I have been looking deeper into a couple of sites, reading peer reviews of other people’s writings, and one thing I have noticed is the wide range of critical standards applied. Not to put too fine a point on it, some peer criticism sucks. More than a few times this week, I have shaken my head over rank bad reviewing. In certain cases, if the writer was to follow the guidance given they would be heading in entirely the wrong direction – despoiling, not improving their work.
As well as specifically bad advice, there is reviewing of a non-specific negative sort which must surely knock a writer’s self-confidence, perhaps persuade them to give up altogether. (Hey, I’ve written negative reviews too, but I try hard to be specific, and for an inexperienced writer always aim to find something constructive and encouraging to say). One contributor to a writing forum I subscribe to has suggested that some negative reviewing is driven by jealousy. Perhaps in other cases there is a factor of territorial supremacy; as Gore Vial has said, It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
The opposite problem to the negative review is what I would call the non-critical gush (Brilliant... They’d be mad not to publish... I gave it five stars...) and I have discovered this to be more prevalent than the negative stuff. It seems to me there are three possible sources of non-critical gush:
1. The indiscriminate. Some readers cannot really tell the difference between good writing and bad, so they gush to be on the safe side.
2. Family and friends. They stand by their man, or woman. Such puffery is even more common for reviews of published work (most notoriously, customer reviews on Amazon) than for unpublished material.
3. Scratch-my-backers. I have witnessed this happening openly on forums set up around the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and on other competition sites that rely partly on peer voting. Even where it is not openly stated that one person’s good review will be reciprocated, there hangs an unspoken threat that if you are perceived to be trashing someone’s work you are likely to get trashed in return.
It seems to me that the most sensible way to deal with the vagaries of peer review is to take everything in the round. Try not to be carried away by a couple of great responses to your work, or cast down by a couple of negative ones. Rather, what is the aggregate? Also, while everyone’s opinion counts (we may not all be critics, but most of us are readers/potential customers) look very carefully at the quality of these reviews and, frankly, take more notice of those reviewers who seem to know how to string some words together themselves, and who have something detailed and specific to say. Also, when submitting parts of your work for peer review, choose something that you have specific issues with, some hypothesis that you want to test out.
Which brings me to my personal example. As regular readers of this blog may know, I have been working for a while on a historical novel, Mr Stephenson’s Regret. I submitted the third draft of the novel to this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and managed to get to the semi-final, which I was pleased about, but privately I have not been entirely happy with this version of the novel, and even during the judging process have been working on a revision. Specifically, it has been my feeling that the reader does not get close enough to my central character, Robert Stephenson. For the new version I switched to first person, making Robert not just the central character but the narrator of the story. This device has helped me bring Robert much closer, more intimate, but the downside has been losing some flexibility in point of view, and some logistic problems in telling necessary parts of the story where Robert was either not present or too young to be a credible narrator.
A week or three ago I decided to put the opening chapters of the new version to the test of a peer review with the specific objective of checking these factors out. I uploaded the opening chapters to a site called YouWriteOn.com. The way this site works is that you accept a reading assignment for someone else’s work, sent to you randomly, and receive a reading credit when you have written a review, so that your work is then sent randomly to another member for review. I like the ‘blind’ nature of this system, and think it’s fair that you should have to put some work in to get your own work reviewed.
I have been delighted by the reviews of the sample, not just because they were generally favourable, but because a couple of them specifically picked up on the points I was trying to test around the strength of the central character and the POV logistics. As a result of the experiment, I have decided to return to the original third person structure of the novel, but to apply what I have learned in writing the first person version to my revision of the work. Without constructive peer review I might never have got to that point, and might not have been re-energised to take the task on, as I’ve just given myself a few more months’ hard labour.