Chatty Cathys

Criticism vs. Critique: Which do you do?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my blogging and the reviews I put out there for books. Generally, I think I write pretty fair, honest reviews.  I can count on one hand the reviews that I’ve written where my opinion of the book has been stellar. No matter my opinion of the book and/or its content, I try to include positive “Bonus Points” because let’s face it: no matter how bad a book is, there’s gotta be SOMETHING that you liked in it. (of course, this isn’t always true…)

My objective when I’m reviewing books is that I don’t want to completely poo-poo someone’s work. I know how hard people work on their books – hell, I know how hard I work on my own writing. I always try to keep in mind that this person (the writer) put in a good amount of time and effort to put forth this product. They made sacrifices to get it produced. Agents, editors, and publishers have also put forth a lot of work to put out this product for us to read. I feel that, for me, keeping this in mind helps me to write my reviews and blog posts, giving my respectful opinion of the author’s work.

Recently I’ve been getting requests from authors who have self-published their work, asking me to read and review it. Of course, I’m flattered that someone wants my opinion and help promoting their book, but what do you do when the book is, to put it gently, complete crap?

A while back, during my quest to send out my manuscript to agents, a friend asked me if I’d thought about self-publishing it. I’ll admit I had, but my opinion of self-publishing it this (and please know my opinion really means zilch outside of my own head): if no one is picking up your book there’s probably a reason no one is picking up your book. Do I know why I haven’t gotten a yes on my manuscript? Yeah… because it’s nearly complete crap – I say nearly because I have gotten some nibbles, but that’s besides the point.

So my question is this: when faced with a self-published book that you’ve been asked to review – and that you’ve agreed to review – what do you do when it’s no good? And I’m not talking about the plot isn’t your cup of tea or you don’t like the main character. I’m talking about grammatical and spelling errors; extremely weak plot or plot holes; flat, uninteresting characters. Do you criticize the work or do you critique it?

I had to look up the differences between these two words, criticism and critique, because, although I know their general definition, I feel like they’re used pretty interchangeably sometimes. The definitions are as follows:

Criticism: (1) the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything; (2) the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.

Critique: an article or essay criticizing  a literary or other work; detailed evaluation; review.

So in other words, criticism is the act of doing something while a critique is the practice of this act. Fine. Good to know. But here’s how I see it: criticism is pointing out the faults while a critique is the act of pointing out these faults and offering suggestions to improve.

I know, I know… that’s not really what our definitions tell us. But just go with me here. When we review books that have been traditionally published, we criticize it. Sometimes we can’t find faults, sometimes we can. But we point out the faults of a finished product – if you see a misspelled word, for example, it’s not as if you can shoot the author or publisher an email and say “Hey, on page 174 I noticed that boiling was spelled bowling.” I mean, you can but it isn’t as if they’re going to recall all books saying “Sorry! Tiny mistake. It’s the BOILING sun, not the BOWLING sun. Our bad!”

But when you get a self-published book from an author, and notice these mistakes, does our role as reviewers and bloggers change from criticizer to critiquer? Should we approach these books from a different angle, maybe offering constructive criticisms or critiques on how to improve? Or should we treat them as any other book and offer our honest opinions, even if our honest opinion is the book is complete crap?

As someone who gets nerdily excited over getting to edit things whenever I see books that need some serious editiorial help I have to fight the urge to yell “Give me that and a red pen!” and attack it viciously. I feel my struggle with reviewing self-published books is that I want these writers to be the best they can be and point out what needs to be improved upon, but as a blogger who has been asked to review their work, my opinion is “Well, you asked for you…”

So what are your thoughts on this subject? Does our role change or should we treat these books like any other? Do you get faced with this dilemma and, if so, how do you handle it?

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6 thoughts on “Criticism vs. Critique: Which do you do?”

  1. I know I go back and forth between the two. Sometimes I can’t figure out what it is that I don’t like about a chapter (“It’s really fuzzy about what’s going on here?”) and I’ll point it out in my review. If I can pinpoint what it is that I don’t like (“XXX is really under developed. If the author had spent a few more paragraphs on him I would have liked him more.”), I’ll point it out and offer what critique I can about how to make it “better.” I do it for both self/indie published and professional published books.

    It would be interesting if the author actually took what I said to heart but more than anything it’s for my fellow readers. I personally would like to know some of the flaws of a book before I start reading. If it’s full of spelling errors, I’d pass on it but if the biggest problem was underdeveloped characters, I’d give it a shot.

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    1. I agree that it would be interesting if the authors actually read the reviews and went back to work on their book, but I guess if they think it’s ready for review they’re probably thinking it’s done. I dunno. I guess as a perfectionist when it comes to writing before I give my work to someone I want to at least make sure there aren’t spelling and grammar mistakes. And also, if they think it’s ready for review and I give it a bad review, they should know it’s a possibility. Unfortunately (or fortunately) if you want to be a writer and publish your work, you’ve gotta develop a tough skin.

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  2. I feel like the role of the reviewer is always to critique, even for self-published novels. Grammar and spelling is an aspect of the novel, and if it isn’t well done then you are going to say that, but that doesn’t mean you have to point out every error or whatever.

    Reviewers aren’t betas. If someone wants my criticism/feedback on how to improve, then they need to come to me before they publish their book.

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  3. Honestly, this is perhaps the greatest reason I don’t accept self-published books for review. Sometimes some of them are so fraught with grammatical errors that reading them becomes a chore which definitely reflects on the review. I actually did once accept a review but I couldn’t read the novel so I emailed the author and apologised but *shrug* rather a DNF than a slamming of the novel in a review.

    That said, I understand what you are saying about keeping an author’s work in mind but that has nothing at all to do with the text itself. Maybe it’s because I take so many literature classes and deal with books in an academic setting but I don’t think the author’s great work is ever any consideration for me when writing a review. The book exists as its own universe (for me) and I will judge it based on what it contains and not the work the author did to realize it. (Wow, I sound cold hearted, don’t I?)

    That said, I think there’s a certain delicacy to writing a review. Of course there have been times when I have completely gone on a rant because the ideas expressed in the novel have enraged me (non-feminist, etc) but I think it imperative to attack the book and not the author.

    I wouldn’t want anyone to like my book simply because they like me as a person and knew how many hours I had spent up just rewriting the damn thing. 😀

    (Congratulations on the nibble, hope you land a fish soon!)

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  4. This is one I have tossed back and forth as well. I have not yet gotten one that I didn’t particularly care for or one that really was just poorly written, but I am sure that at some point, I will. I have done a lot of self-published authors, and their work is actually really good, but the bad ones seem to spoil the image for the rest of them. I am a writer myself, and have a few projects in the works, but they are nowhere near ready to meet a publisher yet, and it will be quite a while before they are. I will probably go the self publish route myself because I like the idea of having complete control of my work.

    Thanks for posting this, because it gives me something to really think about. I look at it this way. If they have come to me for a review, that is what they are going to get, and I make very clear that I will be as honest as possible. But I often wonder what I will do if I cannot find anything positive to say.

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  5. I have and still do review the occassional self-pubbed work but if it is work to read through the lack of editing then I don’t need to waste my time with trying to finish IMO. The TBR is stacked and growing too much as it is. I don’t have the capacity as some seem to to just ignore grammatical and spelling errors even if they are minor ones. A few I can deal with but even in reading traditionally published books I find myself struggling to stem that urge to grab a red pen all too often just to satisfy that internal editor who won’t shut it’s mouth till I’ve done something about the glaring issues. Granted that’s me but every so often if I have a copy that I don’t mind marking up or one that is to be discarded I do it just for myself if i don’t have a freelance project to satisfy those whims. If all else fails I do a mental markup as I read if there are errors that catch my eye or make notes on the side in a notebook that is for my eyes only other than general items I might address in a review but the specifics in my mind take up too much of the review realestate especially when dealing with grammar and mechanics.

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