Harsh but fair: The art of criticism

Linda Burgess, writer, reviewer and once a teacher

You’ve been asked to write a review. Should be easy enough – after all, you just loved the book. You’ve loved it enough to tell several of your friends to read it. Possibly, not one of your friends asked you why you actually liked it. They trust your opinion so have no need to. I haven’t been an English teacher for quite a while now, but I’m guessing that when you write about books you’ve studied in class, you’re more likely to be asked to discuss the message of the book or the characters in the book than to say whether or not it worked for you.

Broadly speaking, a review is asking you to say what there is about a book that works, and what there is that doesn’t. You are being asked for your opinion. This does not mean to say that you should pepper your review with “I think” or “In my opinion”. If you’re writing it, then the reader should be able to safely assume that it’s what you think. If it’s not what you truly think, why on earth are you saying it?

I’ve found that it can be easier to review something – a book, a television programme or a film- if you don’t much like it. Sadly, it’s easier to be witheringly sarcastic about something than to praise it. After all – how many ways are there to say something is fantastic? If you do love it, you have to work out why. It might be as simple as saying that you found the characters totally believable. If the writer – often old enough to be your parent, or even your grandparent – gets a character your age completely credible, then that’s quite an achievement. When they get them wrong, then i’s as embarrassing as your parents talking to your friends in what they assume is your sort of language. If the story has captured you because it’s sad, then you should look to see if it is also sentimental. People who write advertisements use sentimental situations – kittens, babies, little acts of random kindness – because they want you to get a lump in your throat, then buy their product. Writers should have done more than this – they should have made you genuinely care. You are not clicking “like” on Facebook. You are not buying a chocolate bar. Has the writer got the relationships between characters right? Some good things, some bad things? People are complicated. Friendship can be complicated. You have to keep saying to yourself that you are setting out to show your reader not that you liked something, but why you did. Every reader, every reviewer, comes to a book with their own baggage. You might like a book mainly because it was about a situation that you have recently gone through, or are going through now. You will only have liked it if you felt the book got it right. You might not like it next year, when time has passed. This is not an issue; if you keep a journal or a diary you already know that you can read yourself in the past and feel surprised or even embarrassed. You are writing about you reading this book now.

So, what if you don’t like a book? You have an added dilemma here. These days, because of ease of communications, you have to assume the person who wrote the book may well read your review. A few years ago I wrote a review about a television programme with Ricky Gervais in it, which the newspaper I was writing for posted on their website. As it happened, I liked it (I don’t like everything he does). Within a day or two, he blogged “They like me in New Zealand!” I had a mixed reaction – I was flattered, I guess, that he’d read it but, on another level, it sort of bothered me that he cared. Of course he did: he’s a performer. Like a lot of other people, he must have been spending time on Google, happily searching for references to himself. (Hmm – I wonder if he’ll read this?)

While you might think that a writer couldn’t care less about what a year 11 student from Taranaki thinks about them, then think again. Of course they do. They’re a writer. I have written reviews of highly esteemed New Zealand writers, reviews which I consider favourable, but with one or two things that I consider could have been done better, only to have a strong reaction from the writer. One reaction is to pointedly turn away from me the next time we meet; another is to be over-friendly, to show that they’re not that small minded. I’m embarrassed to admit that, 20 years after publishing several novels, I still remember the harsh comments, and who said them. The praise is far less memorable.

The thing is, though, I never mind criticism if it’s fair. Criticism is not fair is when it contains personal attack. You should be able to say, for example, that you feel that WWI is an unsuitable topic for children’s picture books. I said this recently in New Zealand Review of Books Pukapuka Aotearoa.  I have a five-year-old grand-daughter and, for many reasons, I do not want to read her stories about WWI. I feel she is too young. Not only am I averse to traumatising her, but I know that she cannot identify with death on battlefields. I do not want her to imagine her house being bombed, or her brother being shot. She is very lucky to be living in New Zealand, where this is very unlikely to happen. But I know why people are writing these books: we are “celebrating” – for want of a better word – that war’s centenary. Many of those books are very well-written; I am not implying the writer is hopeless. I just don’t like the subject matter for very young readers. For readers your age? Yes, that’s something you need to know about.

So, when you don’t like a book, how do you say it? You try to balance what you haven’t liked with what you have. You never get personal – you’re probably best not to say, “This writer is far too old to write about people my age; they’ve got it completely wrong.” But you can say, “The characters in this novel speak as if they were living last century.” And then give examples. You can say, “Even though this novel is set in modern-day New Zealand, there was little about the setting that resounded with me.” You can say, “I did not recognise the setting of this novel – it’s not a New Zealand I know,  but it was so well described that I believed in it.” An author has the job of making you feel as if you know the people and places that they’re writing about, even if they’re totally foreign to you. Their job is, after all, to capture your imagination.

While you’re not in the business of polishing a writer’s ego, you are in the business of making a valid, well-considered point. If an author has captured your attention, got you interested in their characters, got you believing in the situation they’ve created, then what they’ve done is their job. And if you’re a critic, it’s your job to work out the extent to which they’ve succeeded. Reviewing is not easy, but it is good for your brain. Enjoy it.

Linda’s favourite New Zealand book is Fiona Farrell’s The Villa at the Edge of the Empire.

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