Reviews and other Lies
February 6, 2012
Any writer who has attended a critique group has seen it happen.
The time comes to read, and an author takes his latest piece of timeless prose in his hand, cradles it like a newborn child. As he reads, he pauses from time to time to allow the brilliance of his work to sink into the thick skulls of his listeners. He emphasizes the crucial clauses, play-acts the different characters in sections of dialogue.
When he finishes, he looks around the room while he waits for the applause.
Two members of the group suddenly feel the need to relieve themselves, one picks up his Blackberry and announces that his wife has a dire emergency at home, and he must excuse himself. The remaining members look at their hands, shuffle their own pages, check their watches.
One brave soul breaks the silence.
“I thought you did a good job describing the beer belly on the fat policeman,” he says.
“Yeah, that reminded me of my uncle,” another adds.
“And the yellow vomit in the bathroom was a nice touch,” the sole remaining liar says.
“The vomit is a big clue about the poisoned bananas you will learn about in the next chapter,” the reader says. “I already wrote that part. It’s in my briefcase. Do you want me to go get it?”
The designated emcee raises his hand, palm toward the reader.
“We would love to hear it, but you probably need to let the suspense build until next meeting. We still have a couple of people who haven’t had their turns.”
“OK. That will give me some time to edit and polish it like I did these,” the reader says as he folds his pages and clutches them in his hands like a church member holding a Bible.
The truth is that everyone in the group knew those pages sucked. Some would say the members had only two choices: lie or tell the guy his writing was crap.
But there were bigger issues at play. A few accurate, though sharp, words could have deflated the writer’s balloon, not just for the evening, but maybe for the rest of his life. They might have been enough to get him to put his pen down and never take it up again. Those same words could have ended friendships years in the making.
What is the place of lies in the fellowship of writers?
This issue usually comes to a head in the context of book reviews.
The reviewer reads something that he just doesn’t like. Does he spout venom, attack the work, berate the writer? Does he give it one star, and just say the book stinks?
Some believe that is the only “honest” way to go at it.
But, there is a third way. For sure, authors do each other a favor by not pulling their punches. But reviewers can deliver the bad news directly, not parade it on the world’s stage.
The central characteristic of the new writing paradigm is accessibility. Authors can find each other, exchange emails, retweet blogs. There is a collegiality about this new world, and writers need not destroy it with vicious criticism. The reviewer can email the writer a list of his concerns. He can simply not review the book.
Or to put it another way, he can treat his fellow author as he would want the writer to treat him if the shoe were on the other foot.
(Written for The Writers Collection to the prompt “lies.”)