A Tale of Two Reviews

I don’t remember much about the classes I took in college. Four decades have come and gone, after all. But one of my favorites, a course on criticism, has stayed with me. One of the most important lessons is that criticism is about much more than personal taste. Saying “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” doesn’t count for much. Rather, reviewers have an obligation to support their judgments with logic, technical expertise, structural analysis, character development, and any number of other tools in their kit. In other words, the “why” of the critique is of paramount importance.

I say this because we creative types who put our work out there for public judgment are subjecting ourselves to all kinds of negativity, and we each need to come to grips with it in our own way. Recently, I posted a sample paragraph from my new Vegas ghost novel, “The House Always Wins,” on a social media site. Within minutes, some troll weighed in with, “Are you entering the tritest monologue contest?” This comment tells me more about the person who wrote it than anything else. Mean-spirited, bitter, petty, not helpful in any way. And, as any hack comedian would say, “Those are her strong points.” My guess is she’s disappointed by life and won’t be happy until she spreads it around.

It happens with reviews, too. I’m fine with criticism that makes me think and helps me improve, or at least forces me to consider other options. This sloppy, badly-written Amazon reader comment does none of that:

“I really dislike everything about it. The sketchy, poorly conceived , unrealistic characters. Then boom, met, fell in love, married, etc. And, oh, hey, paranormal experience, no big. Oh, change my religion? Sure! No big deal! Awful.”

Again, looking at subtext, I most likely offended her in some way, possibly in the book’s many discussions about religion, philosophy and the meaning of life. I’m fine with pissing people off because it tells me my story isn’t bland. And, hey, she shelled out $11.56 plus shipping and handling.

Fortunately, most of my reviews, from readers and pros alike, have been positive. Here’s an excerpt from one that illustrates the points I’m trying to make:

“Rouff’s vivid imagery and entertaining story line lets readers peek behind the glitz, kitsch and glitter of tourist-oriented Las Vegas into the gritty lives of those who call the desert-turned-resort town home. His well-crafted dialogue crackles with wit and humor, and Rouff’s characters are endearing, funny and believable. I especially loved the talkative ghost of a Prohibition-era bootlegger, casino owner and philanthropist named Meyer who holds the key to the protagonist’s success in her quest to hold onto the home and life she’s dreamed of in Vegas.

While the novel churns along at a fast pace, the characters experience moments of insight and reflection that also encourage the reader to stop and reflect on universal life issues  — courage, risk, religion, self-fulfillment and the meaning of life and death.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. Same book, different reader, markedly different outcome. I love it when someone I’ve never met “gets” what I’m saying. Two minds connecting over (possibly) long distances and periods of time through the written word. Do you believe in magic? I’m starting to.