November 14th, 2005


More on critique (and criticism)

Per my post of this morning here, referencing blzblack's post here, in which I asked, "what are the responsibilities of critique," there's been some discussion of both critique and criticism.

I was actually referring to critique in my original remarks, that is, the process of writers (or editors) reviewing another writer's unpublished work with the goal of improving both the manuscript and the writer's next stories. Launching off from some unclear wording on my part, some folks have engaged in a discussion of criticism, that is, the review or formal criticism of a writer's published work, with the goal of illuminating that work for potential (or actual) readers as part of the larger discussion of work presented in the field.

Both are valuable to think about, but to me, critique and criticism are worlds apart.

Meanwhile, garyomaha asked here, in reference to a remark of mine:

Is there a method for improving one who has "a fragile ego or a defensive approach to their own work"? What if said person is a potentially great (fill in the may use "writer" in this case) but one's ego or tendency to be defensive get in the way of advancing that skill? Is it simply a matter of "practice, practice, practice" (submit, submit, submit)? Or is there a Recognized Approach for dealing with this?

I thought that deserved an answer big enough to promote to its own post. So:

I don't know about improving self-image issues. Writers have lots of seems to go with the territory. My approach to dealing with a writer new to me, or one whom I do not trust to accept full-salvo professional critique, is to only cite one or two problems with the mss, and leaven that with some praise, in the hopes that the praise will sugar-coat the critique and help them develop.

There is a very specific and well-known school of thought which holds that aspiring writers ought to be discouraged at all costs. The ones that wind up writing anyway, this thinking holds, will have a shot at success. I don't buy it -- as I see things, the publishing world has massive built-in checks and setbacks even in the brightest careers, and for an aspiring writer can seem impossibly hard to penetrate. That being said, critique which only hand-holds or reinforces a writer's self-image isn't doing them any favors either, if one assumes the purpose of critique is to foster improvement and further development in their writing in the first place. So there's a balance between acknowleding writerly sensitivity and walking too softly to do them any good.

Ultimately, though, if someone asks me to read a story, I'm not doing it for their mental health. I'll typically respond by asking what level of critique they'd like:

1) Reader reaction
2) Light line edits and comments
3) In depth critique
4) Editorial assessment

Each succeeding level being tougher and more detailed, and each succeeding level having differing value to the writer. As a writer, sometimes all I want is 1). Some writers aren't ready for the 18-gun broadside that a number 4) critique can entail. But if they need their ego protected or their defenses soothed, not my job. That's what moms, SOs, drinking buddies, etc. are for. Writerly critiques are for improving one another's work. As a practical matter, I don't go past level 2) unless someone has explicitly asked for it, or I'm working with a writer with whom I've had a long enough, sufficiently solid social or professional relationship to trust them to accept levels 3)/4) in an appropriate fashion.

But it all comes down to this: as a writer, a workshopper, an editor, I like nothing more than helping a good story become great, whatever that may take.

So I throw open the question to the rest of youse. What is the purpose of critique (as opposed to criticism), and what is the responsibility of the critiquer toward the critiquee?

The Child on matters sartorial

The Child and I are flying to Texas this Saturday to spend Thanksgiving week with her grandparents, the Niece and her parents (who live less than two miles away -- go figure), possibly her Uncle M (my snuffaluffugus brother), and some of my paternal relatives. She asked today if the K--- family was going to be there. (They would be maternal relatives -- aunt and uncle and six cousins of mine, who are ages 6-20 or so -- generation slip in progress.) I said no, that this was a Lake family Thanksgiving and the K---s would not be there. I asked her why.

Child: "Well, I was going to pack differently if they were going to be there."

Dad: "Like what?"

Child: "Since they're Mennonites, I was only going to wear black or white or dark blue when I was with them."
(normally the Child dresses like the survivor of an explosion in a particularly hip circus wardrobe department)

This led to a lengthy discussion of why the K---s, who are Old Church Mennonites, dress the way they do, why the monks at the Child's Buddhist priory dress they way they do, and what it is about God that certain clothes are required to honor Him. She remains skeptical in the divine wardrobe department, but is humanistically minded enough to chalk it up to differences of faith.