When you read a book that you don’t like, how comfortable do you feel in criticizing the writer’s abilities in a public forum? I don’t mean in what you tell your best friend who is thinking about reading the book, but in what you put down in your blogs or in a review on Amazon. Once upon a time I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. When Lin Carter was still alive I was perfectly comfortable in referring to him as a hack. I have even been known to criticize the characters of one currently famous author, whose name I won’t mention except to say that it’s Stephen King, as being stereotypical.
I don’t feel the same way anymore. As a writer myself, I now know how much it hurts to get criticism on something you worked very hard on. And I can see how comfortable most people are with giving out such criticism. Writers, like actors and politicians, are public figures, and the public can be rabid in expressing their like or dislike. But writers, and even actors and politicians, are also people. They have feelings, and most of them are probably trying their best even if their best isn’t very good.
I find these days that I tend either to avoid criticism of living writers (dead writers are another story), or I leave out the names and focus on the writing problems themselves. For example, I won’t review a book on Amazon that I don’t care for, even though I read plenty that aren’t very good. If I mention a writing problem in my Illuminata column I usually leave out the writer’s name.
Sometimes I wonder if this is not cowardice. Shouldn’t I speak the brutal truth and let the chips fall where they may? Well, I don’t think of myself as a coward, and here’s why. If I’m writing a review that I’m paid for, I tell the honest truth as I see it, and I don’t pull punches although I may seek for wording that is less than brutal. However, no one is forcing me to accept review assignments of material that I don’t like. So, I find that I turn down assignments that would require me to really blast a writer’s ineptitude. When it comes to Amazon reviews, which are unpaid, then I figure I can do whatever I damn well please. And in my own column I can choose to leave out an author’s name if I want as long as I don’t cheat my readers of the “lesson” to be learned in the column.
Finally, of course, criticism is merely an opinion. Too often I have found myself loving a book that a friend of mine hated, or hating one that he or she loved. Criticism can be informed or uninformed, but it can’t be “right” or “wrong” in any objective sense. Was Hemingway a better writer than Faulkner? Is Stephen King better than Anne Rice? It depends on who you ask. And Steve (I call him, Steve), I’m sorry I criticized your characters once upon a time. I’m sure you worked hard on them.