A Writing Entry – Thoughts on Criticism

I am glad that enough people have read A Song of Snow and Ashes to rate and comment on it.  The rating is about where I expected and the comments on Barnes and Noble’s site are generally negative.  I’m not too surprised; people are more likely to comment when they don’t like something than when they do.  I’m trying not to take it personally.  If people can dislike the Piano Guys, then they can dislike anything.  However, I have poured my heart and soul into my writing so it’s hard not to take it personally when someone’s review is, “Meh,” or “the main character is a Mary Sue.”  That last one really stings.  But anyone who is trying to be a success had better learn to take criticism.  I’m not saying that’s easy.  No, all artists tie up their egos in their work; it’s our nature.  To criticize the work is to criticize the core of our being.  I’m not saying artists are fragile flowers, but sometimes we aren’t the hardiest of flora either.

This is not to discourage criticism.  In any art, or even profession, there is always room for improvement.  Having people always tell you that your work is great and awesome means you never know where to improve and may accidentally make a fool of yourself.  For example, Anne Hathaway was quoted as telling the next prospective Oscar host (I don’t remember who it’s supposed to be) to watch the rehearsal tapes and not listen to people who only praise their performance.  Apparently, she listened to the handlers who told her everything was swell and didn’t check for herself.  Consequently, her hosting (along with James Franco) was widely panned and mocked.  Here is an A-list actress who found out the hard way that you can’t trust people who only praise.

On the other hand, there is a matter of knowing which critics to listen to.  The job of a critic is not an easy one.  In whatever art form they choose to criticize, the critic is exposed to a wide range of genres.  However, the job of a critic is not to let their preferences for a genre interfere with their job.  The critic is an objective voice (I.e, no ego involved with the art) that has to understand the rules of a genre and be able to fairly assess and rate a work in their chosen art form.  For example, a movie critic may prefer high drama to gory horror movies, but the critic’s job is to review, assess, and rate a high drama and a horror movie with no preference to either.  The critic must know that what is considered good in a high drama probably would be considered boring in a horror movie and what is considered good in a horror movie is probably inappropriate for a high drama.  If you are a fan of high drama and find a critic that’s complaining a film version of Mansfield Park needs more zombies and some vampires, this is not a critic to listen to.  Likewise, if you’re a fan of horror movies and a find a critic that’s complaining a film version of The Shining didn’t have enough plot regarding the effect of alcoholism on the family unit, then that is not a critic to listen to.

I’ve often struggled with good writing versus bad writing.  I think, in general, no writer sets out to write something god-awful.  It certainly happens, and sometimes it’s even wildly popular.  I have no idea if anyone said to Stephanie Meyer, “Hey, your story here is just a bad ‘Romeo and Juliet’ knock-off with vampires that aren’t really vampires and a main character so devoid of personality or motivation she’s pretty much the antithesis of a character.”  If someone did say that to her, she didn’t listen and went on to become hugely rich.  I have lamented before how unfair it seems to me that someone becomes rich from objectively terrible art.  But this is musing on whether or not Meyer knew what she was writing was bad.  From personal experience, I’m going to guess probably not.

I have mentioned before I had a friend who was an aspiring writer that I couldn’t in all good conscience encourage to continue writing.  This friend, whom I’ll call “Writer G” for the purposes of this blog, wrote about as well as the above mentioned Stephanie.  His work was technically poor.  He gave little regard for the rules of grammar and a lot of his ideas seemed derivative from something else (although as I have mentioned before, this is hard to avoid).  But Writer G was no less devoted to becoming a successful author than I am, or many of my other writer friends.  I tried to offer Writer G criticism and it was rejected out of hand.  Writer G joined a writers’ workshop and told me about their criticism and also rejected it out of hand.  According to Writer G, no one understood the depth of his work or the point he was trying to make.  Writer G quit that first group and joined another that was more favorable towards his writing.  And because the fundamental element of the universe is irony, at one point I heard Writer G criticizing a popular set of fantasy books as being lazy fiction and saying that as long as there were plenty of people praising the author’s work, the author didn’t have to listen to the criticism and therefore had no incentive to improve.

Honestly, perhaps I was too hard on Writer G.  I have no magic that let’s me see anyone’s true potential.  Perhaps Writer G will go on to write the next Great American Novel.  But based on what I read, and Writer G’s complete dismissal of all criticism and marked lack of improvement of the craft despite producing many works, I decided Writer G was not going to become a good writer and therefore I withdrew from that part of Writer G’s life.  I read no more works, I offered no more opinions (good or bad), and I offered no more encouragement.  I did not actively discourage either because how do you say to someone, “I know writing is your driving passion in life that you pour all your heart, soul, and spare energy into, but it absolutely sucks and should either improve or find a new passion.”

I don’t want to be that kind of writer.  I have tried to explain in my blog that my fantasy novel is probably a bit different than most others, and why it’s different, and why I think that’s a good thing.  Anonymous commenters at Barnes and Noble disagree.  But I don’t want to be like Writer G and dismiss criticism out of hand because they “just don’t understand me” or “they just don’t get it.”  I’m quite sure there are some that just don’t get it.  The quality of art is often based on personal preferences (which is why I think critics are important).  Do I want ratings that are all five stars and heaps and heaps of praise that I have written the next Great Work?  Hell yes!  I absolutely want everyone to love my writing and think it’s totally awesome!  But will that happen?  No.  Does it make me sad?  A little bit.  Am I going to stop writing?  No.  Hopefully I’ll even get better.

In summary, I don’t believe most artists set out to produce poor work.  I think sometimes artists get behind a deadline and have to produce something, even if it’s not up to the standard of “good.”  But I think a lot of people don’t know good writing from bad, or don’t care, (i.e., The “Twilight” Saga) and I think a lot of writers don’t know good from bad.  Writers are what they read (as I have mentioned before) so if someone really loves to read objectively bad writing, they’ll probably produce objectively bad writing without even knowing what they are producing is bad.  That’s why criticism is important.  But it is hard to receive criticism.  Artists want to produce Great Works (generally anyway).  They honestly believe they have the potential to produce Great Works and failing that, at least produce good works.  No one aims for god-awful.  No one aims for mediocrity.  And no artist wants to hear that the work they’ve poured so much of themselves into is neither Great nor even good, but merely mediocre or even bad.  But improvement doesn’t happen without practice and honest self-introspection.  And that, of course, is no fun at all.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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