criticism, intelligence, misunderstanding, reviews, writing

How Reviews SHOULD Be Done

Not too long ago I got a 2-star review about my novella Maybe the Dream Knows What is Real. It wasn’t the 2 stars that angered me; it was the reasoning behind it. Here is what the review said:

“REVIEW TITLE: You can’t blame everyone for everything…

Every so often I come across a story that I find hard to review, and this was one of them. The main character wasn’t likable, and I found it hard to empathize with his plight. He was written as an awkward kid short on friends who grows up to be cocky and opinionated. He blames everyone for how he turned out in life, taking little responsibility for himself. The story had some very graphic scenes, more than I found enjoyable, which is saying a lot since I spend most of my time reading horror stories.
The synopsis stated, ‘This is a story about the dangers of depending on others to give you a sense of self-worth, taken to the extreme.’ This is probably why the world is full of psychopaths and unbalanced people. To hinge your feelings and views on the world on the feedback of everyone you meet in your life can only lead to disappointment. To blame all past interactions as the reason for your current and future behavior is a problem and the situation the main character finds himself in. If you want a dark ride through the eyes of a crazy person this is the book for you, for me it didn’t hit the mark.”

Right off the bat, this reviewer shows he didn’t get the entire idea behind the story. He is critical of the main character for not being likable and not taking responsibility for himself.

Um…well…yeah, that was kind of the idea of the story. That is why the my synopsis says, “This is a story about the dangers of depending on others to give you a sense of self-worth.” He wasn’t meant to be likable.

In fact, I want to talk about this whole idea that main characters are always meant to be likable. It’s foolish, and it hasn’t been the case ever since the whole “anti-hero” motif came along. To base a review on whether or not you and the main character could be best buddies seems a bit odd to me.

That shouldn’t be what informs a review. What SHOULD inform are two simple questions: (1) What was the author trying to achieve? (2) Did they do that? I mean, can you imagine if every reviewer based reviews on whether or not they liked or could identify with the main character? Books like A Clockwork Orange and By Reason of Insanity would have nothing but 1- and 2-star reviews.

Look at it this way: I bet Roger Ebert was not a fan of every genre of every movie he was sent to see, and yet his reviews were not based on whether or not he liked horror movies. They weren’t based on whether or not he liked the characters. They were based on how well the filmmakers made their world believable. End of story. For example, if a movie was about a character who was insane, he didn’t give it 2 stars and say, “The main character was crazy, and I couldn’t identify with him.”

Thankfully, there are still some people understand this rule. They know how to look at the story without any personal biases. They know that depending on others for a sense of self-worth is the EXACT downfall of this main character, and they understand I’m not asking anyone to empathize or feel sorry for him.

I’m not sure if the majority of reviewers write like the quote above, or if they know how to separate those emotions. The jury is still out on that one. However, I am grateful for those who do.

 

criticism, lesson, life, music, universal, writing

Taking Criticism…When It Makes Sense

For some reason, this morning I woke up thinking about criticism and how I have gotten better at taking it. (Higher self-esteem can give you this ability.) However, the more I thought about this, the more I realized something: I have never really been BAD at taking it, but it has to mean something or else I can’t take it seriously.

This can make it seem like I can’t handle criticism. I remember telling a young woman I knew about a criticism a friend had of one of my stories, and she said, “Have you ever thought about taking people’s remarks as ways to make your story better instead of just being like, ‘Haha they’re so ignorant?'” To which I said, “Yes, I can…if it’s logical criticism.”

Let me explain the story in question, and you will see what I mean.

In this instance, I had asked a friend to read a script I’d written for a martial arts movie. (For the record, I called it Shaolin Secrets.) The story was about a half-American, half-Chinese martial arts star named Raymond Liu who gets drawn into some mysterious plot. I’m not going to explain the whole movie here; I gave you the very basics so that I could get to the part that drew criticism from my friend.

Raymond’s mother died when he was very young, which left him to be raised alone by his father. (His name: Jian.) Now some of you reading this might not know the history, but there was something that happened in Chinese history called the Sino-Japanese War. During this conflict, the Japanese committed many horrific war crimes; some people even refer to it as the “Asian Holocaust.” Jian lived through that and, as a result, developed a racist attitude toward the Japanese, which he passed on to Raymond.

You see, in most stories, the main character experiences some kind of growth by the end of the story. In this case, my intention was that Raymond would shed his racist attitude, and I had a way to do it that didn’t seem preachy/heavy-handed.

Then my friend got back to me with what he thought of the story. He liked the action sequences, liked the plot, liked the dialogue, liked the characters, but there was one thing he didn’t like.

What was that?

You guessed it.

The fact that Raymond was racist.

I asked why not, and he expressed a view about martial artists that has to be one of the most common myths out there. He said, “Well, it’s because he’s a serious martial artist, and most martial artists are enlightened, and they can rise above petty things like that.”

I said, “Really? So what about those martial artists that confronted Bruce Lee about teaching kung fu to whites and blacks? Or what about the Chinese guy who runs a school in Albany, who I’ve heard say disparaging things about the Japanese because he grew up through the Sino-Japanese War, just like Ray’s father?” (SIDE NOTE: I based Raymond’s racism on this real-life example.)

So when I passed my friend’s remark on to this other person, that is when she said I couldn’t take criticism. Incidentally, this same young lady was the source of another critique that I never took seriously because, again, it didn’t make sense.

At the time, I was in a band. This young lady and her boyfriend came to see one of my shows. When I saw her at work, I asked what they thought of our performance. She said the songs, lyrics, and my guitar playing were all good, but the singing fell short because I sang monotone. I asked what she meant by that, but she never explained it.

This is why I couldn’t take it seriously: I doubt she knew what the word meant. That sounds like I am mocking her, but think about it. If you went and saw a band where the lead vocalist sang “monotone,” then it would sound something like this:

I know for a fact I don’t sing like that. Near as I can tell, what she REALLY meant was that I didn’t sing with enough guts/passion, that I didn’t sound like I “meant” it, which is a criticism I’ve had of myself over the years. Still, that wasn’t the way it was communicated to me, so therefore the “criticism” was brushed aside.

In summary, I have no problem with criticism, but I don’t believe it should be taken blindly. Sometimes you might have knowledge of the subject being critiqued that the source of the remark doesn’t have that renders it meaningless. That doesn’t mean you can’t TAKE it; it just means it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Maybe most people reading this post are not writers or musicians. That’s fine because this idea of analyzing criticism can be applied to any part of life. Think about it: let’s say you buy some shoes that you think are the most stylish shoes ever made. You ask a friend what they think, and all they say is, “They’re ugly because they’re gray.”

Okay, well..maybe YOU like gray, so that is why, to you, they were awesome shoes. In my opinion, that would be a form of criticism that could be dismissed because it doesn’t hold up to close examination.

I always write my blogs with the intention of making what I say applicable to everyone, not just writers, musicians, and other artists. I bet you thought I was going to leave you folks out this time, huh? No, I’m going to always do my best to NEVER do that.

Until next time,

~~~Steve