Monday, March 25, 2013


The Passion of the Critic


Everybody wants their book reviewed. The problem is that hardly anybody knows the first thing about writing a review anymore let alone writing a book.

Let’s play stud poker, showing all cards face up one at a time.


I have a Masters of English degree with a focus on modern literature and my thesis was a creative, non-fiction travelogue piece that I wrote while backpacking through communist Poland in 1985 before the Berlin Wall came down. You can get the eBook version cheap at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Although I’ve sold quite a few copies, only one person reviewed it and gave it a two star rating, claiming that it was ‘too short’. Apparently, he didn’t bother to read the detailed description that said the print length version was only 64 pages long. Every intelligent person I know that read it said it was great, bucolic and resonated with multiple levels of meaning and, although the prose was simple, it was far from being simplistic. That’s if you know what I mean. But most people don’t.
Most of the reading population, if they graduated from high school, took no more English classes than was required of them besides the mandatory and dreaded, College Composition course which I’ve taught at several universities around the world during my twenty-five years as an educator. Now how are critically handicapped people able to evaluate a book on the market using lyrical and rhetorical devices better than those who have spent years studying literature? They can’t. That’s why you get nothing but plot summaries in most online reviews  peppered with clich√© phrases such as ‘page turner’, ‘likeable characters’, ‘couldn’t put it down’ or ‘lots of surprising plot twists’.

Hello? Excuse me but literary criticism used to be a bona-fide field of academic studies with its own set of clearly defined parameters, commonly shared vocabulary and reliance upon the knowledge of rhetorical devices like exposition, development, climax and denouement. I know, I know. I’m speaking in a foreign language again but it just so happens that I’ve also studied Spanish literature at the graduate level and am still certified to teach it at the high school level. Take a deep breath all of you monolingual readers and reviewers. Place your bets or fold. I’ve shown two aces already.

Next card.

I’ve talked to more than a hundred authors on my podcast blog, 2012writers (STILL) ALIVE. Some of them are famous worldwide and have been on the New York Times best seller list more than once. Others have not been so fortunate, but yet they write with passion and knowledge about their particular fields of expertise. One thing that they all have in common is that they like feedback, hopefully the positive and encouraging kind. So when some idiot with a computer and Internet connection gets online and reviews their work with bland comments such as ‘not worth the money’, ‘didn’t hold my interest’ or ‘waste of time’, I feel sorry not only for the author but more so for the “reviewer” who doesn’t know the semantic difference between lightning and a lightning bug, as Mark Twain once said.

Another ace on the table.

I was accepted into a PhD program at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and took several courses in advanced Linguistics, Composition and Literary Criticism before having to drop out for financial reasons and job demands. So I know just a little bit about language and its structure, history and usage. It’s amazing how many writers and reviewers today don’t, but like I said above, hook them up to a broadband signal and get tons of garbage upchucked online. That’s why I rarely write reviews or post them on Amazon,Goodreads (under my pen name, Conrad Johnson) or anymore. You just can’t be intelligently honest and write the slightest negative review, no matter how constructive in tone it is, without drawing the ire of keyboard pounding Neanderthals who resent the fact that you use vocabulary outside of their knowledge base. And I’m not about to waste my time arguing with idiots on forums that I don’t have complete control over.

Ace number four. Call or cop out.

I’m extremely secure in my knowledge of literature and quite a few other subjects and if you take the time to listen to some of my short podcast interviews, you’ll see that I don’t bore guests with script questions. I engage them astutely, based upon my research of their work and my own lifetime of experiences as a world traveler and lifelong reader, writer and teacher of language. All of my guests have enjoyed talking to me and I’ve gotten private and public praise from them that I deserve because I earned it along with their respect. Is that all the money you have? How much is that watch you’re wearing worth?

Last card. The kicker.

I’m a damn fine writer (so I've been told by many professionals) that has published several novels and written for various venues on the Internet but I don’t care to ‘toot my own horn’ much because the way the book marketplace is today. It sounds like a zillion vuvuzelas at a football match. The cacophony is deafening and that’s why many agents, publishers and reviewers are slamming their doors shut for some peace and quiet, including me. Sure, it’s nice to be recognized and, sure, it would be wonderful to sell a million copies of some pulp, pornographic thriller like E.L. James or James Patterson do, but until that day arrives for me (if it ever does), then I’ll just be satisfied with an intelligent response to my writing by someone like John D. Rachel who reviewed my recent novella, Jesus Told Me To Kill Her,  with marvelous precision and insight that the mockers and the envious loathe-- similar to the type of people who stood on the sidelines on that historical day when a  simple carpenter carried a cross to Golgotha and was spat upon and brutally attacked because he dared to speak honestly and intelligently about a subject that everyone in his nation could only grasp at the basest of levels.

Your deal.



  1. Such an excellent article by John BYK. I thoroughly enjoyed reading is informative insight into the reviewing process. There is much food for thought illustrated in this piece!

  2. You do present a dilemma for the writer here. Positive comments about a book on Amazon or Goodreads seem to be essential for selling books. Reviews in papers and magazines seem to be important for discoverability. So we as writers can add to our lists of barriers to sales, the breakdown in mass understanding of the role of the review. We also need to recognized that the book the reviewers love may not be speaking to the needs of the readers. So we shake our heads over the crazy best-sellers that somehow speak to some basic need in the reading public.

  3. John, there are two factors I see which culminate in the dearth of knowledge which might lead to perceptive and intellectually stimulating criticism: the shift of focus from well-written, intriguing, and maybe even sensitive writing to many-words-or-jolts-a-minute formulaic writing, and the attitude that any opinion is valid, no matter how misinformed it might be. As long as our western world keeps morphing school systems towards curricula of mostly maths and sciences at the expense of more literary pursuits, we will see fewer people who understand the well-written word. And the parents who abdicate their responsibilities by teaching their children that anything they say or do is right, no matter how ill-informed, those parents teach their offspring that opinion is what matters, not informed opinion.
    (Can you tell I'm an artsy person? With a bit of a bone to pick?)
    Thanks for the article.

  4. Hi John,

    First let me say that your evaluation of reviews has tons of truth in it and if I were to play my first card, depending on what trumps are, I would throw out my deuce and let you have the first hand. A book critic, in my opinion is well-read, has knowledge of history and literature, and has analyze human nature and comes to his or her own conclusions about life and mankind. Many critics don't know who they are so how can you expect them to examine a character or analyze the plot.

    Card number two, the problem with reviewing a book is that one should be able to analyze the movements within the book just as one can analyze the variations in Beethoven Ninth Symphony. Again, one can only analyze Beethoven's Ninth when one has listened to it, not superficially but with ears that have gained an understanding of the flow of the music and can feel the pure emotions of joy that explode throughout the different variations. In other words, in reviewing, the reviewer must have read some books from the classic. There is no way around learning the basics and the basics start with classical literature. Unfortunately many reviewers today do not know who Franz Klafta or Fyodor Dostoyevsky are. Analytical reading demands too much time.

    I know my classical literature, history, and psychology, and I am well traveled. I presently live on the European continent and have traveled throughout most of it as well as having traveled in much of the United States and Canada, and I am a voracious reader of non fiction and fiction. I review books but must admit that I am behind because I need time to examine and reflect about what I am reading. That reflection gives me the intuitive insight to write my review. It also means that I weigh what I read by comparing it with my own inner vision and my relationship with history and classical literature.

    I will not go into card three and four. I hear what you are saying, and I stand behind the fact that you have uttered truths that need to be addressed in the literary world. However, as long as we do this surface type of reading, the type of reviews you wish to see will seldom come, which in my opinion, gives reviewers like myself an advantage plus and puts us a notch above others.

    Thanks for being truthful, and if you have to carry the cross for telling the truth, here is one lady that will help you carry it.


  5. Poignantly interesting! I enjoyed reading about literary criticism from an expert.

  6. I wish you'd review "Pieces of You," John! That's the best feedback I can offer: I'd trust you to give an honest, helpful review of my novel. Even though I, too, have taught English Comp and some other writing courses, and even though I try to dig deeper than a summary of what I read, I know that I'm not skilled enough to make apt comparisons to literary giants and literary devices. But I am in awe of those who can! And I am frustrated that most of the best-sellers are not books I'd wish to be linked with.

    Thank you for continuing to carry the torch to illuminate the road less traveled.

  7. I read your blog with interest and a good deal of sympathy, but I have to say that, though raised in academia, I never fell in love with literary criticism. Mostly, I regret the chasm that has opened between "literary" and "ordinary" readers (and critics) and don't buy that it is between smart and dumb. Readers who say "I only read X" or "Y" as though they might be struck dead if they venture outside of their box make me impatient, as do those who review them. But there is an audience of readers that love a good story and read on more than one level though they may not have the training to identify them. They fall into neither camp, but respond to depth--I truly believe that and think of those readers when I write.

  8. John, Your article was well-written and thoughtful. But your poker hand's another story. I think you're bluffing. I'm going all in.

    Yes, the literary critic is dead; Praise Jesus and pass the strong coffee! Not only do lengthy windbag reviews of my books bore me, they bore the average reader, too--and those average readers rarely, if ever, finish reading them.

    I appreciate you don't want non-credential reviewers dissecting and commenting on your works--sometimes to the author's detriment (I get it. Sometimes you want to scream at your laptop "but he's not even qualified!") The FNG's (F'ing New Guys), a.k.a. "blog reviewers" may not have all the fancy book learnin' you and I do. They probably aren't sporting MFA degrees, their blogs are often sick with typos and poorly-written opinions, and their reviews often fail to nail the more literary aspects and devices of a great work. Blah, blah, blah.

    Here's how I filled in my Ace-high straight: There are plenty of readers out there who live to devour books. They may not know a character arc from a merry-go-round, but they know what they like. In my fortunate experience, these reviewers manage to express what they like/dislike, in a succinct manner that their followers understand--and actually read. I believe those are the people who are buying our books. I believe those are the people for whom I write.

    Ready to fold?

  9. Dear John, Literary Criticism is something I hold in high esteem as an academic prowess of my Liberal Arts formation (B.A. in English and Spanish, M.A. in Spanish through Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain and St. Louis, MO), and it comes as no surprise that you would maintain your precious literary standards in your writing career. I hope you never sacrifice for the sake of mainstream mediocrity. After all, you are a literary leader by virtue of your solitary standing in the world of academia; and as such, it behooves people like you to raise the bar and set new standards that mark our time for the sake of posterity. Alas, it is lonely at the top.

  10. Thank you John for your most interesting perspective, not to mention the creative manner in which it was conveyed. I think perhaps that at the very least the 'thinking reader' has the ability to penetrate beyond the poorly-opined review to formulate their own opinion on a given work - and that perhaps the 'peek inside' option might be used to good effect to supplement the brief generic plot summary provided? I share your frustrations, and have every sympathy for the laboring author meaninglessly-maligned. I suppose at the end of the day we are gambling are we not? Compiling our cards and laying them on the table with all accompanying tension. So the best we can do is write the best most polished prose we can muster, perhaps ask trusted sources for some fair, honest and thoughtful reviews and hope that they counteract the opposite. I enjoyed your article very much and would be most interested in perusing your work, thank you for the link.

  11. Dear friends, John will reply to your comments on Sunday, before this post goes down. It's part of his poker-game approach. In the meantime, he has told me that your deep, committed, and very intelligent contributions have enhanced his article.

  12. Well, John and Shari, I'm so sorry that it's lonely at the top for you. John, your treatise on what a review should be is accurate, except that the requisite for writing is always changing. I am a book reviewer for one very eclectic group and for another more moderate one. The first one trained me to review writing using a strict criterior that must be met. There can be no 'I' in the review, present tense used at all times,an essay style short summary, critgue of the author's talents or lack thereof; and they insist upon something negative in the review based upon the fact that no writing is perfect.This can be handled constructively and even made to sound like a compliment. I do hate to slam another writer's work. That said, neither Amazon or the writers want these reviews. They want the gushy ones you mentioned in your article.For the most part Amazon does not have professional reviews--they have customer comments. Bad reviews don't sell Amazon's books. I've written over 50 reviews for Amazon alone with half drawing customer comments saying my review helped make their choice in selection. Authors need both the glitzy Amazon review and the professional review, one to draw buyers, the other for promotion in reaching recognition as a decent writer with a good book. I will review for friends on Amazon, but I'm going back to writing the true review, which is a piece of literature in itself when handled properly.

    That said, I have no college, except for two courses at The Writer's Digest School, mentored by a fairly well known writer and screenwriter. Yet with my poor education, I have managed to maintain a 25 year career as a freelance journalist for several newspapers, staff writer for an award-winning biweekly newspaper, publish an assortment of short stories in all genre's, except screenwriting, win contests and write a non-fiction family book, winning the silver Nesta CBC award for excellence in writing that changes the world. I do take umbrage at your underlying attitude suggesting that only the higher educated have the tools to be decent writers. In that regard, I'm calling your hand.

  13. John, you post some valid points here and I understand your outrage at the ripple effect of inane comments on a serious writer's hard word. A principal advice to anyone considering to become an author is to develop a thick skin. In the times of the classics and rather weightier literature, a reviewer took the time to expound on the merits and the flaws of a novel, with the purpose of justifying his conclusion. Reviews were not only a measure of the author but also a measure of the said critic's credentials. However, we live in a time of "Likes", "tweets" and knee-jerk reactions whereby individuals feel entitled to sum up their views in as few words as possible without the need to substantiate them.

    Though literary critics are few and far between, they are out there. Much like literary authors, they may have been pushed into a shrinking niche. One can only hope for discerning readers who, aware of the state of the publishing world today, shrug off vapid comments in favour of reaching their own conclusion.

  14. A great article. You need to teach these critics how to write.