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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Peer review in fiction: is the process broken?

I spend a fair amount of time these days at the Kindleboards. The Writer's Cafe section is a wonderful resource for any eBook writer (any writer - period), with an eclectic mixture of beginner writers, writers with a history in traditional publishing (like me), writers who have had a long career as a midlister and who are trying out eBooks (not me), retirees giving writing a shot for a modest retirement income (not me yet...), and young, new writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers but who are finding modest - and sometimes breakout - success as indie eBook authors.

Kindle Board member Rex Jameson wrote a very compelling blog post on his blog, The Rex Writes, about the issue of peer review in fiction. Specifically, in indie eBook fiction. I'll quote from his blog, because he succinctly nails an issue I've noticed across many writing fields online:

In submitting to a conference or journal, peer reviewing helps an author or set of authors achieve their goal - namely in conveying their research to the conference committees in order to get published. In peer reviewing a book that is to be or has been published, peer review can result in achieving the writer's goal of conveying the purpose and scope of their book to a wider audience in order to naturally get excellent reviews and further the appeal of their work.

This is true in academic history and in working with academic publishers as well. I would never, ever dream to have "idea error-free" work. I'm not talking about typo-free work. NO writer, ever, has that, and many beginner indie writers ("beginner" can mean someone who has been writing for a decade and submitting and accumulating rejections - I use beginner to denote someone who doesn't act as if writing is a craft or a business) view asking for peer review as a way to get free copyediting and to be patted on the back. I'm new to being an eBook publisher on Kindle/Nook/Smashwords/etc. but have been part of eBook editing and writing in other fields since 2003, and also been part of online writing for nearly a decade. This "beginner" attitude isn't new, and it's not limited to indie eBook publishing.

A true peer review of one's work is a constructive criticism that offers insight into elements that work, elements that don't work, and that catches outright whopper errors. I am grateful for these peer reviews, and plan to have at least 5-10 sets of eyes on my book long before it ever goes to a professional editor. Then the professional editor can draw blood - and help tighten the mss into a clean, final product.

Rex goes on:

Why is it that fiction authors can't see the peer review process for what it is and should be? As a book reviewer, you are there to help the writer become better - to help their books become better. Instead, fiction authors appear to have their egos so tied into how awesome they wrote their book the first time that they can't accept outside help - even if it's for their own good.

And, most disturbing, as he describes earlier in his post:

...after reading the terrible book, the reviewing author is put in a delicate position. The original author is now wanting a review to be posted, but the reader didn't like the book. From reading the Kindleboards, this has resulted in a lot of retaliatory strikes by the offended original author - even if the reader simply sends a personal message describing some of the problems. Almost a "screw you for telling me that you couldn't get through my book!"

Is this really common? I would hope not. In academic history circles historians chafe at bad reviews, of course, but the review itself is deconstructed based on the merits of the analysis and factual assertions - it's not based on opinion. A book review that comments on plot, voice, and genre is one animal - but one that is based on opinion, subjective, emotional opinion, is quite another.

When I write a book review (which will start to occur here in this blog soon) I can divorce my subjective feelings about the writing from my review of the quality of the elements of the book. So, for instance, if Viking historical romance isn't my "thing," a well-written book in this genre will still get a 4 or 5 star review from me, because I can appreciate the quality of the elements of writing as a wholly separate issue vs. my personal preferences.

Writers who cannot view their work, and view constructive criticism designed to improve the work, as separate from themselves will never grow and improve. THAT is a tragedy worse than any negative review.

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