Literary consultants, manuscript developers, editors and critics, all, as part of their jobs, need to give feedback to authors in order to ensure their book is appropriate, clear and consistent, amongst other things. As they point out areas of an author’s work that could be improved, their thoughts can be received as criticism, though that’s not what the feedback is ever intended to be.
I recently gave a critique on a book that had been written by an older author – let’s call him Bob. Bob had been an avid reader and occasional editor in his career. I read the book carefully, making notes as I went along, then I produced a critique that summarised what worked in the storyline, as well as pointing out the areas I felt needed more thought – they mainly involved the credibility of the plot/premise and any parts that could confuse the reader.
On receipt, Bob went into an angry spin. ‘People have loved my book,’ he stated, ‘family and friends think it’s great.’
‘I never commented on whether I enjoyed it, Bob, I just brought what I see as issues with the story to your attention. And I am an objective opinion.’ This point sailed over his head.
‘You can’t have read it right,' he said. 'On page whatever, it explains so-and-so….’
‘It does, some of the time – you’re right. But these explanations appear many pages down the line, a long time after each question initially appears. Readers should have enough information at each point in the story to not be confused as to what’s happening.’
‘Anyone else who’s read it got every part – no one has said they’re confused.’
‘Are these the same family and friends?’
After more wrangling along the same lines, I wished Bob well, realising that my critique was redundant. What I really, really wanted to say was: ‘Not one friend or family member will be fully objective, because they care about you. Even I, as the critic, care about you. But given that I’ve never met you, and therefore have no preconceptions, opinion or investment into you as a person, I have only evaluated the story for other strangers who haven’t met you either, i.e. your real audience.’
He felt hurt that I’d ‘attacked’ his story. I felt confused because he’d asked for my opinion, but on receiving it, didn’t want it. I also felt disappointed I wasn’t able to help him further.
It wasn’t that I didn’t understand his reaction: I’ve been there, and I’ve had to learn to accept criticism, because I finally figured out that I’d never improve as a writer until I did so. And neither do I believe my opinion is absolute – every reader’s opinion is valid. However, if I’d felt confused with Bob’s story at some points, the chances are, more people would do so, too – ones that would have no hesitation in judging the work because Bob could be Santa Claus for all they care. And it’s these people who have the power to make or break his book. His family or friends will always be biased, and therefore, their opinion is flawed.
The opinion of an objective reader who's free to say, ‘I love it!’ or, ‘I can’t believe I’ve wasted my time actually absorbing those words,’ is the most important thing on Earth to an author. Essentially, authors shouldn’t write to please me, or their family, or their friends. They should write to please their audience, if they hope to make a career of their writing.
Maybe Bob only wanted to write for his own pleasure, but then why had he asked (and paid for) my thoughts? Shouldn’t that be even more reason to take on board feedback, rather than dismiss it instantly? Otherwise, why did he bother?
Whatever Bob’s motivation was, I just felt sad at the wasted opportunity – wasted in the sense that he could have at least attempted to see his book from the readers’ point of view, and not just his own. It didn’t mean agreeing with me, I just thought he'd investigate what was in the prose that caused me to flag something up – an opportunity to dissect the words he’d used and the scene he’d crafted.
A reaction of this kind can sometimes come across as arrogance: a first-time author expecting that the first book they’ve ever written is perfect – and that it holds no elements that could be improved. It’s like me picking up a paintbrush, and after having no formal instruction, expecting that I’d produce a masterpiece, worthy of hanging in a gallery amongst those who have studied, practised and improved for years. Natural talent (not that I have any as an artist – I can’t even draw convincing stick men!) only gets you so far, whether you’re a singer, a composer, an illustrator, a film-maker…or an author. The rest is honing, of which feedback is a part.
Resistance to this natural process doesn’t move anyone further along, unfortunately.