On Critique and Criticism

One of my favorite podcasts is I Don’t Even Own A Television, a podcast about bad books. I was the kid whose parents literally did not own a television when I was growing up (ask me about 80s TV! I have no idea! I’m like an alien who arrived in pop culture in 1994!), so I love the title. Even more, I love the criticism; it’s a funny, snarky podcast about bad books. The hosts are hilarious and well-read, and approach the subject with positivity, wit, and joy.

Recently a question came up on the IDEOTV message boards for authors: how would you feel if they did an episode on your book?

Oh, dear readers, I would not feel good. They can and should approach whatever books they want, and I’m sure they would do a wonderful job, but sharing fiction with the world makes me feel more vulnerable and exposed than if I walked down the street naked. I would not listen to that episode and would avoid learning anything about it.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There is a difference between critique and criticism. Critique is feedback aimed at making my work better, and at making me a better writer. Criticism is for other readers. Perhaps it would be helpful to see a pattern in criticism of my work and try to address my deficiencies in the next novel, but ultimately, criticism is for readers deciding whether to read my books, and how they might think about them when they do.

I’m not sure I need to learn to feel good about bad reviews. But I did need to learn to take critique and turn it into self-improvement. Before I got my MFA, I took some writing classes with Gotham Writers Workshop, which was a fantastic way to get my feet wet and get used to receiving critique on my writing. The first story I wrote touched on a very painful friend breakup I had experienced. After turning it in for workshop, I got sick to my stomach and couldn’t hold down solid food for a week. True story.

It got easier over time, but I am not a thick-skinned person for whom taking critique came easily. I would like to be perfect. A part of me believes that if I make any mistake, the earth should probably open up and swallow me so that I am no longer a blemish upon its surface. I want to curl up, cease to exist, fling myself into the sun, hide in a closet, run away and change my name so none will ever know my shame…

So much of advice about taking critique is about not getting defensive and angry, about being open to other people’s perspectives. I envy people whose first instinct is defensiveness and not self-abnegation. The most important journey of my adult life has been learning how to live with mistakes and failure without feeling like they are existential threats.

Another thing that helped was doing some freelance writing for an ad agency. I wrote 1000-word case studies about marketing analytics software. My soul and id is in my novels, but not in that copy. When I was learning the style that the agency wanted, I had to do five drafts of the first case study. It wasn’t great for my ego, and I still felt badly about not getting it right on the first try, but it wasn’t as though they were criticizing my inner self. Taking that critique and using it to improve the advertising pieces made it easier to be a bit more businesslike about my creative writing.

There are differences as well, though. When you’re a freelance writer, writing for a customer, the customer is right, and has the final say. When you’re doing creative writing, you are the final arbiter, and the work’s fidelity to your vision is what success should be measured against. Critique in a workshop also has its challenges. It is different and, to me, better to be taking critique from people invested in selling my books. But no matter what, the steps I go through in taking critique are as follows:

  1. Don’t react externally to critique, especially right away. Don’t justify or apologize. They’re both useless. Thank the person for the critique, and plan to spend some time with it.
  2. Feel your feelings. You’ll probably have lots of feelings. Some of them may be intense. For me it’s self-pity and worthlessness; for you it might be anger and denial. They’re your feelings. They’re okay. They won’t last forever. You’ll probably not want to share them too much except with trusted friends. Don’t vent on the internet. I like to set aside a day or two to sit with critique before taking any action on it.
  3. If you don’t understand the critique, ask questions about it.
  4. Measure the suggestions against your own barometer of what the work should be, but remember that a new reader will see things you have not. I love suggestions for how I should change something. Often I change the thing in a different way, but seeing the way a reader wants something changed points out to me what they snagged on. I might not agree with their solution, but it’a always good to know what tripped them up.
  5. Get ready for the next round.

Critique is a gift, but don’t be ashamed if it’s challenging to process, and requires practice and self-knowledge. If I didn’t feel anything when I received critique, if I were 100% thick-skinned and could shrug it off, I wonder if I’d have enough emotional investment in my work.

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