When is it okay to judge an author?

With social media connecting the world, we have plenty of opportunities to make judgements about people. This random stranger is following me on Twitter? Well, I’ll just check their feed and see what they— A Jersey Shore fan?! Unacceptable!


It’s easy to make judgements about books, too. Maybe you think that all vampire stories are innately stupid. Maybe you read one sample page of a book and find the prose style too clunky and childish, like you’re being talked down to.  Maybe you reach the end of the book and find yourself annoyed at how you were beaten over the head with a moral message. It can be tempting to make judgements about the person who composed that piece. Because writing a book is an intentional act, isn’t it?

12jerome

When an author writes a work of fiction, they might be drawing exclusively from their own opinions and experiences. Or they might not be. Writers sometimes create characters very different from themselves. They might explore a mindset they themselves don’t agree with. They might be trying for a particular emotional effect, or an evocation of some far-gone time period. Or maybe the writer is simply churning out some words to sell for money, so they can pay their real-life bills.

All of that is affected by the author’s skill level in writing, and their personal blind spots. A book can be an incredibly complex stew of human ideas, some entirely borrowed from other humans. So it’s not accurate to say that a book is a mirror image of the person who wrote it. Just ask any author who’s written about an abusive mother character, then had to deal with their actual mother taking offense.

Mature woman yelling

“How dare you spend years composing a complex narrative with a female character in it?! I’M female!”

I had an experience of being judged after I published Remedy. A reviewer said that she found the opening chapters confusing, therefore I’m “one of those” authors who is too good to explain my own world. Like I was too wrapped up in myself to consider how a reader will understand things. Which gobsmacked me, because here I was believing that readers are intelligent people who can draw conclusions for themselves. If I say the dragon is walking on two feet and folding his feathered wings, I trust that the reader can make a mental image of a bird-like, reptile-like being. And hopefully, they’ll get some minor satisfaction from figuring that out. I know I hate it when a book gives long, straightforward descriptions of every physical thing: I feel like I’m being spoonfed applesauce instead of being given a well-seasoned meal to chew. Maybe I’m conceited to think that other readers should be willing to make mental effort and interpret the word choices on the page? In which case, I’ll gladly admit that I’m the biggest “one of those” around, and folks can go ahead and judge me for that. (I did give more consideration to the opening of Ravel, though. And I’m still fiddling with the opening of Render, and gathering beta reader opinions.)

Judging the creator is yet another grey area in writing. It might not be possible to cleanly sort the author’s opinions and attitudes from the fictional story they wrote. A book’s messages can be understood in many different ways. But sometimes the writing actually does reflect the author’s prejudices, intentional or not. If a pattern appears in four or five books, well, yeah, maybe the writer really is expressing their views. Maybe there’s a reason all their male characters are abusive jerks, or all of their homosexual characters are deceitful. That’s deserving of criticism. The conscientious writer will notice those sorts of unintentional messages in their first book or two, and try to do better next time.

An author can admit to their mistakes, too. J.K. Rowling reportedly didn’t find out until partway through the Harry Potter series that snowy owls aren’t nocturnal and don’t hoot. So Harry’s owl Hedwig is portrayed inaccurately. Rowling invited fans to see this as either the author error it is, or as evidence that Hedwig is special and magical. If I had noticed that the fictional owl wasn’t accurate to real snowy owls, yeah, I’d probably think it was sloppiness on the author’s part, or just not caring because she’s writing for kids. But J.K.R. admitting that she made a human mistake while building a fantasy epic? I can respect that.

425px-Snowy_Owl_-_Schnee-Eule

More proof that Wikipedia is your friend.

So basically, one book is circumstantial evidence. Maybe it shows the author’s true views, and maybe it doesn’t. It might just show momentary ideas, or lapses in concentration. If the author’s other books point to the same conclusion, it’s suspicious but still not iron-clad. Maybe the publisher demanded a certain slant. Maybe the writer just didn’t notice a distasteful message, and/or the editorial team didn’t point it out.

Personally, I try to avoid judgement until I see the author’s prose combined with their actual public statements. The things they say on their blog, or on Facebook, or in an interview. Some authors really do disrespect their fanbase, or have an overinflated ego, or insist that social groups X and Y are the scum of the earth. Some authors explode with rage if it’s suggested that their book isn’t perfect. If all signs point to a bad attitude, then yeah, we’re probably safe to judge.

Got thoughts? Share in the comments!


11 Comments on “When is it okay to judge an author?”

  1. Elisa Nuckle says:

    I basically agree with you. Human error is one thing, being a jerk is entirely another.

    • True. Although I guess it’s possible to make a years-long mistake, too.

    • Rita Foreman says:

      Personally, to be judged in any way except highly or correctly would send me in a tail spin. I would be upset, to put it mildly. Would act a fool, have numerous 1- on self conversations, and would worry it thru all weekend. But for grace, the one judging would never, ever know. I, too would reconsider what was judged, be it self, or work – can’t have two people coming up with the same idea. Of course I judge, but I’ll read to the end to confirm my judgement, and if I’m wrong, I then critique.

      • Your comment makes me think that judgement and critique are two forms of the same thing, Rita. And that’s often true. If someone calls a book “stupid”, they might be reacting to poor workmanship or a glaring flaw — but they’re certainly not articulating themselves very well. It’s kind of you to think of how overwhelming you yourself would find a harsh judgement.

  2. A lot of people these days don’t realise how weighty their judgements really are, and as a result they shoot their mouth (or typing fingers) off on any old whim, usually leaving nothing but hurtful, unhelpful wounds in their wake. Of course, that’s not the case with all criticism, but unfortunately I see foolish, unnecessary spite from the general audience base more often than not. I just wish more people would take the time to put value into the way they present their opinions, because it not only reflects on the one they are judging, but it reflects back on them, too.

    • Yeah, the Internet is definitely conducive to spur-of-the-moment nastiness. And I think a lot of people are confused about the difference between discretion and censorship, too. Reasoned debate isn’t actually very common nowadays, and plenty of folks think pointing out a flaw is always the same thing as an attack or an insult. If they consider that true, then they probably post either kind compliments or nasty judgements — no middle ground.

  3. Christa says:

    Yes, I agree, reserving judgement is the way to go, mostly.

    I want to add that writers, like anyone, are products of a culture and demonstrate those viewpoints, and sometimes they’re unaware of the messages they send out there through their work. They could be harmful too, and I think that’s a situation when it’s all right to criticize, no matter how unconscious they were of it, or how much they’ve written.

    I don’t like bringing up Twilight EVERY time but I guess there’s so much wrong, it fits in every discussion… Stephenie Meyer’s been criticized for perpetuating patriarchal ideas. She’s been asked about this and says that she believes her work supports feminism. So… wow. I’ll definitely be judgmental about that!

    • That is a good point, Christa. I’m thinking of the way older high fantasy books often have pale-skinned noble elves and dark-skinned evil orcs, just because the white authors didn’t see a problem with that. That’s a good argument for well-worded criticism that’ll actually clarify what the problem is.

      And yeah, I totally agree about judging a series like Twilight. There’s nothing feminist (!!!) about it, and the tone and perspective of the book imply that abusive behaviour is actually glamorous true love. Pretty disturbing message for a series marketed to teenagers. It’s another example of why I figure the publishing house/editorial staff should be considered in the equation. They could have pointed out to Meyer how alarming some of Twilight’s portrayals are (or maybe they did have concerns and decided to sell the book anyway? I really wouldn’t know).

  4. mqallen says:

    Very good observations- I’ll add this to my recent post on openings since you covered that :)

  5. […] When is it okay to judge an author Includes some great comments on feedback on her fantasy novel opening […]


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