The work of others, by Meredith Greene
September 28, 2011 | 11:42 am
An unexpected phenomena begins to occur once a writer signs on to be a book reviewer. Not at first, mind you, but around the mark of one’s first year at reading and rendering of opinions on prose, something almost magical takes place wherever one posts on the hills and dales of the vastly diverse Internet. No matter the forum, platform, group or board that a reviewer happens to be visiting, the writers thereon seem to sense the presence of a willing Other Eye and seize upon the opportunity to get their work ‘gandered’ at. What occurs next to the writer’s Inbox is a veritable flood of offered manuscripts, poetry volumes, short story collections and even just a few paragraphs of story ideas, accompanied with all the bonhomie and hope their owners can muster.
All possible feelings of flattery aside, these requests—to me–are like glowing buoys, bobbing on the surface of a midnight lake on a moonless night; each represents a possible piece of Literature… an elusive accomplishment that many writers strive for, one that—as both writer and reader–I hold in very high regard (and this despite my quasi-aversion to reading modern fiction.) Thus, just the idea that perhaps, maybe I might be reading the next great piece of writing keeps me looking through stacks of read requests, poems, paragraphs, articles, memoirs, dramatized historical accounts and essays searching for that one line that captures the eyes and imagination, compelling me to stop and read further.
However–as in all things upon terra firma–there is to reviewing an equal and decidedly-opposite reaction: the critique. One may not care for a piece, but some stories/novellas/poems twang such an off-tune chord with the reviewer that they feel it is their duty to “say something.” Critiques are, in of themselves, things which harbor many subtle levels, ranging from a mere line of sage advice on how to improve the piece in question all the way to a lengthy, blistering rant comprised of meticulous line-by-line criticism, the latter usually full to the brim of rather emotional, sometimes biased opinions. The two ends of the spectrum seem to be the most utilized by reviewers, but the most controversial end–the biased, ranting, opinionated end–seems to stir up the most laughter, ire, praise, reproach and flurries of comments.
Some time ago–I believe in excess of two years past—I was asked to review the first in a very popular YA novel series by a particular Facebook group, some young writers on Writerscafe and several fans on LiveJournal. Fiction, especially YA fiction, has no appeal to me, mostly because I’ve long outgrown it, but also my enjoyment of modern fiction has been somewhat lessened as of late. However, the requests for me to both read the book in question–and expound on the reasons why it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’–eventually swayed me to comply, not to much due to the number of inquiries into the matter, but more because the majority of requests were sent by young writers wanting to know how to avoid the glaring mistakes they were convinced were present in the piece. I bought a copy of the book (by then it had been regaled to the bargain bin at a local chain bookstore) and settled in to read, my pen poised over the topmost page of a blank notebook.
Oh, what havoc was wrought upon that notebook! The black marks and squiggled, written exclamations and torridly-disdainful notes marred it’s surface like a hurricane of ink and bias had ripped through the pages. My poor opinion of modern fiction was re-enforced so many times during the initial ten chapters that I shut the novel and refused to read further. After hunting down 148 fragmented sentences, poorly-concealed plot devices, hideous misuses of innocent thesaurus words and documenting several hundred imbecilic antics of the half-brained “heroine”, I simply could not believe this farce of a book had made it past a professional editors desk… nor that a modern woman had written it.
I vowed, then and there, to render my many opinions of the piece with an unstinting pen. What emerged was a nearly line-by-line literary critique of the book in question, posted freely in the groups which requested it in the first place. The fact that the book had been published by a large traditional publishing house at first surprised me and as I read on it served as more fuel for the proverbial fire in hand. I admit that I soothed my insulted brain by inserting many wryly humorous remarks at the heroine/writer’s expense, but I made—and still make—no apology for writing down my honest and full opinions on that piece, as well noting as the blatant psychological implications the writing revealed to the observant reader.
My fears that my critique–formulated with care over several months–would be received badly turned out to be completely unfounded. Certainly a few souls found what I’d written on their favorite book insulting but the majority of readers were tickled pink, and—to my delight—after reading they felt dully armed with knowledge and information as to WHY I felt the way I did about the writing I’d so willingly eviscerated. Reading the remarks and comments gave me such satisfaction that I was almost tempted to continue reading the novel… almost. One particular Facebook group responded with a heartening flood of keen observances–and some minor corrections–which, considering the prevailing age of the group, encouraged me highly that the next generation of emerging writers will come out with better prose.
Many readers of the critique rightly wrote that I’d inserted a great deal of my personal opinion into it, a thing I did not bother to deny. During its creation was I determined to give the Askers exactly what they’d requested… but, in all honesty, I was mostly spurred on to do so by the prose itself, and how it affected me. Folks that have read Woolfe’s expository, rather volatile remarks on Hemmingway’s work are already familiar with this idea, and are aware that it’s “OK” for writers to wax poetic on the work of others.
That allowance aside, I did not leave my critique writhing in the grip of Opinion. I spent a great deal of time re-writing 80% of the sentences I’d called out onto the carpet and then explained why the change was needed. This last feature was the piece’s most important one, being that the whole point was instructing young writers on what to avoid. The end result of this particular critique, my last of such length and work, was the creation of my most popular freelance piece to date: Top Ten Tips for Newbie Fiction Writers, a 17-page free writing course that has been posted and re-posted in many places around the Web and—I’m honored to report–has been utilized by thousands of budding writers, both foreign and domestic.