Today I started my day writing a review of a novel for Goodreads. As I wrote, I began thinking about why we write reviews and critiques of books. What’s the true purpose of critical writing? It seems to me that depends on who your audience is.
If we’re writing a book review on Goodreads or Amazon or any other reader website, including the reviews I write on this blog, our intention is to help other readers decide whether they’ll enjoy the book enough to spend the money to buy it. In a good review (not necessarily a favorable review, but a well-written one), we give reasons for our opinions. It’s not enough to say, “I hated this book. It bored me to tears.” We have to tell why it bored us to tears. “It had no plot.” “The characters were one-dimensional.” Something. And a really good review is specific enough (remember our original purpose) that the reader can make a reasonably informed decision about the book, which may not match the reviewer’s opinion.
If we’re writing a critique for a writer about a work-in-progress, our intention should be to help the writer make the piece of writing better. Here again, success is in the details. It’s not very helpful to say, “This doesn’t work for me.” The writer wants to know why a particular scene or character doesn’t work and any suggestions we may have to make the piece work better. Making suggestions, however, means walking a narrow path between truly trying to improve the work at hand and trying to make it into another piece of art entirely. The tendency to want to rewrite the story crops up, too, in reviews we write for readers. We say things like “The father would have kicked the son out years earlier,” or “No wife would do that to her husband.” Well, in this story, the father didn’t and the wife did. If we don’t believe that a character would act a certain way, the problem is not with the character’s actions. The problem is that the writer didn’t set up the character well enough.
A third type of review or critique is written by scholars for other scholars. The purpose of this type of critical writing is to stimulate critical thinking, educate others about writing, and tell the reader how to read a piece of writing. Since most of us don’t deal with this kind of criticism on a regular basis, I’m not going to talk about it here.
I’m more concerned with critiquing for readers and for writers. As I thought about why we write reviews and critiques, I wondered how these reviews sometimes become so harsh and really snarky. Recently I read a review online that said something like “This was a horrible book, painfully targeted to the Oprah Book Club readers of the world and perfectly politically correct.” As a reader, I didn’t learn much about the book from that remark. I learned more about the critiquer. Apparently, the critiquer holds himself or herself above anybody who reads books selected by the Oprah Book Club since those books are horrible. And the critiquer also doesn’t care much for writers who go out of their way not to be offensive.
I think this is where we run into trouble when we write reviews and critiques. When we forget our purpose is to enlighten a potential reader or to improve a work-in-progress (as the writer intended it) and instead we strive to show how much we know, our critiques are no longer critiques. They’re sounding boards for us.