I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and with certain review-based scandals doing the rounds, now’s as good a time as any to get it off my chest. (Brace yourselves.)
I’ve spoken a bit about criticism and dealing with it before, but from what I’ve seen recently, we’re becoming an even meaner world, and that’s filtering through in many places, especially in reviews. The thing is, it’s hard to know what to say when critiquing writing. I always swear by the ‘compliment sandwich’, but generally the rule is ‘don’t be a dick’.
And so we get to That Nadiya Review.
Plenty of people have already commented on the race side of it, so I won’t throw my hat into that ring much. But what stood out for me is the sneering snootiness that pervades the piece. The tone is very much sour grapes, as Ceilidh has pointed out at Bibliodaze. Nadiya is ‘greedy’ for writing a novel. She’s destined for success at every literary festival, says an author with, presumably, a coterie of agents and publicists doing the same for her. She’s single-handedly responsible for snatching books from poor Little Johnny’s hands and shutting his library. And what’s the one thing that’s missing from the review? If you said ‘actual, constructive criticism about the book’s contents’, you’re CORRECT.
Now, ‘chick lit’ isn’t generally my cup of tea, but even so, if I wrote a review I’d be polite about it. Lord knows, trying to get published is already a struggle without pissing all over the ladder other authors are trying to climb. Being mean-spirited and snobby about other writers isn’t only a bad look, it loses you a potential reader of your own work. Something a few folk writing reviews in major newspapers could do with learning, incidentally.
By the way, I don’t write this as a way of fishing for nice reviews. In fact, I have a one-star review for my stories, and while it’s mean and not super-constructive, I’m not responding, because authors should never do this. A lesson that Ms. Colgan might learn, when she’s not leaving one-star reviews for authors because they have a similar name to her. Really. Step away from the laptop, have a cup of tea, just CHILL.
(Aside: it’s quite telling that the writers leaping to Colgan’s defence are all white and pretty well-off themselves. Just saying.)
As the late, great Terry Wogan once said, ‘they either love you or they don’t’, but that’s no excuse for being a dick. If you already have the privilege of being published, having a book deal, and the support of the folk who count, it’s on you to keep the literary world open, friendly, and inclusive, and not turn into some arseholish gatekeeper of What Must Be Published. I’m immensely grateful to the local successful writers I know (whose names I won’t mention), with whom I’d happily have a pint and whose opinions and advice on this I value highly. More importantly, they’re not dicks.
Bringing a mean attitude to lit crit helps nobody, and by the way, unkind non-constructive words at the wrong time can knock out creativity for weeks. So don’t fucking do it. That goes double for the ‘establishment’, where only prize-winning lit-fic is acceptable. (Don’t worry, supernatural YA fans. The chances of me ever writing lit-fic are about as high as picking up a Jenny Colgan book now, to be frank.)
I’d like to see more of the useful comments, like, say, ‘Some of the dialogue needs a bit of work’ or the perennial rejection letter favourite, ‘I just didn’t fall in love with the story as much as I’d have liked.’ And I’d like to see less of ‘I can’t find anything nice to say about this’ (this was about my work), or (a review of someone else’s book) ‘Although the cover tells us that the author has a Distinction in Creative Writing, it seems like she missed the lesson on “Show, Not Tell”.’
Maybe you’re having an off day. Perhaps the kids are acting up, or your wife just left you, or you just polished off a bottle of wine and are feeling rancorous. Know what? I don’t give a shimmering fuck. When you step up to give your feedback, you put a professional hat on or else zip it.
If reviewers like Ms. Colgan want to help fellow writers, they can start by overhauling the way they grind personal axes in public. Plain and simple. Let’s up our game a bit, guys. The world’s a shitty enough place at the moment as it is.