Friday, 1 April 2011

What's Criticism For Anyway?

When you put your work out, it's like presenting your vulnerable new-born baby to the world, and inviting them to give it a good kicking. Even if they stroke its fluffy head gently, you're on constant alert to the slightest nuance that they don't think your darling infant is less than perfect. The first time I put my work out for comment the blood was pounding in my ears so hard that I couldn't hear a word of what anybody said.

And because you're so protective of your beloved, even if people say 9 nice things, you only hear the negative 10th one. Your baby can't defend itself from attack so you rush in. This is good if you're a mother literally defending her child from wolves, but not if you're an author faced with a bit of criticism.

Last week a blogger called Big Al reviewed a book he'd read. It wasn't a bad review, saying he'd liked the story telling, but that it had been spoilt by grammatical mistakes and typos. It wasn't one of the main book review sites so it possibly wouldn't have received much attention except that the author chose to respond in - ahem - a rather negative manner. A couple of comments followed. The author responded again. Big Al posted some examples of the sentences that didn't make much sense. Commenters laughed. The author responded again, reducing her comments to the admirably succinct, though inadvisable, F*** Off. And so it merrily went on, the whole thing going viral around Twitter and lots of people pitching in, and a good time has been had by all who haven't been involved.

What I have learned about criticism, from both receiving and giving it, is that people generally want to be helpful. They want your work to succeed. They will offer what comments they can to help improve the writing. They may be wrong or ignorant, but their motives are rarely bad. They don't want to hurt your baby, they want it to look the very best it can.

In fact, you should welcome criticism, not reject it. Your friends may think they're doing you a favour by saying your writing is lovely, perfect, wonderful, but the chances are they're not telling you that your baby has a great splodge of dirt across its face. You could wipe that dirt off easily, if you knew it was there.

And that's what criticism is for: to help you present your baby to the wider world in the best way possible. That's all. You don't have to agree with it but you should know that opinion is out there, even if it comes with a raft of personal preferences and prejudices - I've never liked seeing wispy baby hair tied up in little bows, for example, just as I'm not a fan of present tense narratives.

Once people get over their worries, giving and receiving criticism is a positive experience all round, and a very quick way to learn how to improve. I've seen this time and time again, both with my own writing and in class situations. I love getting feedback on my work - sure, it might make me wince at times, but I'd rather that than send my work out with a dirty face.

The bottom line is the more honest feedback you can get, the better your work will be.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


wannabe a writer said...

Sarah, you are so right. I agree that this particular reviewer tried hard to balance the positive and negative aspects of the novel in his review and I think the author was very unprofessional in response. Critcism is there for a purpose and if you think it is wrong that it's up to you to turn the other cheek.

I have recently joined an on line writing group for short stories. The feedback on my stories has been really helpful in working out where I am going wrong with my writing and where I am going right too. As a writer you can only improve and you should take whatever help you can get along the way, even if it hurts when you realise your baby isn't perfect after all.


Nadia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nadia said...

Hi Sarah,
Great post - totally agree with you. I can't tell you how many red pen marks there were on the first feature I handed in as a journalist – suffice it to say I had a job seeing the paper underneath! I had to force myself to take a big gulp and put a brave face on it while I listened to my editor's very helpful directions on how to improve. Having done that though, I can honestly say I learned from it and seized upon every little tip I could.

I think the same applies when it comes to fiction. You have to give yourself time to consider the points being made – probably over a large glass of vino – and move on accordingly. I think criticism is hugely valuable and always feel really lucky to get some because I know it's only ever going to help me. When you're so close to a plot and characters it's very easy to gloss over any inconsistencies - which is something that an 'outsider' won't do.

Best regs,

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve got a couple of shelves full of review copies now. I never intended to become a reviewer. It just happened. I think it was Canongate that started the ball rolling – a request on Goodreads and I thought, What the hell?, and the next thing I know I’m getting them from all over the shop. It has its pluses and minuses. I have been sent some really excellent books that I would never have noticed in a shop but I’ve also been sent a few I’d rather they hadn’t. The good thing about reading them all – I think I’ve only not read three books that I’ve been sent – is that it has exposed me to some very different approaches to writing and as you will well know you can learn almost as much from a bad novel as you can from a great one.

Like most reviewers I received no formal training in how to review – I don’t even recall doing book reports at school – and yet I seem to have a knack for them. One of my early ones I heard was passed around as an example of how a book review should be written which amazed me because I was winging it and as far as I’m concerned I still am. One of the things my reviews have going for them is their length. I aim at a maximum of 3500 words including quotes from the book. I personally think they’re terribly important. You want to hear the voice of the writer not the reviewer.

A number of authors have also written to me and thanked me for the depth of my reviews which is also nice. I do take them very seriously and always do additional research incorporating quotes from literary articles, video clips, whatever will enhance the article. I despair when I read so-called-reviews in newspapers especially which are something like 500 words long and are basically nothing more than a rehash of the blurb on the back cover. I’ve also read a few where, having read the whole book myself, it’s obvious that all these ‘reviewers’ have read has been the first couple of chapters. It’s a time thing. But it frustrates me that they’re getting paid to do a job and are only doing a half-arsed job of it.

So far I have only not reviewed one book that I’ve actually gone to the trouble of actually reading and it was of all things Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky; it just annoyed the hell out of me and yet I couldn’t bring myself to spend three or four days trying to explain myself so I just told the publisher that and she sent me another book.

Criticism is, I feel, essential and perhaps more so these days than ever before. People don’t have time. There are far too many things, many interesting things, crying out for attention that it’s cost-effective time-wise to read what others you can trust say about a book or a film or whatever. To my mind if Barry Norman told me a film was worth watching then I would watch it. Who cares what Claudia Winkleman has to say? I’m sure she’s a nice enough person but what the hell does she know about films?

Lizzie said...

You're spot on, Sarah. We all need criticism and feedback ... and we need to be able to take it too. I was recently mentoring a trainee writer at work who was horrified to see 'a lot of pencil' on a piece of copy he'd given me. After going through my comments, he presented me with the amended copy saying, 'It's perfect now.' Of course it wasn't, nor ever would be! It went through another five rounds before I felt I could give it to the Creative Director.

Last year, you gave me very helpful feedback – just one comment but it changed the whole tone of the opening chapters. I had to let your comment percolate for a while, but you were right.



Sarah Duncan said...

Jim, I'm with you on Claudia Winkleman v Barry Norman. Jonathan Ross was good too. So who does the criticism is important too.

Lizzie, I'm so glad my feedback helped. Someone last month gave me a great quote from Heidegger (I have very intellectual mates!) about people not knowing what they didn't know which would have worked nicely with your trainee. I'll have a scoot around to find the exact quote.