What'll It Be? A Review or Criticism?

You’ve written a wonderful book. You know it’s wonderful because all your friends, relatives, and even your in-laws tell you it’s wonderful. Now…if only they could get the word out to millions, or at least thousands, of readers you would have something even more wonderful—a successful word of mouth campaign. Forget advertising, publicists, critics, reviewers, and paid review services; you’ll save lots of cash just on the books you would have sent out for review, and then there are all those fee$ you wouldn’t be paying.

So much for fantasy. Is it a safe assumption that the majority of independently-published books are written by authors who also self-promote and do not have huge (more than $35) advertising budgets? Using the works offered and submitted to me for review as evidence, it is not only a safe assumption, it’s a sure bet. How does the independent compete in a literary world where celebrity authors are promoted by established publishing houses with million-dollar ad campaigns?

One way is to get your work into the hands of as many reviewers and critics as possible (to save money, you should always ask before sending out a book. The reviewer isn’t committing to review, he or she is committing to read and consider reviewing. Sometimes reviewers find they can’t review a book because they do not feel qualified to review the subject matter, or the book is so badly written that any review would be a cruel disservice).  Before choosing whom you wish to review your work, it’s important to know the difference between a book reviewer and a literary critic.

Most of what appears on the internet, in magazines, and in newspapers is review. Someone reads a book, gives a brief rundown of its plot, comments on outstanding features (such as characters or atmosphere) and style, and advises the review reader whether—in the reviewer’s opinion—it’s worth reading. Reviews are largely subjective. Anyone can write one because the reviewer need not be an expert or a student of literary theory. Reviews come from the id. Professional reviews come from the belly.

In Jeremy M. Barker’s October 7, 2012, essay comparing and contrasting criticism and review for NYTIMES.com’s Room for Debate, he defines criticism as “thoughtful work that explores cultural endeavors and grapples with history, trends, ideas, formal developments in the arts and the relationship of the arts to the broader culture.” Literary criticism is academic and should be objective. Critics are expected to have an understanding of literary theory and a background that qualifies them as experts. Their opinions are not “I liked this because…” but based on a broader, historical and social context in which all works form the foundation of the criticism. Literary criticism is not only opinion about the book being considered, but also its place as a piece of literature. While subjectivity is expected, opinions are backed up by sources and references.

As a reviewer who sometimes threatens to write a book, I’d recommend reviews over literary criticism – not because I have anything to gain through this recommendation, but because reviews generally reach a larger audience than literary criticism, and reviews are more appealing to mass audiences who aren’t interested in literary theory, but in a referral. When reading a review, I am not just evaluating the title that is being reviewed, but the review itself, particularly whether the reviewer and I share common expectations. Another advantage is that reviews do not hold books to the same standards as literary criticism, which is not to suggest that your wonderful book is anything less than wonderful. But … do you really want your contemporary thriller compared and contrasted to “the great works of modern literature”?





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