In yet another wonderful installment, Letters of Note is featuring Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang.
Rather than “waste” his time with the business-side of writing, the way E.B. White did, London sent form letter responses to aspiring authors looking for his thoughts on their manuscripts (he changed this practice eventually). In 1905, he wrote:
Every time a writer tells the truth about a manuscript (or book), to a friend-author, he loses that friend, or sees that friendship dim and fade away to a ghost of what it was formerly.
Every time a writer tells the truth about a manuscript (or book), to a stranger-author, he makes an enemy.
If the writer loves his friend and fears to lose him, he lies to his friend.
But what’s the good of straining himself to lie to strangers?
And, with like insistence, what’s the good of making enemies anyway?
London has explained exactly why it is so difficult for aspiring authors to find honest criticism of their work. There are three groups of people from whom authors can elicit pre-publication reviews: Family, Friends, and Strangers. As I wrote in my earlier piece, Perfectionism and Publishing, family and friends are hardly objective reviewers. “Sympathy starts at home,” London writes to make a different point, and indeed, unless the writer is related to Tiger Mom, he or she will have a difficult time eliciting useful criticism from family members or friends. Even writing groups will rarely criticize a writer’s work beyond suggesting minor revisions to the prose; when’s the last time someone in a writing group told you to scrap half the book and re-write it? Perhaps worse, when someone in a writing group offers serious criticism, they’re usually met with stiff resistance. Consider this example from ScriptRod:
I became involved in a discussion on a writer’s community website regarding a short story I been asked to review. I pointed out a fallacy in logic and a tendency to bludgeon us with a message. Other writer’s came to his defense suggesting that this was appropriate. We bantered back and forth for about a day until I just decided this was counter-productive. He didn’t want a critique, he wanted a rave. I know we all crave feedback on our work, but the man who created those wonderful elephants in a tropical forest, didn’t ask for feedback. There wasn’t time!
He advises writers to be cautious about their participation in these “mutual admiration societies.” These communities can be wonderful for encouraging writers to write, but they probably won’t give writers any real sense of the quality of their work.
What about professional editors, the ones whose services are available for hire? Well, the fact that writers pay them is exactly why their criticism is limited. There may be good ones out there, but how can a writer tell? Their business model is based on word-of-mouth, and given the tendency of writers to want praise and polish rather than the harsh truth that it’s time to tear the story down and rebuild it, few writers will recommend an editor who ripped apart their beloved manuscript, wounding their confidence and assigning them a lot more work. I’ve heard some suggest that traditional publishing may offer better criticism, but I think the mediocrity that these publishing houses churn out speaks for itself.
London’s points relate not only to the difficulties of receiving honest pre-publication criticism, but also to the limitations of post-publication reviews. Apart from the blatantly dishonest reviews that have been receiving press lately, even genuine reviews are skewed to some extent. Reviewers understand that there is a woman or man behind the book, and few would want to hurt the author’s feelings. No one wants to make an enemy, particularly if reviewers are aspiring authors themselves.
The end result is a candy-coated publication process, from critique partners, to beta readers, to post-publication reviewers. As a reviewer, I try not to allow sympathy for the author to cloud my opinion of the book, and I try hard to provide explanations for any negative review I publish on this blog. While I wouldn’t want writers to equate asking me to review their books as being “like inviting the Boston Strangler to massage [their] neck,” the way Billy Wilder described esteemed and recently deceased film critic Judith Crist, it certainly wouldn’t be an insult. Preferably, authors would receive and appreciate that type of criticism pre-publication.
Image Credit: AMB, Misfortune of Knowing