Armchair Critics: A Snarky, But Useful Post About Criticism

by Jennifer Grant

Shortly after its release, I bought movie tickets online and took a carload of kids to see The Hunger Games. Later that night, I received an email message from the ticket website. The subject read: “How did you like The Hunger Games? RATE and REVIEW!”

I’d liked it very much, actually. When Katniss took her sister’s place for the games, I was moved. (Greater love has no one than this…) I found the costumes and sets stunning. My heart pounded as she fought for her life. And, best of all, the story’s cultural commentary engaged (and disturbed) me deeply. But, I didn’t respond to the email.

You see, I knew that none of these comments would advance conversation about the movie. I hadn’t attended it with a critic’s carefully trained eye. I was just a regular movie goer, distracted when my daughter slipped out of the theater to get her ICEE refilled and when the person behind me kicked the back of my chair. I didn’t take the movie as seriously as did those who made it and so I withheld my comments.

On that one site alone, however, more than 20,000 people responded with their assessments of The Hunger Games. (That’s 200 times the number of reviews by professional critics that are linked to the site.) Whereas Roger Ebert commented that “The Hunger Games is an effective entertainment but leapfrogs obvious questions in its path, and avoids the opportunities sci-fi provides for social criticism,” from those 20,000 fan reviews, we get gems such as:

  • “The movie did an OK job of interpreting the book”
  • “With it being 30 minutes too long it dragged out. It did have good suspense”
  • “The acting was, I guess, alright, wasn’t the best, and if you seen it before, I’m pretty sure you could say that they could have done at least a better job.”

and

  • “I was surprised by how Romanticky the movie was. My 10 year old son hated it and kept complaining he was bored threw out its 2 hr 22 min run time.”

Um, okay then.

Now I’m not saying there’s no place for expressing our opinions about a movie or a book. But as a society, we have become obsessed with blurting our opinions online without even considering what is our criterion for excellence. What makes something “good”?Collectively, we forget that real criticism is, actually, an art.

Ebert, for example, has written about film for 45 years and was the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work. (I’m willing to bet that he’s never used the word “Romanticky” in any of his reviews.)

So what does all of this have to do with writing, and particularly my writing? Well, like all published authors in our current climate, I’ve winced, sighed, and skimmed over hundreds of “reviews” of my books.

Many readers express opinions about the subject matter, but never consider the book as representative of a genre. (Is it a memoir? Is it creative nonfiction? Let’s talk!) Many don’t identify the arc of the story. Few comment on the whether the language is compelling. Of course, I want to know if readers connect with my books and truly appreciate knowing when readers make personal connections to my work, but sometimes, it’s a bit disappointing to click on a review and find a carelessly blurted opinion or a review that is more about the “reviewer” than the book he or she read.

For example, one reviewer of MOMumental who gave the book four (of five) stars states that she finds the book entertaining “overall,” but that there are “too many family stories.” I sigh, calling to mind the line in the book’s introduction that states: “This book, then, is just stories about family life and how I’ve come to appreciate the mess of it.” By telling lots of family stories, I’m keeping my end of the deal.

Another three (of five) star review of the book was written by a person who admits to being neither a parent nor “a chick.” It begins, “Despite reading this whole book from cover to cover, I can honestly say that Jennifer Grant has not made me want to be a mother.” (I suppose that’s for the best.) A few paragraphs later, he writes:

“In a sense, this book reminds me a lot of the James Herriot novels (not that she’s quite that caliber a writer) in that she takes what is clearly a trying, messy, and grey-hair-inducing job and talks about it in a way that is simply delightful.”

Why thank you! And thank you for considering the work within the context of other literature. (And I truly love All Creatures Great and Small and Herriot’s other work.)

But then the sky darkens and my reviewer asserts that the book contains “false doctrine” and that I literally worship and idolize my children. This goes on for several hundred words. (Wait – wasn’t it you who just said that the book is about a “trying” and “messy” job?) After spending almost all of my life practicing my craft, my work is important to me; I want it to be excellent. I hope it starts conversations, breaks down barriers, and affirms other people’s experiences. And I hope that I will continue to grow as a writer and that my work will be more engaging, more concise, more true the more I write.

Now, what does this have to do with you? If you’re a blogger or commenter who reviews books, pause before writing your next review and decide on your criteria. Ask questions such as: Is the writing clear and concise? Is the author’s voice engaging? Is the prose unique? Does the writer paint pictures with her words? What are the author’s greatest gifts as a writer? (Plot? Dialog? Use of figurative language?) What are her weaknesses? (Uneven or slow pacing? Predictable use of language?) Does it feel true?

 What other criteria could you use to judge a book or other piece of art?

Here are three very different (and effective) reviews of my second book, MOMumental.

  • See how Redbud writer Ellen Painter Dollar’s take on MOMumental includes considering it within the context of other parenting books.
  • The Englewood Review of Books also recently published a review of my book that is specific and names an aspect of the book which the reviewer finds wanting.
  • If you haven’t got time to write a formal review of a book, but want to share it with your blog readers, consider posting a “top five” quotes list about it. This feature in The Christian Science Monitor did just that.
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7 Responses to Armchair Critics: A Snarky, But Useful Post About Criticism

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful take. As an author published by a small press, I’ve only received a handful of reviews by “real” reviewers, like the Christian Century and the (wonderful) review Ellen Painter Dollar wrote for Englewood Review of Books. With a very small ad budget and only a handful of review copies to pass around, I’ve had to do an exhausting amount of jumping up and down to get the word out. Accordingly, I’m more dependent on the reviews published via Amazon, GoodReads, and independent blogs. For the most part I’ve been happy with them. With one harsh exception, they have been overwhelmingly positive and well-written. I do totally cringe over one phrase that comes up often: “This is a really personal book.” Well, yes, it’s a MEMOIR. :)

  2. Jen,
    Love this! Excellent points. The internet and this little comment box have made it so easy for each of us to just fire off opinions, without really running them through the filter of say, logic, let alone spell-check. As a result, we have a lot of noise, but not much being said.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Katherine and Keri. Glad you connected with the post. (And, Katherine, how shocking, a personal memoir?!)

  4. Jeannie says:

    I loved this post! My thoughts:

    I hate it when people say literally when they mean figuratively. I literally tear my hair out when that happens. This has happened frequently threw out my life.

    My favourite reviews are the ones that say “This book was so boring I only read five pages [but am prepared to review it confidently with no knowledge of the other 295 ].”

    Yes, the expression “everybody’s a critic” has new meaning in our Internet age. Literally.

  5. Jennifer, Thanks for these helpful questions you include at the end. Would that more people read this post and stop to consider what exactly they’re saying and why it matters before they spew their opinions all over the ether :)

  6. dianne says:

    A good book review is so much more than mere opinion. I find it frustrating when I’m reading reviews that will influence my purchase and so many of them are poorly written, argumentative, off-topic or unfairly critical. Honestly, I don’t even think people understand the purpose of writing reviews!

    What Keri said – lots of noise, but not much being said – resonated with me. As one who professes to love writing, I want to do more than just add to the noise. I pray the words of Aaron Shust’s song . . . “let my words be few” will be true in my life.

  7. Great post, Jennifer. As I prepare to review a novel for the first time, I especially appreciate the questions that you offered as guidance. Thank you for offering those. I’ll be applying them soon.

    So…how about that chapter on the “messy art” of balancing work and family??? Perhaps it will inspire a sequel to MOMumental?? You can count on me as a reader…and a reviewer! :)

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