From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: the minefield of peer criticism

(Readers please note: For the purpose of this exploration, ‘reader’ should be taken to refer to a more or less literate human being, not a technological device.)

For the last four years, I’ve been conducting a psychological study. It began with my need, having left a weekly writers’ group, for critical feedback, then over time became intriguing for its own sake. I refer to my participation in a writers’ website.

Unlike my erstwhile writers’ group, the site hasn’t met a social need (as it apparently does for some). It has, however, exposed me to thousands of writers who lack reading skills. If this were true of all the members, I’d be wasting my energy. To get a critique, you spend a credit earned by completing a reading assignment. The system assigns these randomly and if one doesn’t suit, you can remove it, but if you decline six at once, you have to wait 24 hours for another six. And so most members end up reading work that’s not their ‘cup of tea’.

Part of my unofficial research on this website has involved uploading a range of my short stories and novel extracts, none of which conform to popular norms or genre conventions. And close analysis of several hundred samples of feedback from strangers diverse in age, gender, nationality, class and profession, has confirmed the warnings of experts: most readers read to find out what happens next. What’s more, they’ll often turn hostile if finding out demands too much effort. Most readers like to be spoonfed. Yet those rare readers who can hold the tension of not knowing where a narrative’s going are more likely to learn (and create) something new.

An example of a widely held taboo is the use of second person, due to the effort it forces readers to exert. If you were an average type of reader and I was to use that point of view now, you might get confused or pissed off. Let’s find out…

A few of you, while not averse to finding out ‘what happens next’, know that any writer can string you along by creating and maintaining suspense. So it’s not the only, or even the main, reason a story appeals to you. Unlike most readers, you want more than escapism. To quote one uncommon reader (who demands that a piece of writing meet their aesthetic standards as well as jibe with their morality), fiction is ‘an emotional entertainment’. (What might be meant by ‘entertain’? 1. to hold the attention of agreeably; divert; amuse. 2. to receive as a guest, especially at one’s table; to show hospitality to. 3. to give admittance or reception to.)

And entertainment is what most of you want – characters (company) you like (or, if not, public dishonour for those which offend your values). A passive lot, you want the author (host) to flatter, not test, your intelligence. Most of you are loath to leave your comfort zones; you want stories (amusements) that you recognise. As David Foster Wallace says, more or less, re the psychology of reading/advertising, in a long tale of geologic slowness, ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’, you’re willing to buy only what represents what you already believe.

Thanks for bearing with me, whether you’re rare, average, or somewhere in between. What happens next, if you’re still here, is I compare a few samples of feedback from peers.

1) ‘Characters in a short story … should jump from the pages quickly and with some force. These don’t. Reading about them was a chore. … The story itself was confusing. … Narrative voice – I didn’t get a sense of anything from the narrative.’

This reviewer was DOA. Note the formula for how to introduce short-story characters. Instant gratification for minimal effort is expected. The unfamiliar causes confusion. This is a reader with a low threshold of tolerance for ambiguity. Hasty reading produced a hasty review of 150 words.

2) ‘On the second reading, I realised… On reflection, I felt… I couldn’t decide, for instance…’

This reviewer made an effort to engage with the assignment, isn’t afraid to make mistakes, and takes time to explore ambiguities. They were the only reviewer of 20 who spotted a plot inconsistency. The review was longer than average, at 400+ words.

By now you might be thinking that I can’t take criticism. And sometimes a truly hostile review can give me pause, I’ll admit. But it’s not that simple. Take this one:

3) ‘As this is definitely not airport fiction, you have a serious problem: that your reader will have more of a clue than you of what you are writing about. … The authorial voice sticks its nose in again and again till I wanted to gag it [the opposite response to that of a mentor who once took me on – proof for me that sometimes a random stranger can be of more use than, say, some professional you (or Oz Council) have paid]. … The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the real problem with this writing is the authorial voice. If you gagged it and just let the story flow, it could work really well. … Damn that voice: it is better suited to an essay than a novel. But for the essay to work, you would need to understand your subject matter better. … We instinctively understand more about things that [sic] we are capable of putting down in an essay and that, precisely, is what all art, writing included, is about: saying the things that can’t be said in an essay. … “That men have no idea of what goes on in women’s heads, either, might point to fear disguised as lack of interest….” this is a generalization, yet you state it as a fact. Let me correct you. Men who successfully seduce women are very instinctive about what goes on in a woman’s head; they “know”, otherwise they wouldn’t get into their knickers like the rest of the masturbating majority. / Generalizations alienate a reader who is more perceptive than the author. Be careful of them (generalizations, not perceptive readers).’

Whatever one might think of reviewer #3’s attitude, they bothered to write 1800+ words, citing ample examples. Clearly they aren’t afraid to risk giving offence by voicing strong opinions. And this is the kind of review that can make a difference. When the time came for a rewrite, I knew in my gut that this was the sole review (of the 17 I’d received) worth consulting. Some had been glowing, thankfully; most writers need encouragement to keep going. And luckily review #3 was detailed yet comprehensive enough to make up for the vagueness of the others’ reservations.

Of reviewers #1, #2 and #3, whose fiction would you be most inclined to read?

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