Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ignoring the Critics

Anyone who wants to go public with their writing or other art form faces the inevitable audience waiting out there to evaluate it; this includes reviewers and critics, many of whom are not helpful. The terror of the blank page that faces many writers owes something to the past (the echo of harsh English teachers), it seems to me, and something to the future: what will the reviewers say?

As one who has been on both sides, as writer and critic, I know how easy it is to let fear paralyze the creative process and how tempting it can be to unleash one's frustrations in a piece of negative criticism. If you have read a movie critic's trashing of a particularly bad film, you know how enjoyable it appears to have been for the critic to be cynical, sarcastic, and smug, and how many readers can enjoy reading a savage review, as if it were a type of witty entertainment. Some of the same thing, in more sophisticated form, takes place in academia.

Robert Pinsky, in a recent Slate article, talks about this, using an especially venomous (and famous) review of the verse of John Keats in which the critic, assuming a sneering pose, admits he has not read the work, although "we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it." By dismissing the work of this young Romantic poet as unworthy of even being read and honestly evaluated, the critic (it was said) hastened Keats's death, which was actually due to tuberculosis. But his chilling words ("tiresome and absurd") can still sound like a death knell to many insecure young writers encountering that 1818 review.

For those with such fears, I recommend searching for Rotten Reviews (there was once a little book of that title) to see how wrong-headed the critics often are. And how often they overlook their evaluative function and become like attack dogs, discouraging the author and any of his or her fellow would-be writers.

Criticism should be, after all, a balanced judgment, based on solid criteria; its aim is to illuminate the text under review and show its strengths as well as possible flaws. It is not a self-serving opportunity for the reviewer merely to toss off his or her opinions and tastes. It should not determine the way the book or other composition is received by the public, who should make up their own minds.

Luckily, as the following examples indicate, many critics can and should be ignored since they have been proved wildly wrong.

1. "Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You'll never be a writer." This from a publisher in 1852 to Louisa May Alcott, author of the most famous and popular children's book of the 19th century.
2. A few years later, a French critic wrote: "M. Flaubert is not a writer." This would come as a surprise to the millions who have read the classic novel Madame Bovary.
3. Critics in 1922 attacked T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and even The Great Gatsby, called by one "an absurd story."
4. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was called "an emotional hodge-podge" by one idiot masquerading as a reviewer; even Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 23 publishers. The 24th company made $6 million on the book.

I've focused on writing since that is my field, but I know performance artists, especially actors, have been wounded by unkind, unhelpful remarks that say more about the limitations of the reviewer than the work under consideration.

The obvious conclusion: do not be put off by an initial response that is likely to be hasty, unthinking, and simply stupid. Get a second and third opinion. Ask good readers for positive criticism. Seek praise, too: What did you like about my story? This is an essential question in any writing workshop. And: How can it be improved?

When you are asked to wear the critic's hat, remember to be fair, to think of the author and the work, not yourself. It took years for me to learn this since, like many students, I was sometimes the recipient of harsh judgments, and as a young teacher, given to handing them out.

I like to think that with age comes wisdom.

No comments: