As some of you know, I'm part of a twelve-strong novel critique group. It's an incredible learning experience, both to receive critique on a finished novel, and to offer it on someone else's.
It's difficult, sometimes, though, to identify what is 'wrong' with a piece, as opposed to what is simply not going down too well with my own personal tastes. Take this latest novel: I'm struggling to read it, right near the beginning, completely turned off. I can give reasons, but are they valid in any sense other than 'I don't like this'?
The work in question has a patchwork quality to the presentation, the scenes are only loosely connected, and the 'story' follows different characters with lots of backstory and summary in relation to each. After fifty pages, I don't know who the focus is supposed to be on, or even if there's a story here.
There's some early anthropomorphising of an elephant and a monkey (to the point at which they think in English) which I think is just plain silly.
And there's a big Voodoo woman who appears early on who seems to have nothing either original, nor credible, about her. What she says provides the only real intrigue to the story, but both her, and the characters she talks to, then take a back-seat for the next thirty pages.
Sound like this novel needs work?
Well, the work in question isn't from my crit circle. It is, rather, my assessment of the bestselling author, Isabel Allende's, Forest of the Pygmies.
I picked it up in the library after being unable to find Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows which was recommended by a writer at FM. In defence of the work, I should say that Allende's novel is part of a series for younger readers, so I'm not the intended target market at all. The work is also a translation, so might have lost some pizazz, although even allowing for younger tastes, I can't see how anything can lose that much pizazz.
Bear with me, though, I didn't write this post just to harangue everyone with my crass misdirection. There's a point to this, and that is: Surely, if I can feel this sour toward a published novel, almost entirely because it is outside my own genre, even though it is written by a well respected international bestselling author... and! I can give 'sound' reasons for my discomfort with the story... how valid are the crit-points I'm making at my novel club?
We all acknowledge, sooner or later, that it isn't the crit that's the important part of exchanging critique, but what the author does with the information in that crit. I'm not saying, for example, that I think I'm unknowingly sabotaging the work of my peers. But I am saying that the numbers are dangerous. Six billion people in the world, and we're going to listen to just a handful about what to alter in our novels?
Given how much the 'rules' don't really count for anything, apparently, (sometimes), in the world of publishing, are we doing each other any good?
On balance, I suspect, 'yes', we are, as long as everyone is careful about what they highlight as possible shortfalls, and about what they accept/agree with as being shortfalls in their own work.
Indeed, it can all work out very nicely. Check out the acknowledgements from the front of Sasha Miller's 1996 fantasy novel, Ladylord:
This work owes a lot to the Gang, who alternately pummelled me into abandoning the entire project (Kevin O'Donnell, Jr., in particular, for his infernal Standard Lecture 47) and encouraged me (Donald Robertson, crying "More dragon! More dragon!" and Marina Fitch telling me how, in spite of her being so hard on the manuscript, she couldn't get the story out of her mind). Then there was Lisa Swallow with her steadying influence, and John Staley, who translated the name of one of the characters as something really bizarre in Japanese, and Jim Aikin, who liked it from the start while being just as tough and uncompromising as anybody else in the critique group. Thanks to Kent Brewster, who enthusiastically approved, from the start, and thanks to Tony Bryant for helping me with the details of the duel and an important point of honour. Thanks also to the other dozen or so people who laid hands, one way and another, on the project and whose reaction was, for the most part, favourable. And special thanks to Susan Graham, who finally got the thing off high centre, and to Jim Frenkel, who carried it through.
Because of you, and sometimes in spite of you, I got it finished -- because it wouldn't let go of me, either.
Sounds like a very harsh crit group! Well done to Sasha for persevering, and to her Gang for helping so enthusiastically. Obviously, the alchemy worked, both for the story, and among the crit group.
Acting on crit, I think, in its purest essence, is about broadening the appeal of a novel, making it 'generally' more accessible, and/or more exciting. Every crit-point might be a ticket to 'hone' the story in some way, but perhaps it's best to be aware of how far from 'general' reception, a singular crit-point might be.
I guess this is also why we need multiple crits -- to enable a more rounded perspective. Even then, though, there could be hidden dangers.