discussion about critical reviews again. There’s been an interesting phenomenon of people asking how to write them, as well as how to read critically on a broader scale. As new people start blogging and discovering their voices in doing so, it becomes a question of not just the mechanics of writing critical reviews, but a question of how to share that without looking like a jerk or without looking like you’re doing it for some ulterior motive. There’s also the question of how far is too far, how “mean” is too mean, and how much space to dedicate to reading (and thus reviewing) books that weren’t exactly good fits for you as a reader.
This is something I’m still struggling with and maybe something I’m struggling with more now that I’ve been blogging longer and now that I do have a good sense of what I like and do not like in books. When I write out a critical review and post it, I angst about it the entire process. But why is that?
I’ve been thinking about this in light of other things I’ve blogged about. Before delving into that though, maybe it’s worth talking a little bit about my process, since I think anyone who wants to or does write critical reviews may be curious about. It’s quite complex. When I’m reading a book, I don’t take notes. Periodically, I’ll open up a draft email or draft blog post and write down some page numbers if something is rubbing me either positively or negatively. But for the most part, my reviews come a few days after shutting the book and letting it settle in my mind. Many times I’ll write up initial reactions and thoughts on Goodreads, and a lot of that is so when I do turn to write the lengthier review, I have something to look back at and reflect on in terms of initial thoughts (and sometimes that writing can turn my opinion). For the actual writing itself, it’s usually a one draft thing. It takes a couple of hours, since I draft it slowly and edit as I go. I write completely out of order, all of the time (which means that I’ll draft it, then I’ll move things around — I write as things come to me which helps me work through them logically as I see them, rather than as I think them). I tend not to read other blogger reviews of titles, but sometimes I’ll track down professional reviews once I’ve drafted something. I usually do this more for books that didn’t sit well with me, just to see if maybe I missed something huge. The writing process is the same, regardless of whether I really liked the book or I did not like the book. Maybe the most important part of my process, though, is this: I focus solely on the book at hand. There are no outside influences in terms of who the author is, the story of the book’s publication, where it came from, and so forth. Frankly, I don’t care. I write about the book as it came to me, and I am forthright in admitting whatever biases I bring to my own reading experience. But when it comes to who wrote it or what their status is (debut or not, male or female, etc.) it doesn’t matter one bit. 
I’m in it for the book and the book alone. 
A lot of people don’t like writing critical reviews because they don’t like to finish or write about a book they didn’t like. That’s completely fair. But there are also a lot of people who don’t like to write critical reviews because they’re afraid of hurting feelings. That’s where I take some issue. Writing a review isn’t about feelings — we all know there is work involved in the process of writing, revising, and editing a book. There’s a lot more bound up in the book than the pages. The thing is, that is not on the side of the reader/reviewer. 
One part of my process that’s been a struggle for me lately, though, is the one that comes when I schedule and then post a critical review. I angst about it going up. I angst about where it’ll end up. I angst about who will read it and what their response will be. I angst about sharing the post. I angst and angst and angst. 
But why? 
I write reviews for myself and for other readers. I write them for those who are looking for the right book to meet their needs. This is why even in the most critical reviews, I try to offer some sort of read alike or tap into what the reader appeal is. That’s supremely important to me because I know there are blogs I read where I always disagree with the reviewer and it’s in that disagreement where I find books I want to read. It’s also important to me to be critical because that’s just how I read. I’m a detail person. I notice little things and I notice bigger ones, and it’s in those details where the story can be made or broken for me as a reader. I like to blog about it, in part, to know I’m not alone in reading this way or thinking about things in this way. 
The struggle and angst seem to come, though, from the belief that somehow being critical — especially if that means being “mean” in a review — means I’m not advocating for books or reading. And that’s simply not true. Being critical is a high form of advocacy: it’s advocating on the part of the reader
With as many books as there are being published, with the way that marketing and publicity handle what are and are not their lead titles, with the way that gatekeepers and readers discover titles, I think it’s crucial to be critical. It’s important to look at every book as simply that: a book. It can be good and it can be bad. That all lies in the taste of the reader. And every single reader approaches and engages with a book at a different level, with different expectations and different biases coloring their reading experience. To think that a critical review isn’t somehow advocacy for reading is to say that reading is a singular experience with a singular purpose. 
It’s been hard for me to remember this sometimes when I do write a critical review or when I spend time finishing and thinking about a book that I did not like. And I think a lot of my struggle comes from the fact that in the last couple of years, I’ve really put myself out there personally on the blog. I’ve talked about things I’m struggling with as an individual, as a blogger/writer, as a librarian, and as a reader. I’ve talked about these things in a way that, I think, let readers in on who I am a lot more than I ever thought I would when this blog began. So when I do write a critical review, it almost feels like I’m undercutting myself in the process. Or maybe it’s not so much undercutting myself but leaving anyone who reads this with the task of separating the personal stuff from the critical reading. The advocate side of me from the actual critical side of me. I have to remember that when I review a book, especially if it’s very critical, that I’m reviewing the book at hand. That same thing is what I hope for in return, too: that when I write a critical review, my words are being read through the eyes of a reviewer and not through the eyes of me on a more personal level. Yes, reviews are personal things and yes, I bring baggage to books. But those are things that allow me to objectively critique a book from the eyes of a reader. 
I still get tangled up in the belief I need to be nice about everything. I don’t. I need to be fair to myself and to other readers. This means remembering I’m allowed to be critical and sharp. That I don’t have to like everything (or anything!). That sometimes the book everyone loves is a book that just doesn’t work for me and that is okay. More than that, though — and this is an interesting trend I’ve picked up on not only in myself but in other bloggers — it’s important to remember there’s no need to apologize for or create excuses for having the opinions that I do. Being critical and having an opinion that may differ from others doesn’t mean being against the crowd. Rather, it’s another shade on the spectrum. This is something I’ve been wrestling with for a long time now, but it’s pretty simple. Just because I don’t agree with something doesn’t mean I can’t still be an advocate for it. Likewise, enjoying something tremendously doesn’t mean that I can’t carry opinions about other aspects of the product or creation that are contrary. 
I can severely dislike a book and still advocate for YA fiction. I can also dislike a book and still advocate for it individually. I can and do still pass it to readers who will find much to enjoy in it. Being critical allows me to think about the reader end of things. But the same feelings go the other way, too. I can love a book and find, say, the author or their behavior frustrating and disingenuous. And that’s not to say I wouldn’t advocate for the book, either. Humans are complex individuals, and one of the biggest benefits of this complexity is the ability to hold and consider differing opinions at the same time and act accordingly.
Because in the end, being critical is about developing the skills necessary to be an advocate. Sometimes, being critical means choosing not to talk about being critical. In my case, though, it means taking the time and effort to advocate for being critical. Being critical, for me, is a means of strengthening my own voice, my own opinions, and my own ability to be clear, direct, and honest. Doing so only helps me be a better advocate for other readers. 
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  1. says

    It took me a while to realize that you were using the word "critical" as synonymous with "negative." I come from an academic background (albeit an already out-of-date one), so I made an assumption about your writing even from your tweet this morning.

    I'm thinking about that mostly because of the kinds of baggage (good and bad) that we bring in to a reading and then what we take out of it to represent. I'm also considering my own reaction when faced with criticism of various sorts and the different people from whom it's easier and harder to hear those observations.

    On the one hand I do, truly, believe that we need constructive and honest criticism, and I know that the word "constructive" is crucial, because it honors the advocacy that you're talking about (I saw SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and rec'd it to someone that I thought would like it, even though the film has diminished in my experience and memory of it; they're _going_ to like it, why should I mess up their experience?). In an open discussion (a published review) there's going to be more frankness and this is where the other hand comes in, that it still stings to get those notes, especially once there's nothing to be done about them (the project – book, film, play, whatever) is done.

    The adult thing to do as the critiqued is to walk away or to say thank you for watching. If the desire for engagement is too strong, maybe questions for the reviewer but not assertions.

    It makes me think that among the many skills we don't teach, one of them is receiving criticism. We _get_ grades in school, but we don't talk about the process of receiving them, processing them, and using them. Which is funny, now that I think about it, because that's like saying (in a way) that we don't learn how to talk to one another.

    • says

      I really like what you say here for several reasons, and there is a lot to unpack. First, and most of interest to me, is the way you mention I say critical as synonymous with negative. Not true! Sure, I use critical as a means of talking about the negative review aspects, but I also wholeheartedly believe being critical comes through positive reviews, too. The books I love I still review with a critical eye, even if it's not a negative review. It's just how I read and how I process.

      What else intrigues me and makes me wonder if there's a whole other thing to think about is your last bit — about how we receive but don't engage with one another when it comes to assessment and criticism. You're right. We DON'T talk to one another about it. We take it and we give it, but there's not a dialog involved. When it comes to reviewing books and, in a way, the larger book blogosphere in general, I don't think a dialog is necessarily a good thing. I think because there is a dialog along the paths to get to publication and into the hands of readers, it's not necessary (and this is why I take some strong stances when it comes to reviewing self-published books — I want those layers in between myself and the book's creator).

      I'm going to be thinking about what you say here all day. Thank YOU.

  2. says

    I think one of the issues is that there's such a wide variety of blogs out there. Some people really do seem to see themselves as publicity machines for authors and publishers. Others have very close relationships with authors but don't seem to have the sense of obligation that the first group does. And then there are some who are definitely very critical–in both senses of the word–but who are able to do it in a professional way.

    And you know, I'm quite happy to have that variety. Also, I value people saying what they want to. So I think one of the key questions is who the blogger is and what they're trying to do. All that aside, however, for those of us who are both bloggers and library people, I think there's a huge value in just what you're talking about–being able to point to what is flawed or didn't work for you in a book, while at the same time knowing what kind of reader might enjoy it.

    For myself, I tend to be fine with that when I enjoyed a book in a mild kind of way; it's when I either really really loved or really really hated a book that I have trouble getting past the emotional blitz to sound reasonable.

    • says

      Oh there's definitely a wide variety of blogs, and I think that's a GREAT thing. I read a wide variety too — those which are publicity machines and those which are much more critical. In either case, what matters to me is disclosure (which gets at some of what you're talking about). Beyond that, though, the big thing I want to hit home is that because of this variety, it's easy to see why critical reviews are sometimes seen as a bad thing when they're not. They're just another perspective.

    • says

      I completely agree! And as I said on Twitter, I think there's a general usage (critical=negative) and a more academic sense (critical=thoughtful) which often get confused and conflated when they don't need to be.

  3. says

    I critically review books with Indigenous (or psuedo-Indigenous) themes, culture, characters, settings, and I do so with two populations in mind.

    First is the Native reader whose identity, culture, history is too often misrepresented. Coming upon misrepresentations or stereotypes or bias can yank that reader right out of the book. One after another after another and another can have a negative effect, distancing the reader from the joys that he/she ought to find in a book.

    Second is the reader who is not Native and who does not know that the images he/she is getting are stereotypical, biased, incorrect, etc. This monster of expectations is what, in my view, is driving the popularity of books that misrepresent who we are in present and past contexts.

    As you might imagine, I'm not very popular with the fan base of authors that I'm critical of… This includes old authors like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but newer ones, too, like Ann Rinaldi and Sharon Creech.

    Recognizing problems with repsentations of American Indian people is hard. America is so damned ignorant. Fed on things like playing Indian, racist Indian mascots, and products from songs to butter, people don't recognize their own ignorance. Rather than listen to a critical voice, they turn away. Its a vicious cycle of misrepresentation.

    My blog is American Indians in Children's Literature. I've reviewed for Horn Book and SLJ and have professional articles in both their publications as well as others.

  4. says

    It also took me a while to realize that you meant critical as in negative, as well. I was thinking you were talking more about scholarly criticism.

    But, anyway.. I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying. It's difficult to write a review that is negative. I will usually write one if I read enough of the book. But if it's so awful that I can't get into it, I tend not to write a review at all.

    I have written a few negative reviews and have been (at times) the blunt of the publisher's or authors rage when they see such negativity.. but I don't take it back. Like you had mentioned, someone has to advocate for the readers. I can't be scared of hurting feelings.

    Book Reviews

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