Most people don’t know that Edgar Allan Poe was best known during his lifetime as a literary critic. Fellow critic, James Russell Lowell, described Poe as a “discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic” who could be quite caustic. The poetry of Longfellow was a favorite target, Poe predicting that his style wouldn’t last, and Poe was right.
When it comes to critiquing of a writer’s work, the pre-critic critics, if you will, writer’s tend think they want honest criticism and recommendations, but I have found a lot of them really don’t. They want someone to tell them “I like this”, not what’s not working or needs to be improved. But without honest and constructive criticism, the work does not get better.
Criticism isn’t easy. Anyone can say, “This sucks.” But what sucks? Is it the pace? Are the characters one dimensional? Is the description too sparse? Are there typos, grammar errors, punctuation issues, misused words? Is the plot hard to follow? Some people can constructively criticize, others can’t. “I don’t like it” isn’t criticism.
The Kansas City Star, our local newspaper, used to have Robert W. Butler, their movie critic, review all the new releases. The problem was, while Mr. Butler is an excellent critic, he does not care for genre films. If he liked a movie, I would probably like it, but if he hated a movie, there was a chance I might not hate it. There was no value in having him tell me, “This is a science fiction film or a horror film, and it was terrible.” The Star finally figured out that genre films should be reviewed by people who can tell a good one from a bad one, someone who can tell if the target audience will like the film or not. The right critic makes a difference for both the material being reviewed and the person who will base their decision to see the movie or read the book on that review.
I currently have two problems with my new novel. The first is that it sucks. It needs a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems with it. I need to fix most of those before I send it to the poor, benighted martyrs who have agreed to read it in its unfinished form and give me constructive feedback, my first line reviewers and critics. The second problem is I am missing some important demographic representatives in my reviewing population. If everyone reading the book has the same background and ideas, I can’t know whether or not the book will appeal to or be understood by the folks who have different backgrounds and ideas.
If you happen to know of a Christian or Jewish male who likes reading and reviewing manuscripts, let me know. Extra points if he’s in law enforcement. In the mean time, I’m going to go fix this sucky book.
Image: Chihuahuan raven; by Quinn Dombrowski from Chicago, USA