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Troy

Why Critical Review is Important

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One of the biggest problems we face culturally is that we have essentially lost our ability to critically critique ourselves.

One of the things I hear over and over again from books reviewers is that, "If I'm too harsh on an author, they'll get mad and I'll lose access." or, "If I can't write a favorable review I won't bother writing one at all?"

Far worse is the reviewer who writes favorable reviews simply to get on an author's good side or who write a positive review to as a way to promote the book--all unbeknownst to readers.

It is very difficult for a reviewer to write a review, of book written by a Black writer, and be paid for their effort.  As a result, far fewer reviews are written, and the quality of what is written is weakened.  Any decent reviews that do get published are usually published on blogs few people read or rendered undiscoverable on social media.

In the world of books it is crucial that we critically critique our literature and literary nonfiction.  

This came to mind as I was thinking about the apparent lack of support shown on Michael Eric Dyson's website for indie Black book platforms (Websites, booksellers, magazines, etc). Then it occurred to me that Michael may not be very supportive of an AALBC.com because we've been pretty critical of his work;

“As a critic who has reviewed several of his books, I have been so underwhelmed by the earlier work of Dyson that I had, quite frankly, long since dismissed him as an intellectual lightweight more given to a superficial sensationalism than to anything of substance. How else might one respond to his building a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. around a false FBI allegation that the slain civil rights leader was gay? Or, by contrast, his uncritical veneration of Tupac Shakur despite the late rapper's felonious, misogynistic, profane, violent and self-destructive ways? In fact, I found one opus so awful, that I put in unreturned calls to Dyson's colleagues to ask why they had praised it in blurbs on the back cover, because it was readily apparent that they couldn't possibly have bothered to read it.”
Kam Williams, January 2006

“Dyson correctly points out that the current situation faced by African Americans is a "complex nexus of poor education, and limited life options leading to self-destructive choices made out of desperation." But he offers no suggestions for improvement, only repeating the importance of loving one another and being compassionate. These are necessary components, but only part of what is needed. Many readers will conclude that "Michael Eric Dyson Has Lost His Mind", for 288 pages of one-note, convolutions of Cosby's remarks wears real thin, real quick.”
Paige Turner, January 2006

It would not be unreasonable to assume that Michael would choose not to support an AALBC.com.  As I said in the other post I do not share Michael's work to get anything from him.  I share his work because he is a prominent voice in the Black community, but one that also must be critiqued.  

This does not just go for authors.  We see a Donald Trump go around exaggerating, lying, saying anything he wants, while never being seriously challenged by journalists in a meaningful way, treating him as if he deserves to be considered as a serious candidate.  We also know the major media conglomerates do not want to risk losing access to Trump and the huge windfall in revenue he has created for them.

Sooner or later we will have to figure this out.  Otherwise we will just be lied to in our nonfiction and told our fiction is great when it is really is not.

 

 

 

 

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@TroyI touched on this subject briefly, during a discussion you and I recently  had about reviewing the work of new authors.  I observed that such writers,  especially self-published ones, tended to be very sensitive about their work and resentful of unfavorable reviews, something they were most likely to get because the self-published  are often people who think they can write, but can't.  You remarked how  there was no such thing as bad publicity implying that a bad review was better than none at all.

Nobody wants to hear anything but good feed back about their endeavors.  In a recent post by Mel she theorized  how people lusted after being stroked and praised. I agree.  Personally, once i accepted that I am far from perfect, criticism lost its sting.  

In the twilight of my years, I seek the truth.  Others perceive this as being negative because so often the truth hurts and people like to preserve "feel-good" illusions.  I would, however,  be the first agree that the truth is relative. Certainly nowadays. This is why I try to take an overview, because there's the truth; then there's the whole truth. 

I find the phrase "it is, what it is" to be true.  

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Cynique, no one really likes reading a review, from an entity they respect, that is negative.  Of course, if they respect the entity the take the critique, not personally, learn what they can from it and move on.  I've published many unfavorable reviews of authors books over the years--especially during the Thumper era.  Sometimes authors react very negatively, but they are a small minority.  Readers however always appreciate an honest review.  Now that does not mean the reader will agree with the reviewer.  But many readers appreciate a well written honest review written by an informed reader.  Of course a favorable review on a respected platform is great for the authors.

I still remember the grief Wanda Coleman got for writing an unfavorable review of one of Maya Angelou's books.  You would have thought she pimp slapped Michelle Obama given the public's reaction;

“In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors ("sobbing embrace," "my heart fell in my chest") and clumsy similes ("like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting time") are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son's auto accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come without explication, and schmooze substitutes for action… There is too much coulda shoulda woulda. Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song Flung Up to Heaven seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn't a song.”
Wanda Coleman, April 14, 2002  

Sara, I first covered Dyson back in 2001, I was unfamiliar with him at the time.  It was one of the first audio file I put on the site.  His delivery was exactly the same back then, and I found him interesting.  A couple of years later I did meet him, and gave him a card.  He said, "I've heard of y'all."  That was over a decade ago, over that period of time the site has only grown, and there are fewer sites like mine nowadays, but it is possible he forgot.  It however is more likely that he does not appreciate why the support of folks like him is crucial to the Black book ecosystem.

The video I shot of Michael was during the National Black Writers Conference, one of the things I would like to see happen, during that even is for us to develop strategies that will empower and enrich us.

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Yes, Dyson is a glib hustler who pimps publicity but,  to me, his redeeming value is that he does well in one-on-one exchanges with white talk show hosts.  He usually puts them in their place with his dazzling rhetoric. I feel confident when he is articulating the black message against a white adversary.

I think everybody is hip to Dyson's game now.  Does he really wield a lot of influence?    

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Guest Lisa Foster

Interesting post. As a former professional journalist, I would say that a good deal of what is published today by both black and white authors should never have made it into print.

Much of it is trivial nonsense, unvetted and without merit. In the age of Internet blogging, where everyone thinks they can write, the quality of writing has reached its nadir.

What's worse: like the proverbial reluctance to tell the emperor he is naked, readers and reviewers alike often loathe publicly admitting the poor quality of a work, especially one by a black author, for fear of being vilified as a "hater" who doesn't appreciate their cultural relevance etc.

I would say that promoting mediocrity does not advance our cause. While honesty can be tough to hear, if taken to heart, it can be a catalyst for growth and personal development.

Sadly, modern publishing is less about quality and more about money. Like everything else in America, it comes down to what sells. Bad books will disappear only when people stop promoting them and buying them.

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Lisa, everything you've written resonates with me.  I guess the question is what do we do about it?

Your last paragraph is particularly interesting, from my perspective as an online bookseller. In America it truly does comes down to what makes money. But "bad" books will never disappear. In many situations "bad" books subsidize "good" books.  For example, E.L. James' novels are bestsellers on this website even though no one confuses these books with great literature.  But those sales subsidize the promotion of good and important literature--that might not get promotion otherwise.

There is room for both. The truth is publishing can survive if only "bad" books were published and not another work of great literature were published again  However the opposite is not true.  

 

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I'm a little late coming into this discussion. I have so much to say about literary critiques and Dyson that I could fill this page, but I will only say this: Bad books persist because of sheer greed in certain aspects of the literary industry. As long as lots--and I say lots--of money can be made off of vanity publishing and "bad" indie authors, bad books will continue to be written and presented. It's a tough market out there for decent, aspiring, unknown authors. It's not a game to be played unless you are prepared to compete as a literary warrior. This means that you must be prepared to learn your trade, seek and accept advice, brand yourself in ways that gets noticed, and write, write, and write some more.  As such, I welcome critiques. I learn from them so that I may develop, grow, and put out a strong, competitive product. But these critiques must be fair in their assessments of what is quality, what is now, and what is needed--especially for our multicultural reading audiences.

From my perspective, in today's market/political and economic climate, being too diverse or too Black isn't going to get too many front doors opened right now. Sorry, I find that it's just not in fashion. Therefore, avenues like CreateSpace help to put credible authors like me onto a path where I can at least go through the back entrance--that is even if that door is opened. If not, guess what? Then you must creatively think outside the box! And that's hard too!!!

Now about Dyson. I don't like anyone who says "Nigger please..." in reference to our President. President Barack Obama has endured enough disrespect from people on the other side of the aisle. He has also endured disrespect from those who are supposed to support him. Now from us! Enough already. Like it or not, the man is the President of these United States--a certain amount of respect must be afforded to him by the mere fact that he is our President and Commander-in-Chief. Not too many of the ones talking about him could step into this shoes, fight his battles, and come out any Blacker than he already has.

It's difficult to support us--Black people--when we don't even stand up for ourselves for the most part. We want "our" President to stand up with us as a people when we don't even take time to educate ourselves to see what is being planned in our communities. We are too busy living the now and cannot begin to see and plan for tomorrow. When it's time for many of us to enter into the political arena to vote, where are we? Not at the polls--that's for sure. Our President is a human being in need of his people. Sorry, folks, we weren't there for him anymore than we feel that he was there for us. "Nigger please" has a broad application. Dyson really upset me with this. He could have disagreed with the President's performance without going there. As an intellectual, I only saw ignorance on his part.

No, I don't like or agree with every thing this President has done while in office. But I believe with my whole heart that if he had been greeted and treated like a favorite son and you know what I mean, this particular outcome would look a lot different. Look at Ryan. He has already been turned into a superstar. This is an example of a favorite son. He has been and continues to be groomed and mentored. Unlike what happened to Barack Obama.  He is young, white, and aspiring. Hell, they already want him for President. We need to give our first in the White House a little more respect. If he can't get it from us, then who? Dyson, please go somewhere and be quiet for a change.

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Critical reviews are important especially to writers who want to bring their very best to audiences. There are very few people qualified, or of those qualified, willing to review books.   

When I read reviews it seems that most people are writing about whether they liked or hated a book - but it doesn't go any deeper.   The reviewers rarely talk about themes, motifs & symbols.  They rarely talk about narrative structure (or lack thereof), arguments posed in the story  or even if it was an original novel or category fiction.  

When I offer a review, I often talk about how the book affected me emotionally  but I also do my best to include some of those elements.   Call me a spoiled academic, but I expect "critical reviews" to read a little like college papers.  Sadly, most aren't educated on how to write them.   Too bad too, because better reviewers just might produce better books. 

BTW, I've never reviewed any of  Dyson's books because I haven't read them.  

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It would seem that a lot depends on whether or not a person reviewing a book can be considered someone from the author's demograph. Not to mention that reviews can come to represent  a showcase for the reviewer's style and skill, as opposed to those of the author, and this can be a distraction. 

If a book is aimed at a certain audience, then it becomes a genre and it can be argued that a reviewer should have the skill to critique said book from the viewpoint of those who are fans of the genre. There's a difference between a reviewer and an editor. So how well a book accomplishes the goal of appealing to its fans may not always coincide with its technical merits. Reviewers also face the pubic skepticism of those who routinely discount reviews. When the question of maintaining literary standards is added to the equation, then things become even more ambiguous.  

Since there are no rigid guidelines for reviewers to follow, those who self-appoint themselves to be a reviewer can be subjected to having their reviews reviewed.  :wacko:

   

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1 hour ago, Cynique said:

If a book is aimed at a certain audience, then it becomes a genre and it can be argued that a reviewer should have the skill to critique said book from the viewpoint of those who are fans of the genre. 

YES! YES! YES!!!   I hadn't noticed it until now but I usually review self-help styled books and my reviews are reviewed favorably...  those who had the best reviewed-reviews of  my book were  fans of the genre..  thank you @Cynique for that excellent observation!  

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