on criticism

So, last entry I linked to a great review of Black Static #16 and “The Moon Will Look Strange.”  Monday morning, I woke up to this review.  Wow!  That is, by far, the most scathing review I’ve ever received. When I mentioned it on facebook, friends (and even one or two people I didn’t know) rallied valiantly to my defense, which was kind of awesome, like the way your friends will trash your awful ex for you if you need them to, because that’s what friends are for.  (Note to any exes reading this: you were not awful, and nobody ever had to resort to trashing you to make me feel better.  Really!)

And two friends asked me very incisive questions: So, was there anything to what he said?  Could you take something away from it, learn anything you need to do differently the next time?

The content of the review itself isn’t really the point here (aside from the fact that there is nothing quite like watching the trainwreck of writers publicly excoriating detractors of their work, which I wouldn’t do anyway).  It made me think about criticism, and how we react to it both publicly and privately.

I don’t need to name any names to point out that we can all come up with examples of writers of whom it’s said they grew too big and important to edit–I have no idea if that’s true or not (although the lead time for at least a few mega-bestsellers suggests that it is not necessarily the primary concern of publishers in some cases).  Certainly there are writers out there who are said to be difficult to edit, which I don’t doubt. But where does a writer (or a director, or a visual artist, or anyone creative) draw the line between sticking to their own brilliant idiosyncratic vision and realizing when, well, what they thought was really idiosyncratic and brilliant is really just awful?

When I first started writing seriously–by which I mean actually trying to finish stories and send them out–I had this horror that I might be the Ed Wood of fiction.  I have no idea what the real Ed Wood was like, but the way Johnny Depp plays him in the Tim Burton movie–he’s so sure that what he’s doing is, at the end of it all, good, and that audiences will just overlook the shabby sets, the dreadful continuity errors, the laughableness of the whole affair.  I mean, some people desperately do want to be poets and directors and painters and writers who create things that people want to read and watch and look at, want it more than anything in the world, and yet there is no amount of perseverance and hard work in the world that is going to make them not godawful.  We’ve all seen and read this stuff.  It can be hilariously bad but it’s also tragic–to want that so badly (and if you want it, you know just how badly I mean), and for it to be so futile, and for you not to know. Talk about real fear!

It’s been a long time since I quit worrying about being Ed Wood, because clearly people want to read and publish things I write at least some of the time. (True story: in the early days of submitting fiction, I had so much anxiety about the whole process that I first had to sit and envision the worst scenario I possibly could.  The editor would weep with laughter, call up all his or her friends, read it over the phone to them, save copies of the story to pass round to people in the future just for the yuks, remember and curse my name forevermore.  I would actually play this scenario out in my head, take a deep breath, and decide I could live with that and drop the damn story in the mail.)  But it doesn’t stop other worries: worries about being neither good nor bad but merely mediocre, or that the things you’ve written which have struck a chord with people are some kind of fluke, that you’ll never be able to summon that again.

It’s a delicate balancing act between the incredible arrogance of believing that you have a story to tell that anyone is going to give a crap about and knowing when you really do need to listen to cooler heads and murder your darlings, as it were.

I know lots of writers swear by their writing groups, either online or in-person.  I have sometimes thought, over the years, that I would like to be part of such a group, but when I really think about it, it’s the camaraderie and companionship and like-mindedness I crave, not so much the putting stories out there for critique part.  It’s not that I inherently have a problem with being critiqued.  It’s an issue of writing temperament. And I write stories the way I deal with most important things in my life . . . very privately, inside my own head.  Once I’ve got all my ducks in a row, so to speak, I’m willing to reveal myself, but I have never found it useful or productive to expose wild, raw material before I’ve had plenty of deep thinks about it and refined it into something that makes sense to me.

Of course, it’s ridiculous for a writer to talk about privacy, because another thing I firmly believe is that if we’re writing fiction that means anything to us and to other people, fiction that’s worthwhile, we’re exposing all sorts of mortifying things about ourselves all over the place.  The trick is (I like to tell myself) once it’s out there, you (the reader) don’t know where the rawness ends and the craft begins.  Maybe in the space of a single sentence, which starts out true and turns into a lie halfway through.  There’s probably something to the fact that one of my recurring nightmares is that I’m naked in public places, though.

So–coming back to criticism. There’s my confession: I write short fiction without benefit of outside critiques.  I am working on a novel now, and I’m not actually foolish enough to try and do the same thing there.  (It’s not my first novel–I’ve written one, and most of a second, and lucky for you, I will not tell the sad, sad story of the fate of my first novel here, which is considerably less sad than the stories lots of other writers have to tell, and to which plenty of people have reacted with greater resilience than I did.)  A novel is much too big to try and keep inside my own head.

I’m wandering far from my original topic here. What I really wanted to say is that–despite the sound of this entry–I think it’s vital that writers get critiqued, even after publication, and that we write with an awareness of the reader out there.  I may not run my stories past a workshop but if I send them out and nobody wants to buy them, that’s a critique right there.

There’s an idea out there that the best writers write for themselves–a couple of people have said that to me recently–and it’s both true and not true.  I know at least a couple of writers who really do write for themselves; they are amazingly talented and they are nothing like me.  They truly don’t care about sending stuff out or getting published; I only hope that they manage not to destroy what they write before they die and somebody astute stumbles upon what they’ve left behind.  I do write with a desperate hope to communicate, to have other people respond.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t write things that are meaningful to me, but I am always hoping that people will be interested and moved.  I don’t want to bore anyone, as I did the reviewer of the story; I don’t want you to get bogged down in blocks of text and indulgent drivel.

But I also don’t write fiction that is terribly plot-driven; I am interested in settings and characters and states of mind and atmosphere and prose and weird images that my brain dreams up when I’m not looking.  And that’s not always going to be to everyone’s taste.

I think it’s disastrous for writers to hear only good things about their fiction.  I don’t agree with the review I linked at the top, but I am grateful that two people asked me such pointed questions about it.  Equally as horrifying to me as the idea of being Ed Wood is the idea of surrounding yourself with people who always tell you that what you are creating is wonderful and right no matter what it is.  (Aside to my friends: paradoxically, this does not mean your support did not mean the world to me.  Please keep reassuring me of my awesomeness.)

But nobody should be protected from that.  Bad reviews ground us. Writing is an incredibly un-glamorous profession, but it can still be all too easy to surround ourselves with yes-people and end up like those celebrities who travel with an entourage that laughs uproariously at every single unfunny utterance that drips from their mouths.  It reminds us not just that everything we write is going to work for everyone, but that sometimes we can fail–at least in some people’s eyes–in very public ways and it’s okay.  We need to receive criticism and crappy reviews with thoughtfulness and grace and we even need to try and learn from them, when we can.

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8 thoughts on “on criticism

  1. Esther Sherman

    Wow, I loved this post – such a refreshing and honest perspective. As a reader, I’ve been really disappointed to see several critics leapt on viciously by zealous fans/supporters of particular writers. I think a healthy attitude to criticism is necessary in any creative medium, no one should want to get a reputation like the Russell Crowes of this world, threatening critics with telephones. Unfortunately the horror market seems to be generally in a bit of a lull at the moment and I get the impression that many writers feel very vulnerable – publishing by the mags or small presses doesn’t necessarily enable you to give up your day job, and as the publishers are sometimes friends I imagine it could be very easy to think that you’re not ‘properly successful’, therefore any criticism, constructive or otherwise could seem so much more damaging. It’s easy to forget an opinion is just that when it’s possible others might see it and be influenced by it – in non-fiction, witness Orlando Figes’ foolish anonymous amazon reviews of other writers and his own books.
    Loved your story in last year’s Best New Horror, look forward to reading the new one.

  2. Yeah, it’s such a small field, and writers can be a thin-skinned bunch. The only reviews I find really objectionable are those where reviewers value their own sense of snark above all (although I admit I’ve enjoyed a few of those over movies I’ve loathed) or wildly misread or misrepresent something. Or the ones where the reviewer begins by stating an admitted prejudice against or ignorance of the genre in question–why review in it then?

    The very first story I ever had published got a very lukewarm review from someone who went on to highly praise something by me a few years later, so, you know. It’s important not to take things personally.

    I’m glad you liked the story. I’m sorry I didn’t meet you in Brighton. I feel like I met so many people, but there were so many more I managed to miss!

  3. I enjoyed your review of reviews, Lynda. I can’t remember where I heard/read this, but I think it’s somehow appropriate (or I wouldn’t bother sharing it, obviously): “It’s not how many people don’t like you, but how many people do like you. If 1 in 1,000 people love your work, then you have over 300,000 fans in the United States alone.”

    I was reading a novel yesterday, and I started thinking about you and this review, and something occurred to me. The “voice” of each character changes, even for myself, when I’m reading a story over time, and depending on my mood. This can affect how much, if at all, I’m enjoying the story, and it’s meaning/feel (I may have more moods than the average person. Not sure). I’ve never read any other reviews by that reviewer, but maybe when he read your story, it just didn’t fit his “taste” at that moment. Oh well, that’s what I like to think about my critics anyway.

    Keep writing and good luck.

  4. and i was one of the friends that said writers write for themselves.

    i suppose my experience has been with visual artists … painters and sculptors … and many of them really do create their work without reference to an audience.

    that’s not to say they don’t ask for or listen to critical feedback … they do.

    i’m not a writer so i don’t really know your creative process … and unlike visual artists … you often submit your work to an editorial process.

    there is always something to be learnt from praise and criticism … but I can’t see you or other good writers constantly tailoring your writing to their feedback. that’s like being the person who keeps changing themselves in a vain attempt to make everyone happy.

    loved this post and your writing.

    1. Well, it’s kind of a paradox, Liz, because it’s one of those things that people say which can mean a lot of different things. If you don’t write for yourself you’ll probably suck (and also go crazy, because the rewards otherwise are few and far between). On the other hand, if you don’t write for other people, you will probably suck too. (There are brilliant exceptions to this.) To my mind, though, if you want other people to read what you write, you are on some level writing for others as well as yourself.

      I can see where a visual artist would not need to think of audience as much because they are not asking people to engage iwth them for as long a time, or for a more or less linear experience.

      I write for myself in journals I’ve kept all my life. That writing is vastly different from writing I do anywhere else. (And, it ensures that, like Oscar Wilde, I always have something sensational to read on the train!)

  5. I loved this writing, but this is the part that scares the crap out of me.
    “Of course, it’s ridiculous for a writer to talk about privacy, because another thing I firmly believe is that if we’re writing fiction that means anything to us and to other people, fiction that’s worthwhile, we’re exposing all sorts of mortifying things about ourselves all over the place.”
    I am about to make my novel available to the public for sale, (self published) and it feels like everyone in the world will decipher my insecurities from the story and “know” the nervous small boy that’s still hiding inside me. It’s like all of my friends and family and the 200 people I work with will be able to see inside my head. lol, that’s if anyone buys it!
    Anyway, good writing strikes a cord in people’s emotions, you struck one here.

    1. Well, thank you–I am glad to hear that it struck a chord!
      It’s true that we have to find a way to overcome the fear of exposure. I think part of it is about relinquishing control. People are going to see different things in your work and they are all going to bring their own sets of experiences to it, and that’s going to color what they see and what they think of you. For me, at least, when I start to realize how far out of my control that is, I’m able to just sort of let go.
      Best of luck with your book, Dan.

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