On Criticism


The character of the critic is a trope in film that is often, ironically, at the bad end of a joke. They're the prissy connoisseur of modern art, the unsuccessful author turned bitter towards his peers, the food reviewer keen on portraying distaste through the spewing of malignant thoughts. 

They shout things like: 



"How droll."

And appear all at once menacing, malicious, and high strung to a humorous degree. 

But what does it feel like to be receiving useful criticism from a knowledgable reader, even if it isn't delivered well? Why should we learn to listen to it? Not just as writers, but as individuals?

Why should we go out of our way to find it?  


The difficult experience of taking criticism is a necessary evil. In all its mediums art is, at some stage or another, an intensely solitary pursuit. Self-perception and ego layers over itself so thickly that the task of observing our creations objectively becomes all but impossible. Without outside opinions, progress can become stagnant (at worst), but even at best, we lose out on countless opportunities to explore methods we might've never considered. This is what makes beta readers and constructive critics so precious. 

Of course, getting beta readers and criticisms is easy. The hard part is listening, especially if the tone is less than merciful. When a stranger critiques one's work, they often do so without regard to the author. Perhaps not surprisingly, when we read their criticisms, we should do the very same:

Disregard ourselves.

Easier said than done. 

Most observations aren't backhanded insults at the author. Even if they were, chances are they contain thoughts worth mulling over. But ... and this is a big 'but' ... emotional reactions and hurt feelings do not belong in a discussion concerning perfecting prose and various elements of storytelling. It is about the craft. The work itself. If the critic's tone is cold, be a professional and ignore it. Most likely, when we feel pain regarding critiques, we are perceiving something to be malicious that isn't. 

In fact, taking time to help an artist perfect their craft, one might argue, is a benevolent, even gracious act that is highly undervalued. How an author perceives themselves, how they might defend their mistakes, will not help them sharpen their prose. 

The sooner we can forsake our defenses in a critique, the faster we can start to decide which observations to take, and which to disregard. 

A Quick Note on Saying "Fuck Off"

Although abandoning our ego in a quest for literary perfection is ideal, there are times where a reader, (likely a stranger online), really is just spiteful, looking to get some jabs in. They could even simply have injudicious remarks and opinions. In these instances, all the better for distancing our emotions from the page; clear thinking expedites the even more difficult, and less-talked about art of weeding out the useful notes from the rubbish.

Of course, the above title is meant to be muttered while you read your critiques to let some steam out. I don't recommend conveying this message to the person helping you.

Beyond Words

At the heart of this matter is honesty. We struggle with honesty because it is often tied to truths that are uncomfortable, difficult to swallow, perhaps even painful. All the same, the more truth we can take, the more progress we can expedite; the less misconceptions we'll have to drudge through to get from one opportunity to the next. The same applies to our writing.

The sooner we read the words, "This introduction gives no context for your protagonist and is confusing," the sooner we can get around to fixing it. We cannot rely on ourselves to see every fault. 

The past few months, I have opened up my self-published novel and a number of short stories to strangers for critiques. This invited an onslaught of feedback of insurmountable value. It was painful, enlightening, and encouraging all at once. More importantly, it reminded me just why it is so important to embrace uncomfortable truths.

By pushing aside self-assurances and listening to the voices of others, we open up a pathway for discussion. Discussion, in turn, has potential to reveal hidden insights and reason. After that, nobody can determine just how far this might propel our writing, our philosophies, our daily lives. Without getting too preachy, I'll summarize my experience with criticism as this:

Sacrificing comforting delusion for improvement.