Jack London: The Scarcity of Honest Reviews

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

12 thoughts on “Jack London: The Scarcity of Honest Reviews

  1. Your posts are always so interesting and thought provoking. I recall a business colleague who didn’t write well, and I suspect deep down he knew he didn’t write well, so would always ask for help proof reading memos and other communications. (This was pre-email.) But then he’d get annoyed if I pointed out any grammar mistakes or even typos or punctuation. Heaven forbid I actually re-write something to help it make more sense. I would inevitably want to say “then why’d you ask?” I eventually ended up noting “sounds great!” on everything he asked me to review, even though we both knew it really didn’t sound great at all!

  2. ThreeKingsBooks

    I’m wondering whether one minor point to be made, on this hugely important subject, is the issue of privacy. The problem with public reviews, for many writers, is the very fact that they’re PUBLIC. I think you’re right on about the need for pre-publication feedback.

    Do you suppose there might be a new business proposition in offering to read and critique a writer’s novel BEFORE its publication? In other words, you’re not going to edit it. What you’d promise is to write a “review” that’s given to the writer privately. “Here’s what I’d write if I were to post a review of your novel based on this draft –”

    Only the most stalwart of writers would come to you for this service (and they’d have to pay you, too), but it might be a unique method for getting at least one reader’s honest opinion before publishing your own work.

    Umm….

    1. Getting a pre-publication review (having an experienced neutral party summarize the plot, the good points, and the major weakness, if any) wouldn’t be a bad idea, if you could find good people to offer the service. The problem would be that if it’s for pay, and if it’s the primary service offered, then the pre-pub reviewer’s business model is word-of-mouth and they would have a major incentive to sugar-coat their pre-pub review. The best person would be someone whose livelihood is funded some other way.

  3. This post is spot on. As an unpublished author, I have given and received my fair share of critiques. I’m an honesty is the best policy kind of guy, while treating others the way I would want to be treated. Even though I explain this upfront, I’ve still managed to bruise many an ego. I take my writing very seriously and expect the people I work with to do the same. If you’re looking for a pat on the back, look elsewhere unless it’s deserved. But many writers can’t, or don’t know how to properly take a critique and it’s frustrating. I’ve lost some writer friends and nearly lost others because of my “blatantly honest”, “no holds barred”, or “brutal” critique style. When in reality all I did was point out things that could be improved upon (plot holes, inconsistent characters, POV issues, etc.).

    So when I find someone who can give an honest critique, I try and build that relationship. Those are the people I want to work with. Those are the writers who want to get better and write to the best of their abilities. And that’s exactly what every writer should try to do, at least in my opinion. How will you ever grow as a writer if you only solicit sugar coated critiques? You won’t.

    I must say how refreshing it is to participate in such an organized and intelligent post. You’ve clearly done your homework and the end result is top-notch. Not only will I be following your blog, but I’m also anxiously awaiting the next post. Well done.

    1. Thank you, and thanks for sharing your experience as a writer. It’s very important for writers to find people they can trust to critique their work honestly. It’s hard not to take criticism personally, but the criticism is meant to help writers produce a better product. That’s the goal.

  4. Oh I loved this one. Architects don’t get though school without years of battered criticism. Is it any wonder any future architects have an ego when they graduate? Yet many go the opposite route and have the inflated egos knowing they made it through the gauntlet of condemnation. Ironically, I would not even call this criticism fail or just. It is not always done in the most honest and helpful manner. So there is a middle ground that has to employed.

    I do know that it is precisely that ego that fains the cotton candy approach to approval and glorification. I see it on professional photographers sites too. All many want is the praise, like every one is Ansel Adams. Others, tell it like it is and I gravitate to those sites. What good for growth is stroking the ego with false and overt admiration?

    I really admire Jack London now. He is so right about friends, family and anyone invested in career or personal connection.

    1. So true! It’s all about egos, and that’s what comes across on many blogs. It’s important for creative individuals to feel supported, but at a certain point, they need genuine criticism, which is hard to find outside of an academic environment in the Arts. The Jack London letter is really a wonderful read. I have a lot of respect for him, too. I similarly have respect for E.B. White (I have a link in the post above), who wrote letters tailored specifically to each person, but his bluntness came across as too abrasive for my liking.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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