September 28, 2010

Evaluating Not-so-constructive Criticism

In yesterday’s post, I deconstructed some unsolicited, overwhelmingly negative feedback I got on the submission of a book of short stories to a contest, and I made a impassioned plea for your help ~ and you came through in a huge way! I can’t thank you enough for your reasoned responses and good advice and empathy. I owe you. (I mean that. Whenever you want to call in the favor, let me know.)

I wanted to recap your great advice (in the comments of yesterday’s post and also on Facebook). You guys said such smart things, and I wanted to pass them along.

Liz Prato said I was on the right track to compare that feedback with feedback I’d gotten from other places on the same stories. She said, “I've found that no matter how much I try to deconstruct negative feedback, it doesn't really make sense to me until a month (or more) later.” How very smart! In the middle of the white-hot first read, it’s hard to be objective.

Both Brad Green and Jenn Scheck-Kahn said really smart things about the strong reaction of the reviewer. Jenn asked whether the reader had to comment or if the comments were unsolicited. What a great distinction. The reader was not required to comment; therefore, the comments I received were unsolicited. She said, “If the answer is yes, this feedback shouldn't be taken seriously. … If the answer is no, that's a different story entirely and this feedback reads as someone who felt wounded, betrayed.” I definitely hadn’t thought about it that way. The reader fell a little in love with the work or had raised expectations, as Jenn said, but then she or he was disappointed.

Brad also made this point. He said, “Taking the time to tell you what's wrong, in their opinion, means they affected that reader nonetheless. I call that a win. Hate is as much a win as love. Hate doesn't apply to these comments, but anything other than dismissal is a win.” (Brad and I have talked about this before - how some people write to be loved and others write to be hated, but a strong reaction means you’ve hit a chord.) Jenn also made this point: “I tend to take strong responses more seriously than others because they reveal that a nerve has been touched, which is your ultimate goal, even if it's the wrong nerve.” Brad also made the point that some of the stories in the collection have been previously published, so a number of editors have liked them.

Jenn also said, because the reader was disappointed, she or he just stopped trying to understand what was going on. The reader’s comments became reductive. “This judge … believed in your skill but somehow the story stopped demanding that s/he keep paying attention. That's what I'd look at - what's missing? Are these stories lacking in ambition? The answer might be no - that you've stumbled on a bad reader or a good reader who gave a bad reading. But I think it's worth considation.” I love the distinction between a bad reader and a good reader giving a bad reading.

I also got some great comments from Facebook friends.
  • Liz mentioned that maybe the reader was just in a really shitty mood. Good point.
  • Bonnie ZoBell quipped, “If the critic likes your work it's valid. If not, it's spite.” Hehe.
  • M.E. Parker said that some of the most helpful criticism he’s received was negative.
  • He and C.C. Russell said that anyone who makes an overarching assertion about the nature of art (“Remember that art is not life. Art explains why something happens.”) is a little suspect; a more nuanced concilatory tone makes the comments more credible.
  • Lucy Jane Bledsoe mentioned offering such negative feedback without the writer asking for it is suspect.
  • Merrik Bush-Pirkle pointed out, about paying to enter a contest with grumpy graduate students as readers: “rather than get a studied and experienced critical assessment, you're getting subjectivity, bias, and limited perspective. And sure, probably a little spite borne out of a sense of self-preservation.”
  • Michael Neff offered the great advice of only get critiques from the best people and look for commonalities.
  • Erica Cote (an artist and my niece and friend) said that this in true not just in the art arena. Wherever you go, people have something to say.
  • Tania Nyman made the very good point that she needs “a sense that the critic understands and agrees with what I'm aiming for. Often I get advice that may be valid, but it heads the piece in a direction I'm not interested in.”

Also, my friend Pembroke Sinclair emailed me to say that this person was not my intended audience and the comments were a little crass because they didn't seem to know what I was doing: "In that case, it might have been better if they kept their mouth shut."  I agree.

I really can’t thank you all enough!! Such smart things you all said, and I’ll be thinking about them for months. I owe you, I owe you!

From the bottom of my heart,



Lucy Jane Bledsoe said...

Great post, Tamara. We all deal with this all the time and it's SO hard to sort out. I've heard some writers talk about the thick skin they've developed, but I never have been able to develop one.... I so agree with the people who said that when people offer intensely negative feedback, you've struck a chord. I got a story back recently from a high falutin' journal with the comment, "Always wanted a story about women's basketball, too bad this reads like a grade B movie." It's all I can do to not throw the story away, despite this reader being an obvious jerk. Anyway, you've struck a chord yourself with this topic! Thanks for taking the time to give us a blog and summary of thoughts.

Tamara said...

Thank you, Lucy! "Reads like a grade B movie" - OMG. Comments like those are not constructive and are more about the thwarted writer in that reader than anything you've written. Makes you want to make them write on the chalkboard 100 times: "I am not the center of the universe and I need to work on my empathy and communication skills." Knowing your work, Lucy, I'm positive that the story is kick-ass!