Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review vs. Peer Review

I recently decided to reverse my longstanding prohibition against reviewing works by writers I know. Do not expect me to rush out and review everything I've read by everyone I know; it's not that sort of decision. In fact, it's more of a maturation brought on in part by changes in how I view my work and my relationship to it, in part by reading Ernest Hemingway's Movable Feast, and in part by a feature of the MFA program in which I'm enrolled that I really hate.

What I hate is peer review as practiced in workshops, writing classes, and writers' groups. Having students who are at about the same level as writers evaluate each other's work makes little sense; by definition none is has the skills necessary to objectively and effectively assess what's been written by any of the others. Francine Prose, award winning novelist, critic, and essayist, summed up her disdain for workshops by imagining a group of student writers telling Kafka they really don't 'get' the man waking up as a bug. (She has said the writers' workshop scenes in her novel Blue Angel, a finalist for the National Book Award, are made up entirely of quotes from workshops she's endured over the years.) Prose, by the way, advocates learning to write through in-depth, nuts-and-blots study of the classics; she says "there are reasons they have remained great through hundreds of years."

I have taken part in professional workshops. Pro workshops eschew peer review (though I have heard it is practiced in some settings). We read each others work, yes; these included stories written in the space of hours during the workshop as well as mss written and distributed to the other attendees prior to the retreat. We made notes on what struck us, but rather than share our comments we listened as editors such as Gardner Dozois and Kris Rusch analyzed what did and did not work in each piece. (This usually resulted in reexamining what we were thinking when we'd made our own notes.) We sometimes did this with published pieces by writers at the top of their game as well.
We did make choices about and remark on others' work in one workshop on short stories. Prior to the workshop we had each sent in eight to ten short stories that had never sold with all identifying information removed. The folks running the workshop provided us with copies of everything, our own slush pile of 200 mss from which we were to select enough to fill a themed anthology of 90,000 to 100,000 words total. We were to do this in addition to the classes and writing assignments of the workshop, then present our anthology along with our reasons for selecting each story. The purpose of this exercise was to drive home the fact buy/no buy decisions often have little to do with the quality of an individual story and much to do with what the editor needs for her specific project.

As a writer of media-tie-in fiction and in-universe 'nonfiction' related to role-playing and strategy games I usually have to devote part of any conversation with fellow writers to explaining what exactly it is I do. With the exception of other writers working for the same franchise, almost no one I know has read anything I've written and probably never will. They just take my word for it that I'm a writer. As a result somewhere along the line I stopped caring what others thought of my work. Stories I got paid for were good, stories that didn't sell were still good just not what the editor was looking for, and what my good friend the romance writer who falls asleep during any explanation of RPGs thought about any of them didn't really matter. My sense of worth is no longer linked to what folks say about my work. (Considering how tightly those two were once bonded, that's huge.) When my ego was vulnerable to reviews, I saw protecting the egos of my colleagues as part of my job. Now, not so much.
(Meljean Brooks' Diary of a Writer isn't exactly germane at this point, but it's a lot of fun.)

Reading Hemingway's Moveable Feast, his essays on the lives of the American ex-pat writers' and artists' community of Paris in the 1920s, I discovered two things. One was that the more intellectually honest spent a good deal of time reading and discussing honestly works by members of the community while those less secure refused to comment favorably on works by anyone who hadn't already said nice things about theirs and delighted in pointing out what they considered flaws in everyone else's work. The second was that writers serious about their craft listened to what writers they respected said about their works and incorporated the insights in future efforts.
Peer review by fellow professionals is not the same as peer review by fellow students. I don't know why this is such a breakthrough in my thinking; I've long known it was an essential step in evaluating medical or scientific theories. Why not in writing? While my ego is not tied to what people think of my work, the critique and advice of a fellow craftsman could be very useful in my development and growth as a writer. And if I'd appreciate the input of others, should I not provide that same courtesy? So, while you should not expect a spate of reviews or a Killiany ranking system anytime soon, folks will start to see something that hasn't been there before: my honest opinions on the works of others.


Liane Spicer said...

As you know I've had a long-standing principle of not reviewing books by people I know. Actually, of the scores of products I've reviewed online over the last six years, only two or three were books.

It's interesting that I've recently come to the same conclusion about this rule of thumb, and have more or less decided that knowing the author should not keep me from reviewing a book I've enjoyed. I call it an evolution.

As for writers' critique groups and workshopping, I don't have your experience but I've never been a fan for the very reasons you cite. I do see the value of input from fellow professionals, though, once the ego thing is not a factor. Was it Hemmingway and Faulkner who loved to trade insults of each other's work? Pathetic, really.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to review "Everything" I read somewhere, generally on Goodreads, so I'm not going to simply leave off books by people I know. It becomes problematic if I don't like the book, of course. I can be delicate at times, though. I've been in various peer-review groups over the years. Sometimes comments help, sometimes they are spectacularly wrong. Sometimes they would do damage if I listened to them. I don't. However, I've certainly had non-writers or newer writers catch something in my work that I should have caught myself but missed. The more eyes the better is how I think of it. you don't have to take the advice.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Student-student peer review has its purpose. It's a teaching/learning tool that allows the student to see the strengths and weaknesses of other writing and hence their own.

In the professional world (especially scientific journals) peer reviews serve to keep the integrity of the work intact. But writing a review of an author you know is quite different. It can easily be influenced by your desire to help that author or not and that can affect objectivity.

If one reviews the book on the merit or the work and not on their feelings toward the author, such a review can be quite objective.