Saturday, February 21, 2009

Spirit of Generosity

"The purpose of a book review is to show that you are smarter than the person who wrote the book."
- an unnamed professor of my acquaintance

This week, I have been unable to avoid the subject of book reviews: my writing workshop is spending the week on Criticism and another of my professors spent part of our fortnightly meeting informing us of his philosophy regarding reviews (noted above).

I enjoy a good mauling as much as the next person, but I was somewhat horrified to hear my professor tell us that he not only saw it as his duty to rip apart books sent to him for review, but that he saves up one-liners to deploy against hapless victims whose books are not even written yet. What good does that do? I suppose his reviews are fun to read (certainly moreso than his other prose), but why not deliver criticism in a spirit of generosity? No book is perfect and most are far from it, but I quake at the prospect of sending a well-researched, painstakingly-written manuscript out into the world knowing that there are reviewers who will delight in its faults.

On the other hand, I don't like timidity in reviewers. My peers in my writing workshop are a bit too wishy-washy so far (except A, bless her opinionated little heart). When I spend ten hours writing and revising a thousand-word essay, I want them to spend at least 20 minutes marking it up and commenting. Last week, I handed back manuscripts covered in comments, suggestions, and edits, but received mostly blank copies of my own work. If they don't put a little more effort in this week, I won't bother taking so many pains in writing for them.

Perhaps I'm just hard to please. I want tough criticism of my work, but not for toughness' own sake. I try to give what hope to receive — thorough, fair comments based on the quality of the ideas and the writing, expressed respectfully, and offered in the spirit of colleagial cooperation. Too naive?

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