The Art of Criticism

And the grace to receive it.

I believe wholly in the workshop model, in the scathing bravery of criticism, in the investigative eyes of my colleagues.

Work doesn’t progress without the eyes of its audience. But the audience is not limited to post-publication bodies. It should include your fellow writers and artists. It should never be limited in its scope.

I teach Writing and Rhetoric to a group of bright undergraduates. They were horrified when I asked them to begin critiquing their peers’ work. But I believe in the power of transforming your work with the help of fresh eye; so, as teachers have done since the dawn of time, I made them do it anyway. I wrote some of their thesis statements on the board and we whittled them into their best form.

Criticism doesn’t have to be bad, I tell them. In fact, it shouldn’t be. It should never exist to reduce another person or their work. Criticism should be given with care. It should expose the weaknesses of a piece but also explore its strengths. I instructed my students to say things like, “I don’t think this sentence is working” rather than “this is awful.”

Being a good critic requires a sense of self, a sense of the receiver, and the ability to depart from your own emotion in order to more objectively analyze the work. Of course, subjectivity will never be gone from the process. However, it’s not your job to attack an aesthetic or a genre. It’s your job as the critic to figure out if the piece is working at maximum efficiency.

Stay away from, “I didn’t like this piece” or “I loved this piece.” Instead say, “This piece really worked because of x, y, z.” But don’t be afraid to tell the author what isn’t working.

Defensive authors exist, surely. As I live and breathe there are more jerks in the world than there are kind people. Resistance against well-meaning criticism is a sign of narcissism, poor listening, or simply naivety. The most productive workshops come from the kind of relationship where author and critic wholly support one another in the endeavor. It is a privilege to read another person’s work. It is a privilege to hear the opinions of your contemporaries.

Mostly importantly, criticism rounds out your sensibility; it creates a better writer, a better reader. Both giving and receiving criticism is a vital part of the authorial work cycle. My own writing would be nothing without it.

 

 

Image via Flickr, Will: September 14, 2011