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evanjclark

evanjclark

Why We Need Critics

(Note: This was originally posted on the site Goodreads, where my usual blog is. It might be a bit prickly for a first introduction to Booklikes, but it's what I've got at the moment. Check back in the future for cheerier fare.)

 

 

We live in a time of spectacular literary achievement.

 

No, seriously. Think about the books you’ve read this year. How many were genre books? How many were literary? How many were somewhere in between? Go back through your list mentally. How many of those books did you read strictly as e-books? How many of those e-books even exist in print? Were any of them any good?

 

Unless you’ve had a seriously shitty reading year, probably a few of them were really good. Maybe one or two of them became your favorites. And at least one of those was likely self-published. I write that from the standpoint of someone who is self-published, and I assume if you’re reading this, you read things that authors with no agents have worked on alone, going through the steps and stages of drafting, editing, and polishing. The works they’ve released onto the digital market or perhaps gone through a company like CreateSpace to get a hardcopy. In short, they’ve done something that only a few years ago wouldn’t have been possible, save for through a pricey vanity press.

 

From a writer’s standpoint, that’s pretty damn neat. It’s exciting, the guarantee of absolutely having your work published and read, so long as you’re willing to put in the increasingly simple effort of going through the right channels and pushing the SUBMIT button. For a reader, this is also pretty exciting because there are all sorts of ideas bubbling to the literary surface now that might have previously had a hard time getting through the marketing process. A quick search online, on Goodreads or Booklikes, can render up a slew of brand-new talents ready to dazzle you with their beautiful, unconventional ideas. This also, of course, means that you’ll get a lot of people who have pushed the proper buttons without putting in all the work, but hey, when the technology is universal, results may vary, right? Right.

 

And then there are those people who aren’t quite readers, or more-than-readers, a new generation of book enthusiasts who love to talk about the written word and aren’t afraid to type out what they think in public forums. These are the kind of people who, once upon a time, would hang out in a bookstore with a cup of coffee in one hand and a notepad in the other, taking down lists of titles they need to examine and ready for conversation with anyone who happened to wander through their preferred section. The book geek, in other words. And in a society of geeks, the book geek is, perhaps, king. They predate film and the proliferation of recorded music. They have access to the information of the ages. And by God, they’re going to tell you about it. And that’s awesome.

 

However, somewhere along the lines, something odd has happened. A lot of would-be writers suddenly had the technology and time to become real-life authors, and the king book geeks started talking about their work, just like they had the works of Dickens, Tolkien, Twain, and Heinlein. And as always, they did it loudly, and a lot of people listened.

 

Suddenly, a lot of authors who’d pushed the magic button to publish started hearing things they hadn’t before. Some heard total strangers say how great their work was and is, but quite a few began to hear comments about format, syntax, spelling, plagiarism, sloppy plotting, and plain old bad taste. They heard these words from people who read a lot and who inform others (who perhaps don’t have the time or aptitude for such levels of reading, or maybe are just really busy and want some good advice on what won’t waste their precious hours,) and the new authors suddenly got very shaky. They decided that perhaps the vocal book geek wasn’t a fan, but an enemy.

 

Then they shoved said book geek into a corner and hung a sign on them with the dreaded word GATEKEEPER scrawled across it in red pen (red pen being the bane of all writers, that which haunts us from the days of Middle School Grammar, after all.)

 

And it was, well… disturbing.

 

As an author, I can sympathize with the impulse to create such a punitive label. Someone told us our work isn’t good enough, and by all that is holy, that hurts. As writers, we can’t help the urge to write, so we call it our natural purpose which therefore must be noble, because good people have noble purposes. Maybe someone said your book needed an editor, or that the plot could have used some tuning, or that *GASP* your mother was wrong and it isn’t the next Gatsby. Of course it hurts. And it should hurt. But responding by labelling the person who said it a publishing monster doesn’t aid our case. Don’t forget that the first thing any wronged individual does is try to make any and all people who resemble the object of their disdain categorically incorrect, and that gets us into all sorts of trouble. Like civil and world wars. And only bad people start world wars.

 

Okay, okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but authors wade in melodrama knee-high. That’s how we catch the big fish.

 

In any case, there are a few reasons why I’d like to talk about what we’ve done here. And it is us, the authors, who have done it, because we are the ones writing. An unwritten story does not get reviewed and does not draw any ire. It’s also the cowards way, and if we’ve been brave enough to actually write something down, we ought to be brave enough to hold it over the coals and see what burns off.

 

That would be the first reason, of course. Reading can serve as a purifier, for which we should be thankful. Of course, it would be far preferable to have readers tell us what they think before publication. That’s why we have betas and editors, to make sure our work is the best it can be. Yes, this process is hard, even excruciating at times, but so is not eating at McDonald’s every day, yet it is required so we don’t sink like a stone in the sea of life. Writing is easy, editing takes fucking discipline. That’s just the way of it. And if you don’t have the discipline to go through the wringer, don’t be surprised when the book geek calls you out on it. They know their material, and they can see which metal hasn’t been tested. That’s why the readers trust them.

 

Again, this is not the book geek’s fault, and it doesn’t mean we get to label them a gatekeeper. Actually, if you see the word ‘gatekeeper’ and get angry, I would suggest you stop writing now, for a couple reasons: 1) You need to work on that irrational anger, anyway, and you probably need some time to do it, and 2) Publication means ‘to make public.’ Literally. By self-publishing, bypassing said gatekeepers, you are making public your work without it having been touched by the eyes of people who might improve it. Those gatekeepers aren’t keeping you out of the spotlight. They’re protecting you from the reading community. They’re protecting your feelings and intentions, and unless you harden yourself and your craft, they’re not going to let you into the deep sea where the sharks are. The book geek will rip you to pieces if you don’t have your shit together, not out of malice but because the book geek actually LOVES TO READ and will determine which meals suit their tastes. If you’re not ready for that, the gatekeepers are there to keep you safe at home with the cuttlefish.

 

There’s a much bigger reason, though, not to crucify the book geek and it’s this: we are them. Most of us got into this game because we love stories more than we love air, and the non-writing critic is our brother or sister. We want to create, they want to read. This relationship should be symbiotic, but all too often, we don’t create well enough. We’re lazy, or we think our fragile ego is justified so we put out things that the book geek can’t stomach. This isn’t to say that everyone ought to love our writing, because they won’t and they shouldn’t. There are books I love that my wife hates and vice-versa, and that’s okay because we’re different people and you can’t please anyone all the time. But if the book geek calls you out on your sins because you thought you were above criticism, then you should be ashamed. You’ve done the worst possible thing, you’ve disrespected a fellow reader because you didn’t feel like following through on your promise.

 

Yes, you promised to make a good story the moment you put your fingers to the keys. If you’ve done that and the book geek still isn’t pleased, take a second look at your work. Don’t take it personally, but try to do better. And if one book geek loves your stuff, that’s all you need. There’s no reason to demonize the ones who don’t.

 

Perhaps this whole essay is unnecessary, as I’m sure many of those who read it agree. Or maybe they don’t agree and are irritated that I’ve said anything. What it comes down to is this: so what? I write because I have to and I read because I love to. I take advice from book geeks and I don’t always agree with them, just as they don’t always agree with me. It’s a happy life, and it’s too damn short to fight over art. Just keep making art and enjoying it, and let others do the same.

 

Who knows? They might make your work better.