Criticism and the Writer

Let’s face it: Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight saga, has taken some serious knocks from other writers. Yes, some of those writers may be jealous of Meyer’s success. Some of those writers may legitimately think that Meyer is successful beyond reason for no reason.

When is it okay to criticize a writer, and how should one go about it?

Woolf was on both sides of this coin–the critic and the criticized. As she grew older, Woolf became far more cerebral about criticism but still reacted rather passionately to it. She debated about how to act toward the writers leveling crits at her:

“What should be my attitude–clearly Arnold Bennett and Wells took the criticism of their youngers the wrong way. The right way is not to resent; not to be longsuffering and Christian and submissive either.” ~V.W. A Writer’s Diary

I think that there is a balance to strike. As a writer, a public figure, you are open to criticism, differences of opinion, and outright insult. If something is unfair or unbalanced, I think that writers can and should address it–but sometimes, ya just don’t have to. Stephenie Meyer doesn’t have to respond to her critics anymore than Stephen King or J.K. Rowling; numbers speak for themselves. Plus, there’s enough coverage on all sides that Meyer, King, and Rowling only have to write, not respond.

But writers, I think, are inherently critical of one another. And I think that there is a place for it. The rules? Behave professionally. Critique thoroughly.

Woolf was a critic too. Several of her best known books are critical. A Room of One’s Own is a book-length send up of then-current understandings of women and literature. (Go read it. Right now.)

In The Common Reader she levels criticism at Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dante, Chaucer, and Joseph Conrad. Woolf is even-handed in her criticism, gearing it more toward understanding the authors, their process, and how their storytelling developed. (In my opinion, this is more the type of criticism that should be leveled at Meyer–not “she sucks” but “what works and how it works”)

Following is an example of a critique of Jane Austen. Woolf states earlier in the essay that to understand Austen’s great work, a reader must look at her ‘second rate’ works (juvenalia, incomplete manuscripts, etc. as a contrast to the pieces that were complete, edited, and ‘pretty.’)

“…we should never have guessed what pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her pen to go through. [If we just had her completed, perfect novels] Here [in the incomplete, imperfect pieces] we perceive that she was no conjuror after all. Like other writers, she had to create the atmosphere in which her own peculiar genius could bear fruit.” ~V.W. The Common Reader

As writers, when we criticize, it should be for edification purposes. It should not be to tear down another writer. If we have something negative to say it should be in the form of “This did not work because XYZ.” NOT: “This sucks, and she’s a crappy writer, and I can’t believe that this shit was published.”

Have you been the recipient of unfair or harsh criticism? How did you deal with it? Should writers criticize other writers at all?

Love Letters: Inner Critic Trickery

A buddy of mine was recently having issues with the Inner Critic. The beast has hunted writers throughout history. I’ve heard various bits of advice in handling this creature–writing letters to the Critic (Heckler, as my friend Deb calls him/her), writing fast (outpace him/her), etc.

But, in the end, how a writer handles this demon is as individual as the writer.

I figured out how to handle him for me. In the interest of being helpful to my fellows, here is what I do–

First! I had to figure out how I was being criticized. Turns out it was the “You’re no good and never will be” attack. (And this is the most common attack from my understanding…though there’s also the “You’re too old to be trying this, You haven’t learned enough to do this, or You aren’t smart enough to pull this off”)

The big, telling word, for me, was “You.” The critic attacks You, not your work. It seems like it’s attacking your work. But it’s really going after You.

You must get out of the line of fire.

So my solution was to aim for other people. I write scenes, stories, poems, etc. and direct them to people that I know. I doubt that my targets would recognize themselves very easily (though things like occupations and names sometimes pop up and it’s not that hard). If something a friend or loved one said or did inspires me, I put it in. I have my target person clear in my head.

It’s important that I think of the stories/scenes as love letters too. The Inner Critic is a negative bastard. I write to people I love and admire–and miss. Missing them helps a lot because I feel like I still need to tell them something, whether or not they hear it.

When you’re writing to people you love, it’s really, really hard for someone to criticize you.

This has been super-effective for me. And it works for big pieces too. One scene of a novel could be directed towards my husband, another towards my mother, and guess what? It could all be the same character. Doesn’t matter. When I’m writing in the moment I can switch up who I’m writing to. The end novel could be an extended love letter to one person, or it could be a series of love letters to everyone I know.

Recurring Themes and You

We like to think that we’re saying something unique and original Every Single Time We Write…or at least, I do.

Such is not always the case. Our lives are limited to, well, our lives. Our passions are limited to (you guessed it) our passions. In general, these things don’t radically change. Patterns emerge and repeat.

Well, it’s nice to know that Virginia Woolf is no exception. You wanna know what her recurring theme is?

Time, and how it goes on by.

She could probably put it much more succinctly, and often does, in her writing. If you just take a peek at her titles, you can see the theme repeating:

Now and Then
The Years
Night and Day
Monday or Tuesday
“The Moment” (essay)
“Time Passes” (section in To the Lighthouse)
The Hours (original title of Mrs. Dalloway)

I could go on, but I think the point is illustrated. It shows up in her diary over and over again too–she is constantly wondering how much time she has left. It’s probably no quirk of fate that, when it came down to it, she chose her own time to leave.

We write about what’s important to us. What’s important to you? Does it show up in your writing?

Why I Hate Weather

Because it stops my critique group from meeting!

Again! (This is the third–count it! 1-2-3!–time since December.)

The whole reason all these blizzards are going on around the country has nothing at all to do with high or low fronts, jet streams, or whatever else might cause weather to go around.

Nope. It’s all because my critique group meets on the weekends. It’s all because we want to talk writing face-to-face.

The weather gods are evil.

The Place on the Shelf

For the last ten years, I worked for Barnes and Noble. Recently, I had the opportunity to finish school and go after my own writing career, which I’m happily pursuing at the moment–and that meant that I had to leave this wonderful place of business.

A business that, I’m sure you won’t be surprised, works very hard to place books on the shelves in an organized, efficient way. Fiction is alphabetized. Biography is arranged by the subject. Etc. The organization is not as elaborate as a library, but everything has a place.

Sometimes the question of book placement is more problematic than it should be. For example, after that whole James Frey debacle (you remember–the author who was one of Oprah’s picks and it turned out that he’d basically made up his entire memoir), there was some question of where to put the book. Then Jeanette Walls came out with Half-Broke Horses, labeled as a ‘true novel.’ What the –? Biography? Fiction? Make up a whole new section?
(Both of these are enjoyable books, by the way. No besmirching here.)

Turns out, this dilemma is nothing new.

The full title of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is Orlando: A Biography. When it came out there was much confusion. “But it is called biography on the title page, they say. It will have to go to the Biography shelf.” ~V.W. A Writer’s Diary

Virginia Woolf was concerned that the book-buying public wouldn’t be able to find her book. Unable to find book = no sales. No way to “make expenses,” as she puts it.

This is a legitimate beef. And I don’t think that there is any real answer to this dilemma, which still haunts us writerly folk today. Probably the best answer:

  1. write your book however you want to
  2. sometime during the process, figure out exactly what the book is
  3. explore the bookstore/library and figure out what the categories are
  4. communicate what the book is in query letters, phone calls, emails to agents and editors who may want your book
  5. after that, honestly, your on the marketing team’s good graces–so be nice to them =)

Is anyone working on a half/half genre that could be confusing? How do you plan to handle it?

***ANOTHER SUPER IMPORTANT SHELVING POINT–made by The Rejectionist (and if you’re not following her blog right now, I don’t know how to help you)

We All Need a Lytton

Keeping in the line of writers groups and mentors and honest critiquers, I’d like to point out a conversation that Woolf recorded in her diary between herself and Lytton Strachey (author of Eminent Victorians and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group).

First off, Lytton says to Virginia that he doesn’t like Mrs. Dalloway — he finds the structure (stream of conciousness, creative) not in balance with the subject matter (boring, everyday stuff). And he tells Woolf so. She doesn’t seem to take it too badly: “I like him all the better for saying so, and don’t much mind.” ~V.W. A Writer’s Diary

This illustrates something very important, I think: When you are the person being critiqued, you must understand that it is not you who is being critiqued. You must ‘not much mind’ when someone is talking about your work with only the work’s best interest in mind. And you shouldn’t be offended if someone’s personal opinion prevents them from ‘getting your genius.’ Again, it’s not you. Though it is personal.

I think that your personal feelings towards the critiquer also influence your reaction to criticism. Virginia greatly respected Lytton and appreciated his insights. A good thing too. Because if she had behaved all crazed and emotional she would have missed this:

“Perhaps, he said, you have not yet mastered your method. You should take something wilder and more fantastic, a framework that admits of anything, like Tristram Shandy. But then I should lose touch with emotions, I said. Yes, he agreed, there must be reality for you to start from. Heaven knows how you’re to do it. But he thought me at the beginning, not at the end.”
~V.W. A Writer’s Diary

Based on his advice and encouragement, Virginia then developed Orlando. A fantastical story set with a basis in reality, and in keeping with emotion. And Lytton’s advice was based on a complementary foundation. He didn’t say “You suck, Virginia. You should throw out all your pens and take up gardening.” He didn’t even say that Mrs. Dalloway was horrible, just that it wasn’t her masterpiece. She still needed to develop; she still needed to grow–and he had faith that she would. (And she did! Mrs. Dalloway is a definite classic, but the later works are really brilliant.)

I think that we all need a Lytton. I know that I have more than one! (I’m so lucky.) Do you have someone who encourages you, but doesn’t pull back when you need to hear the truth? How do you react to criticism?

P.S. Happy Groundhog’s Day! Come on spring, come on!