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On Reviewing

One of the reasons I decided to join the kidlitosphere was the fact that it is so full of conversation-starters. Today I had far too many tabs opened in my browser window, taken from links from other blogs’ entries. What should I write about? A theme emerged, and it’s one that has touched me in more aspects of my life than just reading:

Reviewing.

So the questions driving this conversation (see posts from Meg Rosoff, Kelly at Big A little a, Roger Sutton, Wendy Betts, and fusenumber8) are as follows:

To whom does the reviewer have responsibility?
Is it more awkward to write a negative review when there’s a likelihood of you running into the author?
Does writing only positive reviews violate a critic’s integrity?
Is the author-critic relationship necessarily adversarial?

I first encountered critics when I was 15 and working in community theatre. I received what I took to be a positive review. I thought, “I’m great! Reviews are cool! Critics love me! Yay!” When I was 17, a local theatre critic began to write about my school’s competition play. He hung around our rehearsals a lot and I, in awe of him, became a bit of a hanger-on myself. Over time we formed a real friendship, and I began to think of this critic as my ally. We lost touch for various reasons, but I ran into him again recently. I told him about my current production, and we conversed for a bit about the concept, and the particular strengths of the show’s director.

I made the mistake of mentioning this conversation within earshot of the director himself. I was telling a friend “So I ran into Theatre Critic the other day, and told him about the show…” A grimace came over the director’s face. I had forgotten that critics are The Enemy. We didn’t have any critics opening weekend, sadly. Even a bad review is press, you know.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking critic is the ideal job. You get to consume your media of choice and then write about it. How cool is that? Tester seemed like a cool job, too. So when I was in college, I got a job as a Video Game Tester. I thought this was bound to be exciting – I would get paid to play video games! Woohoo! The job description involved helping a marketing company decide which games to champion. It was quite the opposite. Being a Video Game Tester was the most boring job I’ve ever had, and probably the closest to being a professional critic that I’ll ever come. Whatever they threw my way, I had to play, and it was my responsibility to then evaluate the game honestly. How dull!

What I wanted to do, and what I’ve wanted to do each time I’ve considered a career as a critic, be it theatre, video game, or book, is share things I like with other people. That is not, however, what it actually means to be a critic. Critics have a responsibility to two groups: their readers and their employers. Both of these groups require critics give honest reviews, good or bad, and include the bad along with the good. That’s why I’m a blogger. As a blogger, I pick which books I will review. I still value honesty: I won’t write a good review of a bad book. But I’m not above sins of omission. I probably won’t write a review of a bad book at all. In fact, if the book hasn’t gripped me after 100 pages or so, I’ll just set it aside. I don’t think it would be fair to review a book I haven’t finished reading, and I don’t finish reading books that I don’t like. I don’t think this violates my integrity as a blogger, but if I were hired by a publication to review things and left some stuff out that would definitely be a problem.

Lastly, I like to think that the author-critic relationship doesn’t have to be adversarial. A critic can champion the works of someone who might be little-known for any number of reasons. I think this is when criticism is at its best: here’s something good, and here’s why. Still, it is important for professional critics to warn people away from things that aren’t so good; that makes them the author’s enemy.

The solution, of course, is to be a brilliant author.

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