In my experience, capable, honest critics are hard to come by. All writers need thoughtful criticism, but it’s not easy to find.
My wife reads my material, and she often points out passages that could be improved. Mostly, she’s right. Occasionally, I’ll disagree with her, but her comments are always valuable.
One of my friends read the first few chapters of a novel I was writing with an existential theme. He found it ‘boring’, so I have set it aside for now. Interestingly, his wife was fascinated with my descriptions of college life at Notre Dame University. She said, ‘but you went to Yale. How do you know so much about Notre Dame?’ The answer to this question can be found in my post about Research. (There is also a passage about Cornell University in Sin & Contrition. My father went to Cornell and I have visited the campus several times as a child/teenager, but I had to research Cornell in depth to write that passage.)
Most friends who are asked to be critics, recognise that their feelings about a book are likely to be coloured by their preferences. Some people like war stories: others enjoy love stories. According to their preferences, they like a book or dislike it. But this preference may not distinguish good writing from bad writing.
There are, of course, lots of professional critics out there. They include literary agents and publishers. Of necessity, their most important criterion is: will this sell? Then they examine the quality of the writing. The decision ‘will this sell?’ is not as straight forward as one might think. We can all mention books that should never have been published, and some that were initially refused publication but which caught fire with the public when they appeared.
Similarly, a book reviewer has to consider what the subscribers to his/her newspaper like to read.
Perhaps academics have the least biased viewpoint. No commercial considerations are present to colour their judgement, and they can focus on the quality of the writing. But book publishing is a business, and, as a business, commercial decisions are essential. Besides, for the author, seeing his/her ‘creation’ published represents an important recognition.
It is very easy for a writer to produce less than perfect quality material. Before even considering ‘will this sell?’, there are many things that can go wrong:
- grammar and syntax errors (a good editor should catch these)
- spelling errors (ditto)
- excessive wordiness
- insufficient clarity
- stereotyped characters
- characters without credibility
- excessively complex plot
- plot is too simple to be interesting
- dialogue is stilted
- confusing sequence of events
- use of confusing language
A well-known American author wrote about a female character: ‘her pussy was like a baseball glove’. I thought ‘Whoa! What does that mean?’ Then it occurred to me that the writer was trying to use unique language to differentiate himself from the hoi polloi of writers. OK. But, still, what does it mean? Does it mean that the lady was leathery? had a pocket? was worn? was used to play a game? or something else? To me, ambiguous writing is not good writing, even if it is unique.
So, I seriously and sincerely invite the reader to comment on my blog and to criticise my novels. Because I’m still learning, you may find that I agree with you.