What’s the difference between review, critique and criticism?

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In the ever-changing, digital world of books and writing, we pour new wine into old wine skins.

That is to say we use words about the book business that have been around a long time, but we give them new meanings.

Take the words review, critique and criticism.

Let’s start with review.

What the hell is a review?

In the old days only professional reviewers produced reviews because they were the only people who had access to the media, the only somebodies who had an audience.

Those days are long gone.

Now the most common thing that bears the name review is a customer, i.e., a reader, review on Amazon. These pieces are usually three or four sentences offering a  reader’s reaction to a book. “Couldn’t put it down,” or “This book sucks.”

To be sure, social media has spawned a zillion book bloggers. They are the re-incarnation of the old guard of reviewers with the difference that they build their own readership.

Writers crave reviews. They are one of the most important aspects of the book business and matter on a lot of levels to any writer who hopes to develop a fan base or experience steady sales. The primary importance of reviews, and especially customer reviews, is that they demonstrate that people are reading the book and that it has touched them enough that they want to say something about it.

The next topic is critique.

A critique is as far from a review as the Dallas Cowboys are from a new Super Bowl ring.

The initial difference is that a critique is aimed at a work in progress, not a completed manuscript, and certainly not a book that is available for purchase.

The second difference is the perpetrator.

Critiques come from members of critique groups.

In other words, a writer receives a critique when she submits a snippet of her work to a critique group expecting input from them.

That’s right.

Critique is like a person asking to be flogged.


She cannot complain about the cat o’ nine tails.

Another thing about critique is that the perpetrators of the flogging should be serious writers.  By serious I simply mean that they are students of the writing craft as well as writers themselves.  Critique is not an academic pursuit.  It is writers sharing their thoughts about the work of a fellow writer, in hopes that the writer will consider their observations.

That’s all.  Consider them.  No one should ask for a critique of his work if he isn’t willing to accept the critique and learn from it.

That doesn’t mean he will modify a single sentence.

Although he is probably a fool if he doesn’t.

The subject of the critique is not a reader’s reaction to the work, but rather writers pointing out structural issues about the writing.

Finally is the concept of criticism.

Here’s where things get messy.

The word criticism means one thing to a person on the street and another to literary critics.

In common parlance “to criticize” means to say something negative.

In the high-brow, academic literary world “criticism” is a horse of a different color.

I first encountered literary criticism in my twenties when I was a seminary student. It was in the context of biblical criticism, a subset of literary criticism.

Biblical criticism has nothing to do with saying negative things about the Bible.

Rather it is a scholarly discipline that attempts to place a text in its historical context and study it in light of the various literary themes and techniques of the time.

literary critics

Literary criticism of contemporary works does the same thing.

“This book  stands in the pulp fiction tradition associated with the writings of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, et al.” Or, “It purports to be noir, but it noirn’t.”

I just made up the word noirn’t by the way, which is the best part of this whole blog. I plan to use it at least once a week for the rest of my life.

Back to criticism.

The thing about the new world of digital is that some people take the common meaning of criticism, i.e., to say something negative, and disguise it as shade tree literary criticism.

It is easy to take pot shots at books.

If a reader does it, an author takes it to heart and worries about it.

If a critique group does it, an author takes a hard look at the words on the page with a view toward improving his work.

If a shade tree literary critic does it, an author says, “She can get back to me when she finishes her first book.”






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