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Criticism, Ruminations

On Criticism

Starting a few entries on writing and criticism …

If you are, like me, a member of a writers’ group, everything you write for potential publication is subject to criticism. That criticism can be categorized as professional (editors and agents), or well-intentioned amateur (your writers’ group), but in most cases it is fundamentally flawed. In fact, most criticism writers receive does more to keep them from writing than it does to encourage.

The biggest problem with much criticism is that it sets up a false relationship between the writer and the critic, in which the writing is not being judged on its merits, but by a different set of criteria.

In the case of professional critics, sometimes known as agents and editors, the criterion is simply, will it sell? Professional criticism is a business, and the profit motive must be acknowledged, but that motive influences the efforts of most writers. It tells them they must write in a certain style, or comply with the conventions of a particular genre in order to be published, and that being published is the only measure of success for a writer.

That belief also influences criticism from practiced amateurs, such as members of a writers’ group. But the real trouble with group criticism is that the relationship between the writer and the critic becomes unbalanced. The writer cedes power and authority to the critic. This can be dangerous for the writer, because most amateurs, when given an opportunity to criticize work, approach it from the viewpoint that they MUST find flaws in it. In some cases they attack manuscripts with the attitude that they will not only find defects, but also that those imperfections are all they will find. The very word “criticism” connotes negativity to many amateurs.

This doesn’t do much for the psyche of the writer, who not only has to endure the critique session, but then must cope with lingering doubts over the value of his/her efforts. Because those efforts usually come from the writer’s soul, and because writers, by nature, are particularly sensitive to criticism, the cumulative effect drives many would-be writers to close their laptops permanently.

The attitude of many amateur critics, that they must find only flaws in every work, is puzzling. There are many stories, which, if these critics had read them in a journal or book, would have been praised as professional works of art, and their supposed “flaws” would have been ignored because the published writer surely “knows what s/he is doing.”

So what I’m arguing for is that members of writers’ groups (or MFA classes or workshops, etc.) adopt a different approach. Get away from the stance of the authoritative, powerful critic and consider submissions for what they are—drafts of materials that could be published. Read stories as though they are already in a book or journal. The reaction will then be more balanced and fair.

For myself, before I get into specific praise and criticisms, I try always to consider two main criteria. The first comes from a comment made by Henry James. He said, “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” And that’s the only consideration he thought truly important—that the book (or story in my case) be interesting. Face it, if the story is interesting, you’ll probably read it, despite whatever other shortcomings it might have.

My second criterion is also fairly simple, and builds on James’s: what is the writer trying to do, and is s/he doing it? That’s separate from the “interesting” consideration, since a writer can do a fantastic job of crafting a story and it might still fall flat because the subject is of no interest to some readers. Conversely, the premise may be wonderful, but the story doesn’t work because the writer hasn’t thought out the point or reason for the writing. This allows me to get into more specific comments that are geared towards helping the writer realize the goals of the work.

But always I try not to allow personal tastes to influence my comments. That’s not to say I haven’t in the past, or that I don’t when reading for personal knowledge or enjoyment. But when it comes to criticism, which I look at as a request for help in achieving a goal, I try to keep in mind what that writer’s goal actually is, and that encouragement that it can be reached is as important as anything else I might say.

And that’s it. Everything else, as James said, is arbitrary. The rest doesn’t help.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

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