Friday, May 18, 2007

Writer Impossible: Hammered By The Critique

Recently, I was googling a favorite author of mine, Joan Didion. Among the many articles I came across was one that had been written in 1987. It was posted because it was part of a university class curriculum. It was by a woman journalist, who loathed Didion and detailed the reasons why. She ripped her prose to shreds. She also got personal and ripped Didion too.

I looked up the woman. She died 20 years ago. This was the only piece of her writing I could find on the web. She must've done more. Yet, this venal example of her abilities is the only thing left. I just thought what a truly shitty thing to be remembered for. Something so out there, so mean, an outright rant.

In the same vein, last night I talked to an old writer friend. He's an editor of film, even teaches. For the past few years he's been taking writing classes and working on a novel. He's noticed that the feedback he's getting from peers is brutal in a way that made even him pause. In other words, it wasn't constructive. Is it the isolation of blogging, the chatter of forums, has this free for all passed into circles where trust is a necessary ingredient to helping someone become stronger, more perceptive? I knew what he meant, and frankly, I've often had the same worries.

Every writer has peers either in their critique group or in their writing programs who just can't resist putting forth vitriol at your expense. Or as an instructor once said, "Often, the worst offenders are expressing their feelings about the weaknesses in their own writing onto yours."

If I had an award to give to the world's worst amateur critics, it'd be to these two characters. One had the habit writing notes in the margin in very large CAPITAL LETTERS. I knew it was nothing personal, but it felt like shouting. He also used cheap shots, comparing characters to cartoons, bad movies ("WHY IS EVERY CHARACTER LIKE A BAD HOLLYWOOD MOVIE?"). He'd always lead in with every negative thing he could dredge up. Worse, when he got feedback on his own stuff, he'd play himself up as the victim, ("I'M SO GLAD YOU USED ME TO LEARN ON.") Feckless bore. The other was known to use arch sarcasm, indirect points, ultimately trying to make himself look smarter. Oh, here's a third: a very overweight, unhappy lawyer who'd look up over her reading glasses, shake her head, and do the "tsk, tsk" thing to the writer.

Mind you, critiques are supposed to point out weaknesses, inconsistencies, and stretches of unbelievability. If you're not responding to something as you think the author has intended, it's perfectly valid to say so. If something is dragging, you can write, "tighten," or "pick up the pace," or "you've said this before." If there's a character who isn't quite clear, you can write, "tell me more," or even "not clear." The point of this being, is that it is possible to be specific about what isn't working without being dismissive or sarcastic. It's also important to show them what is working, and if ever there's a place for capital letters in the margin, it's there! "THIS WORKS! DO MORE!"

Now, the surprising thing was this: they were the most passive individuals you'd ever meet. However, they had major streaks of passive aggression. And none of them had the writing chops to show someone how to push something forward and make it stronger.

Anyway, if any of the three have blogs, I'm sure they're absolute hell.

But mostly on themselves. Because unless there's ever a universal meltdown of servers, what they say or write will be there forever. It'll be a reflection on who they are, what they think of themselves, and how they treat others. So I guess in this age of unprecedented self expression made easy by the internet, it all comes down to this: what isn't said is as important as what is.