Everyone (And I Do Mean EVERYONE) Is A Critic
Updated: Jan 29
In 1936, Orson Welles directed a production of Macbeth with an all-Black cast, transposing the Scottish setting to the Caribbean. Voodoo took the place of Celtic witchcraft, and Welles even brought in some professional African voodoo drummers as extras for authenticity’s sake. The production was largely well-received, except for one scathing review that left Welles fuming. When the drummer asked if the theater critic was a bad man, Welles replied all critics were indeed, very, very bad men. The drummer stuck pins in a voodoo doll and the critic suddenly and unexpectedly died soon afterwards.
Anyone who has an idealistic view, therefore, about a genteel and kindly relationship between critics and artists in the past is sadly deluded. I have to say, even if some of Dorothy Parker’s famous criticism is very funny--“It is that word 'hunny,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up”—not all of it really is really fair, given she was hardly the target audience for many of the works she reviewed as a journalist. Oh, and a lot of the critics of traditionally published criticism were, let’s say, somewhat indisposed when writing and watching, and proudly so.
Today, of course, everyone can be a critic. The days of professional critics being able to sink or salvage a work are dead, although that may have been overstated, anyway, given that the critics famously hated Les Miz when it first came out. But a big bonus of online self-publishing and blogging is that that readers who might not otherwise have had a voice in the traditionally published insular world of criticism and journalism—the young, the nonwhite, the poor, the untraditionally educated—can offer their perspective.
The downside, however, is the always-permeable barrier between critics and writers is now pretty much nonexistent. Readers can go to Twitter and tweet REVIEWS ARE FOR READERS NOT AUTHORS but that hasn’t stopped authors actually stalking ordinary, nonprofessional critics who give them bad reviews, and even getting book deals out of it. Unless someone actually tips into illegal behavior, there is no Internet police of reviews, except occasionally baffling content moderation, which isn’t much of a deterrent, because it can be so arbitrary.
There has certainly been bad behavior on both sides. Authors have called racists, simply because they have created fictional characters who express terrible views, and readers struggle between separating authorial and character POV. Readers have written thoughtful pieces about the titles of books that might be appropriate for a university-wide common read, and had all of romance-landia set upon them because *gasp* they suggested in an editorial in a student-produced online publication that a fun, beachy read might not be the best selection.
I can understand why readers feel as if they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. On one hand, writers beg people to write reviews. On the other hand, even authors who don’t go into full-on stalking mode will often take to social media and even anonymously complain about reviews they thought were unfair, which can make it pretty easy to find the offending person. And it can be shocking, the first review you get with just an AGHHHHH NOT FOR ME and a 1*. Still, complaining about bad reviews (regardless of content) just discourages readers writing reviews at all, for fear they will be judged not positive enough.
But to some extent (very gently) I do think it is a bit unrealistic when reviewers complain that their reviews are only for themselves and their friends. It’s not that it is ethical for authors to comment on reviews—it IS NOT—but if someone wants to be 100% anonymous, truthfully, it’s better to track one’s reading using something safely offline, or private only to friends. I'm not saying this is right or fair, but alas, fair or not, reviewers should be aware that writers do read reviews (bad and good), regardless if they comment upon them, just as when you give your email away to a company to get a 25% discount, you know you'll have to deal with some spam comments--it's not right, but the sad way of the Internet world.
Ultimately, there is also always the question of the power dynamic at play. I truly question the sanity as well as the ethics of one of the few authors blessed enough to make a comfortable living writing novels who visciously target teenage content creators on YouTube or Twitter. On the other hand, when book reviewers have gained massive platforms themselves, I shudder when they go all-out, bare-fisted brawling against relatively obscure genre texts that offend some slight sensibility or fandom canon.
There is also additional confusion because so many reviewers approach reviewing in such different ways. Personally, I think it’s a poor idea to view reviews as a source of market research or use them to “teach” you how to write, but some reviewers seem to phrase their reviews more in editorial than critical terms, offering advice for revisions or the next book.
I can’t police reviews, of course, nor should I be able to do so, but I guess, at best, I can ask for greater self-awareness on the part of authors and reviewers alike. Ultimately, like it or not, writing is a form of communication, whether in the form of a review or a book. As an author, you can’t force people to read or positively review your book (although some bullying authors certainly will act as though they wish they could). As a reviewer, you’re allowed to offer as good or bad a review (or a rating) as you see fit in a public forum, but since you’re putting it out there, perhaps take a moment or two to reflect upon why you feel the way you do, and why other readers need to hear it. Extend a little grace and if you have a massive platform and are squashing a tiny author like a bug, reflect on whether you need to do it, just like if you’re a well-known author, ask yourself if the best use of your writing time is to personally reply to every critic on Twitter or Goodreads.
I realize, of course, that by writing about reviews, I open my own books up to some wit posting a 1* review with a JUST BECAUSE I CAN DIDN’T READ BOOK BUT REVIEWS ARE FOR READERS. Sigh. But don’t worry, I don’t have Welles’s voodoo drummer on speed dial.