Friday, January 6, 2012

On being critical

You may remember in September, I did a presentation with Julia, Abby, and Janssen at Kid Lit Con about critical reviewing. I promised to write up the key points and share them. I can think of no better time to sum it up than right now.

Critical reviews are not negative reviews.

Know this distinction. Critical reviews involve thoughtful analysis and synthesis of the work at hand. They support their statements -- both positive and negative -- with what's in front of them. They check their baggage at the door.

Negative reviews are not supported by text. Negative reviews don't tell readers anything substantial about the book, but rather, about the reviewer. It's self reflective, rather than text reflective.

I believe in critical reviews and I love writing them, too. There's nothing more satisfying to me than sitting down after finishing a book and thinking through the points of story that did and did not work for me. It helps me not only realize why I did or didn't like a book, but it also helps me grow as a reader. I learn to read differently each time I critically assess a book. Moreover, I love reading other people's critical reviews of books. There are a handful of blogs I read every single day and there are a handful of blogs I will seek out after I read a book to see what they have to say. I know they're going to be thorough, whether they're succinct or lengthy reviews. Likewise, there are a few Goodreads reviewers who don't blog that I appreciate reading insight from. I think what I love most about reading reviews that are critical and thorough is that a lot of times, I can disagree with them, and yet, I'm able to see precisely why the reviewer said or saw what they did in the text. Because they support it with the text.

Critical reviews are important to me not only as a reader, but me as a librarian. These reviews help guide my thinking about my biases and they help guide my thinking about how to approach selling books to readers.

Not all blogs are created equal.

I don't like negative reviews, and I love critical reviews. But there are a ton of bloggers out there who do neither of these things. There are blogs that exist solely to promote books or authors or agendas. There are blogs out there that write only positive reviews. There are blogs out there that write with a snarky tone or a humorous tone or with a thoughtful tone or with a well-educated tone or with a perky tone. Some blogs incorporate ALL of those things. I like to write critically because ... I like to write critically. It's how I think. It's how I process. I like to think I'm honest but I back up anything tough I say with why I'm saying it. I welcome disagreement. I welcome agreement. It's fine. It's more than fine, really.

All of our blogs -- all of our voices -- can and should coexist just fine.

Blogging is being aware of your audience.

I have a handful of go-to blogs and bloggers I read no matter what because I like reading their style of reviewing. It's critical. It gets me what I need as a reader.

I also keep tabs on blogs that share only positive reviews and blogs that are more about publicity than reviewing.

I get what I need as a reader and a blogger and a librarian from all sides of the blogging world.

Many blog readers read as many blogs as I do. Many read hundreds more. Many may only read my blog or your blog or that blog which is only there for publicity or the blog that only posts snarky reviews. That's okay.

What's important is understanding that whether you blog for yourself or for someone/something else, you have an audience. I know my audience pretty well, but I don't know it perfectly. What I may think is something that's been blogged about tirelessly may reach someone who only reads this blog. That's why I shape some of my posts the way I shape them. Writing critically is an art and a craft. It's both sides of the brain.

It all comes down to understanding, though, I have an audience. Being mindful is key.

Bloggers aren't immune.

Something I've thought a lot about is how bloggers put their words out there openly. They state their opinions and thoughts how they wish to. They eagerly devour books and talk about those books through their own words.

But bloggers shouldn't live in glass houses, either. The way bloggers get stronger, the way they better understand the notion of audience, the better they make themselves is through being criticized themselves.

Criticism is and should be a two-way street. You should be able to take as well as you dish.

Class never goes out of style.

Disagreement is going to happen anywhere you go in the blogging world. That's why having such a multitude of different types of blogs is good. You get varied opinions, and you get the chance to wade into the waters and find what works for you as a reader. Sometimes you'll strike a chord with your audience and sometimes you might set them off with what you say and what you do. That's why you have to always remember you do have an audience and you won't always know who it is.

Be aware of what you're doing and saying and how you're presenting it. Be aware of your presence on all social media where you are making yourself open. If you're accessible, people are going to access you. People will ask you to talk about what you do and how you do it. Tell them. Be open. I enjoy talking about writing critical reviews, and I'm always happy to teach people the ways to do it. I'm thrilled when the lightbulb goes off and someone realizes critical reviews aren't negative reviews.

From personal experience, I can tell you I've had blog posts called out by other bloggers and by authors. People have written me some of the dirtiest emails you can imagine. People have written entire blog posts about my opinions, have called me things, have disagreed vehemently with every word I've written.

I put myself out there for that. When I get those posts sent my way or people email me something less-than-kind, I suck it up and make myself better for it. I don't post those things and I don't call people out by name. I don't openly criticize because I believe it does you no good to respond to sass with sass. You respond by being a critical listener and critical thinker.

Being classy is responding appropriately, no matter what the forum. Being classy is not firing off a blog post about it without thinking through everything and figuring out a way to state my opinion without devaluing or belittling the opinions of others. Being classy is giving myself room to cool off when someone tells me I have no idea what I'm talking about. Being classy is not diving into drama to create more of it.

Being classy is being critical.

Own what you do.

Doesn't matter what you do when it comes to blogging, but however you do it, do it knowing your name's attached. Do it knowing that people will remember things. Do it knowing you're doing it because you love and want to do it and not because it gets you something in the end. Don't do it thinking about whether what you're doing is new or cutting edge or different.

This is what we make of it. It can be a trash pit or it can be a community. But what do we get out of it if we treat it like junk? Nothing. Check your ego at the door.

Do it because it matters to you.

19 comments:

  1. Love this and agree with it. Especially the part about being classy and owning what you do! Great advice for newbie and veteran bloggers (AND authors... and... everybody, basically).

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  2. "Class never goes out of style" Sums it all up, really!

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  3. I really needed to read this, thank you. I am a new book blogger, and the sites I love are the ones that post critically. I tend to be much more self reflective than text reflective, and my baggage is all right there. I am not saying that is bad, that is kind of the point of my blog is to share what is working for me and my kids. But I do want to try harder to be more like the critical reviewers I love to read.

    Glad you shared your presentation with all of us in cyberspace!

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  4. Medea -- by NO means do you have to be completely objective. Sometimes writing a review and infusing it with your experiences makes for a rich review. The key is acknowledging that.

    There's no right or wrong way to do this. It's a matter of being respectful towards however anyone else chooses to do it.

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  5. Great post. I only review books I enjoy, but I also do so critically. No book is perfect. I like my readers to know what's up.

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  6. I always wish I were better at reviewing critically. Reading thought-provoking critical reviews is one of my favorite parts of blogging! Writing my own is something I'd like to more consciously work on.

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  7. Thanks for this. I struggle sometimes with writing critically (it's the people pleaser in me) but I know that, as a reader, the reviews that mean most to me are those that are honest. Not biting or harsh just for the sake of it, but well-balanced, considered and HONEST. I'm striving for that.

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  8. Wow, I wish I read more critically. Sometimes I think I just don't have the brain power to do good critical reviews. I really like your reviews though for just those reasons.

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  9. You make a good point about the difference between critical and negative. I'll have to keep that in mind with my teacher evaluations too. mpflory.blogspot.com

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  10. "Negative reviews are not supported by text. Negative reviews don't tell readers anything substantial about the book, but rather, about the reviewer. It's self reflective, rather than text reflective."

    I just wrote a post (to go up next week) that really is this quote in a nutshell. It just seems to me that sometimes -- like when I don't finish a book for some reason -- that a reader response to a book is what is called for. No, it's not a review, but I do think that the way I viscerally react to a book -- even if it is negatively -- is just as important as thinking critically as a book. (Just not for every review.)

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  11. @Dorine: And that's totally fine! As a blogger, you do it as you want to do it. That's the beauty. I read a handful of blogs that do only post about books they've enjoyed, but they do so critically. I love seeing where I agree or disagree and I can because I see what their arguments actually are.

    @Kate: It's something you get better at! The more you read, the more you pick up on the stuff worth talking about and the stuff not worth mentioning. It's a skill, and not one you get except through trying your hand at it again and again.

    @Mary: Honesty is the best way to do it. And if you really liked a book, no NEED to seek out anything contrary. Talk about why you liked it! I think people get caught up in worrying about pointing out problem areas in a book they really liked when it's not necessary. Being critical about what you like is just as important as being critical about what you didn't like.

    @Melissa: TY!

    @MP: It's a skill useful in every kind of task.

    @Melissa: I'll look forward to your post!

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  12. I love all of this with a fierce passion, but the part that I'd just about have tattooed on my arm is Own What You Do.

    Very good take on the topic. Thanks for doing it and doing it... critically.

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  13. Love this. When I write what I think is going to be a controversial post, I will sleep on it, and if I still want to share it the next day, it goes up.

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  14. Thanks for this great post, I really needed to read something like this.

    "Class never gets out of style" - so true! And of course this goes for all people, for authors and bloggers. Sometimes it's weird when people want others to act with class while they don't act that way themselves.

    I solely review the books I enjoyed reading and my audience knows that. Blogging about the great books I read is the way that brings me the most joy, so that's how I do it.

    Btw, I love reading critical reviews because they are often very insightful and give me a good impression of the book.

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  15. @Pam: Thanks!

    @Doret: It also helps to have people who you can turn to and ask to read things for you, too. Then you know whether you're on target or not.

    @Sabrina: Exactly re: class. It's a matter of conduct in all things. Also, nothing wrong in only reviewing books you enjoyed reading! A lot of people do the same thing.

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  16. Such thoughtful comments! I love the part about all the different types of blogs and everyone co-existing. I have blogs that I read professionally, with my librarian hat on, and I have some blogs that I read just as a reader. Some blogs fit both, and others I check in on periodically to catch an author interview or current library/literary news. All have their place.

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  17. What thoughtful ideas and clearly made after much reflection. I couldn't help but think...aren't these key points not just for blogging but for life? Thanks for giving me some reminders to think about as we start a new year and a new week.

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  18. Just adding to the chorus of kudos on this post. I really enjoyed your POV. It is so ... logical. I happen to enjoy honest, critical reviews more than others. Of course, if reviewers honestly like something that I as a chronic critic deem to be less-than-stellar, it can become difficult to distinguish between a dishonest promotor/encourager and an honest (if differing) opinion.

    In any case, lots to think about. Thank you!

    -Ed

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  19. I love this post! Love it! Sums up my feelings exactly, and gives me something to reference when I am talking and writing about books. Thanks!

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