It can be tough to be a critic. Publishers and authors alike appreciate positive reviews but do not often deserve them, and writing adverse reviews can lead to a great deal of hostility, including attempts by writers to enlist bullying by supporters, or even threatened lawsuits for the way that a negative review can hurt sales. Even places like amazon.com routinely discriminate against critics who don’t tow the same party line that they do by making it impossible for them to post reviews, lest they praise the “wrong” products and lower the ratings of what the website wants to promote. But sometimes, even if being a critic can be rather irritating, there is something worthwhile about it that can actually help the creative process of others, and those are the days that make it worthwhile to be a critic because it can provide a sense of encouragement when one can read and see something that a writer is seeking to convey.
Over the past few years I have become familiar with a very obscure genre of writing in a part of the world I have never visited through reading Belfast noir by a particular author. A few times this particular author has shared my reviews, or parts of them, with his circle of online acquaintances and social media followers. Obviously, such reviews were positive, and frequently very detailed and analytical, as is my general approach to writing. But such reviews were deserved, and it is interesting that when an early reader and reviewer of a book sees in the book what an author is trying to accomplish that it can greatly encourage and inspire a writer who is struggling with dealing with the editing process. This is a struggle I can relate to, because the editing process is an irritating one to me as well, made more so when the readers do not apparently understand what is going on in a work. Editing, like reviewing, is somewhat of a negative art, where one points out what is wrong but tends to lack the ability to create a work of equal stature, because if one wanted to do so, one would have to go through the act of creating something rather than critiquing it and finding it wanting.
Often it would be easy to see reviewers and editors on the same side. There are some reasons why this would often be so. At least traditionally, book reviews have been a part of the world of publishing in either newspapers or magazines or online formats where the act of reviewing a book is seen as part of an overall effort to systematically understand what is going on in a given field and to evaluate it. Yet there are frequently situations where writers and reviewers are on the same side, and even occasions where readers and editors would be on the same side. To the extent that reviewers have to depend on editors to have their work published, they are in the position of writers often irritated by the demands of editors who frequently (at least in my experience) contradict themselves in what they want and show themselves frequently unable to convey what it is they want a work to look like. That said, strong editing can make a work better and can ease the process of reading and make for more positive reviews. A good edit cannot make a misguided work better if its thesis and perspective are faulty, but it can make a work cleaner to read and easier to appreciate with an absence of spelling and grammatical errors and a better flow to the reading. And that should count for something, it must be admitted.
Still, there is something to appreciate in critique. As is the case with most people, I greatly prefer being on the side of giving criticism than receiving it. In general, I find it awkward and unpleasant to get feedback at all, be it positive or negative. I’m not sure what it says about me that I work hard to be both honest and kind (though sometimes I succeed better at one than the other) when it comes to reviewing and critiquing others but tend not to greatly appreciate either positive or negative feedback from others. People should have at least some respect for others involved in the same trade as their own, after all, and the fact that I do not tend to feel this is something that occasionally bothers me. It would be a lot easier to praise criticism in general if I had more positive feelings for my peers, but while I appreciate expressing my thoughts either as original works or as commentary upon the works of others, it does not appear that I appreciate reciprocity in this regard. Hopefully that is something that will change, at some point.