By Kevin Paul Tracy
Some of the most respected classical writers throughout history did literary criticism as either a sideline or as a career before they sold their own novels. From Edgar Allen Poe to Oscar Wilde, then great writers would often decimate their peers in papers and writing journals, eviscerating them in public treatments. Today, when two or more people get into heated, venom-laden, often imaginative insult wars in emails loops or chat rooms, we refer to it as a "flame war," but this sort of thing is not new to the journalistic world. Often quite famous writers would go back and forth in periodicals, attacking and counter-attacking each other's works in the most colorful and often personal ways. The public loved it, so it sold a lot of papers, so the editors loved it. Back then, there was a certain poetry to the insults exchanged. Poe once wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he "...belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever — the mystics for mysticism’s sake." Because profanity was much more taboo than it is now, writers had to really challenge themselves to come up with original and imaginative ways to dress each other down that would both make their point and entertain the reader at the same time.
One could make a very convincing point about the lack of efficacy of such frontal assaults, popular as they were to the readers. It stands to reason than our best efforts in any endeavor are going to become intimately intertwined with our ego and self-esteem. This is our attempt to accomplish something intended for public consumption. We are expending effort and strain in its creation, and we want to do it correctly and in good form. We want others to not only read, but to enjoy it. No one sets out to fail, not on purpose. The man who does not care about whether others appreciate his attempts to create is a man better off dead - he is not truly contributing anything to the human condition, but stroking his own ego, little more than public masturbation. We are better off without him. Frankly I submit such men do not exist, or if they do, they are too rare to care about. So understandably we are going to feel attacked on a personal level whenever something we have created is attacked, and when that happens, any truth or lessons to learn from the criticism, however deeply buried under hyperbole and colorful language, is bound to be lost on us. We don't learn much from such criticism.
On the other hand, couching criticism in too much pillowy language to soften the blow often risks obscuring the points one wishes to make, or to blunt their importance so much that a very critical point may be ignored as less important. Saying, for example, "I love your writing. Just one small thing, for what it's worth, when you have a one-page character like the patrolman, who is very colorfully written by the way, discover the blood on the baseboard, no offense but you are not utilizing your protagonist, my favortie character in your book, in the most proactive manner," the point is so well couched in diplomatic rhetoric it could be lost. Ego and self-esteem of the writer aside, the best way to make a point is still the most direct, pointed, even blunt way: "You waste an opportunity to show your protagonist's sleuthing genius by having a minor cut-out character find crucial clues instead. And you do it repeatedly through the book." There can be no mistaking the point being made, and also the importance the critic places on that point.
In receiving a critique, I prefer the blunt approach to being coddled and swaddled and fed treacle. And still, other writers can get their hackles up and throw a glass of wine in your face for saying it.
There are those whose opinion, no matter how qualified, we as individuals do not respect, for whatever reason. I submit that the level of umbrage we take from a criticism increases exponentially in reverse proportion to the amount of respect we bear the critic: the less we esteem his opinion the greater offense we take at it. For this I'm afraid there is no remedy. As writers, we must merely bite the bullet and take it.
I further submit that to engage a critic on any level is folly. It doesn't matter that you can explain away his point, that you have a greater knowledge of writing craft than he, or that you are right and he is wrong. Engaging him can only make you look bad on a multitude of levels. One, you come off as insecure about your own writing. No matter how well reasoned or skillfully worded your retort, any retort at all smacks of defensiveness and lack of confidence, like you feel you have something to defend. Second, you can come off as petty, especially if anything you say can be interpreted as a personal attack on the critic. Reacting to a critique can sound like you are only reacting to the critique, and any personal opinions you express about the critic were only formed as a result of his critique, not based on any other independent knowledge or observation. Thirdly, you can appear quite arrogant in a retort, as if you consider yourself above any criticism at all, and not just this one critic or critique.
A lot of criticism, especially on the Internet, isn't worthy of response. It is in vogue these days on the Internet to launch attacks on someone who has put themselves forth in the public eye if only because it is so easy to do so. Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James recently underwent just such an ordeal, setting aside time to answer questions from fans on Twitter, only to be attacked by a collection of online thugs who found it funnier to lance and humiliate her publicly than to permit any serious dialog about her books. The only way to protect oneself from such a basting is to maintain some control over those permitted to participate - charge a nominal fee or issue invitations to the event without which one cannot participate. At any rate, the kinds of flaming criticisms to which she was submitted has been quite aptly described by many as appalling and uncalled for. These sorts of attacks aren't even worth a response, they are just ignorant and mean-spirited.
The only effective response to criticism is no response at all. Utter and complete radio science. It can be very difficult, but as I've already said, there is no way to indulge in the alternative with any sort of success at all. It is simply professional suicide to try.
There is a mind set to taking criticism gracefully, and while it isn't easily adopted, with practice it can make hearing harsh criticism much less sharp and damaging to our ego. First, always remind yourself that this person, whatever else they may be, is a reader, just like every other reader out there in the world that you wish to reach. In the end, his reaction is the reaction of a reader, which means out of the millions who potentially might read your book (and let's face it, none of us dream of a small audience) there are those out there who will have the same reactions, thoughts, and objections as him/her. You must decide whether you believe that number to be great or small, but in the end you are not going to be there, reading over their shoulders, ready to defend yourself against their reaction to your novel. So to the degree that they are honest, his criticisms are valid, not matter how they are worded, merely due to the fact that he is first and foremost a reader, your audience.
Second, if the critic is a colleague or fellow writer, be grateful that this particular reader, the critic, has himself writing chops, the skills himself to recognize flaws in prose and story craft, and the language to describe it in such a way that makes it very clear to you where you have gone wrong. Thirdly, especially if the criticism is badly worded, or deliberately worded to be insulting or to get a rise out of you, keep in mind that such personal attacks say much more about the person leveling them than they do the person at whom they are leveled. In such a case, leaving such caustic criticism unanswered tends to bring out in even greater relief and clarity the pettiness and arrogance with which the criticism was written/given.
And lastly, always remember that no matter the criticism, in the end you choose to accept it or not. If the project is still in development, you still get to decide whether to take the criticism and make the requisite changes to your work or to ignore it and leave it as it is. If already published, then you are limited as to what you can do anyway, and so it accomplishes nothing to take such things to heart. Even as you take the criticism of those whom you respect and admire, retain your faith in your own talent and skill. In the end it is your project, ultimately your offering to the world, and it must feel right to you, or you are not being true to yourself.
Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.