Last night, I attended my first ever meeting with an official writer’s critique group. The experience led me to reflect a bit on what it means to offer constructive criticism on the developing work of an artist. My work was not on the agenda for review last night, but I contributed to the evaluation of three peers. I found the delivery of feedback from some participants to be rather hostile, and I wondered why it was so. I made some observations, and I am using this space, as always (broken record Julie), to process my ruminations and arrive at reasoned conclusions.
For starters, let’s identify some definitions of concepts implicit in the organization and function of a critique group. The term critique (according to Dictionary.com) as a verb, means “to review or analyze critically.” Critical, as an adjective, involves “skillful judgment as to truth, merit, etc,” being synonymous with the word judicial, which means “inclined to make or give judgments.” Critique is often used interchangeably with the term constructive criticism, which is defined almost paradoxically. The word constructive means “helping to improve; promoting further development or advancement,” while the term criticism is defined as “the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work.” Thus, to offer constructive criticism is to offer a judgment on the quality of a work with the goal of improving or promoting the development of said work. If we consider the synonymous relationship between the terms critique and constructive criticism, I think we can agree that the purpose of a critique group would be to provide feedback/judgment/analysis on the quality of a work, with the intent of helping the artist develop and improve said work.
With that said, it is my opinion that to offer feedback enshrouded in hostility is to counteract the purpose of providing constructive criticism. The effectiveness of a critique is dependent upon its delivery, and the delivery is dependent upon the motivation from which it derives. Am I seeking to help my peer improve? If so, I choose diction that affirms the merits, while diplomatically addressing questions or concerns that arise. In the case of a writing critique, I am of the opinion that the most effective way to help a peer develop is to pose questions that I, as the reader, need to have answered in order to establish the main conflict of the plot or the motivation of a character. Where there are holes in a story, I will question, “why is this relevant?” or “why should I care about this?” It is not for me, as a critic, to determine solutions to the plot or characterization problems I find. On the contrary, I should simply disclose my confusion, and allow the artist–the creator–to determine how to clarify the ambiguity.
What I observed last night was what appeared to be an emotional reaction to the work of a peer. It was almost as if the reviewer was offended that he had to ask the questions “why is this relevant?” and “why should I care?” so he seemingly lashed out at the creator for failing to answer those questions in the text. He used language like “lame” and “boring” to describe passages from the selection. These are emotionally charged words that offend and attack; plus, they are extremely subjective. An objective analysis of the merits of craft is not the same as a value judgment based on personal preference. As a peer seated at the table, I did not agree that the passage in question was boring at all. You all know I have an ADHD brain, and the entire story held my attention. Not all fiction does. To call something “boring” is a subjective, highly personal value judgment, and it does not accomplish the effect of aiding an artist in the development of his/her craft.
At the end of the meeting, as the newest member, I was asked whether I was interested in sharing my own work for critique at the next meeting. I had to decline. I could not articulate at the time why I felt this to be a prudent decision, but today I can. I have an extremely sensitive soul. As such, I can often be negatively influenced by bad feedback. In other words, if someone judged my work with the aggressive language I witnessed in the group last night, I might take their “advice,” thereby altering my good work for the worse because I tend to cower beneath strong arms. Yet insults are not the same as constructive feedback, and this would effectively diminish the quality of my work. For some, it is easy to “let it go in one ear and out the other.” This is not the case for me. Likewise, as I sat there in shock as one abrasive critic lacerated the work of a peer, I wondered what it was within this critic that caused him to react so emotionally to this particular selection. I could see that the issue was not with the work, but with the reviewer; nevertheless, if I were the recipient of such overt aggression, I think it would be difficult to extricate the reasoned arguments from the inflated and spurious authority of my outraged peer.
Before attending my first Open Mic, I decided to revise the section of the novel I prepared to present. I found an editing checklist online, and in applying the conventional wisdom of the pop fiction writing community, I chopped up the scenes and effectively altered my personal flair and style. I met with my good friend and fellow Literature Major–who happens to have a Masters in English Literature, and when she read the revised draft, she found my changes left her with questions that needed to be answered. I showed her my original, and she loved it. She told me to ignore the pop fiction advice and go with my gut, which is what I always said I would do throughout this endeavor. I turned my back on myself out of intimidation by the unknown audience before which I prepared to share my story. This is relevant because the hostile critic at last night’s meeting included in his suggestions for improvement some of the same conventional pop fiction wisdom that served to make my work worse when I attempted to heed it.
This novel contains my soul. I am sure most writers feel this way about their work, but I have the bias of feeling exceptional in this regard. This novel is my story. No, I am not a vampire. No, I didn’t survive trench warfare, but beneath the literal elements of my story is the symbolism–the metaphor of my life. I cannot risk diminishing the power of my story for the sake of some fool’s emotional response. I already know that there are people out there who will hate my novel. It’s horrific. There are grotesque and troubling scenes. I don’t care about the way others perceive my content. My priority is to communicate my story through imagery that resonates with the audience that needs it most. Conventional pop fiction writers may find me too wordy. I. Don’t. Care. I care about the cohesion of the story, the beauty of the language, and the cathartic transcendence I offer to my readers.
In conclusion, I desire feedback. I desire well constructed analyses and thoughtful questions. I do not, however, plan to willingly subject myself to the wrath of someone personally offended by my craft or style. I can handle it if and when it comes at me, but if I know it is likely and I can avoid it, then to me, it seems prudent to do so.
Thanks for humoring me as I bark from the peak of my precious soap box. If you enjoy the things I say here, and would like to support my work, you can find me at Patreon.com/CornflowerGirl.