Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 20 November 2008

How to critique




If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything. – My mum (and probably a thousand other mums too)




Okay, hands up – no one taught me how to critique but then no one taught me how to write a novel so there.

I think the biggest problem with the word critique is the word itself. It sounds like 'criticise' and so people can't help but assume that when you critique something you're expected to pick holes in it, after all aren't critics famous for tearing people to shreds? In fact it often seems like a prerequisite for the job is the ability to belittle, berate and beat the bejaysus (metaphorically speaking) out of any poor bugger that wanders into their sights.

Critics have a lot to answer for, the death of Tchaikovsky for one, although we will never know for sure but I'm blaming them anyway. In Waiting for Godot "Crrrritic!" is one of the insults they throw at each other.

So, how do you critique a piece of work? Stories are fairly straightforward because there are core elements you want to look at:

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Background
  • Theme
  • Spelling, grammar, punctuation


You can look at each one of them in turn and observe what works and what doesn't. Your object is to analyse and evaluate but let's stick with a poem for just now because similar principles apply. On Zoetrope apart from a written review you're expected to give marks out of 10 for the following points:

  • Originality
  • Communication of Theme
  • Structure
  • Fluency


It's not perfect but it's a reasonable list to keep in mind. I would suggest a few other things that should be considered:

  • If the poem has a title, how does it contribute to the work as a whole? Or is it simply a label?

  • What poetic techniques contribute to – or detract from – the success of the piece (e.g. alliteration, onomatopoeia, symbolism, rhyme)?

  • Is any part of the poem redundant? Is repetition used to good effect or is it a distraction? And that's not simply using the same words but expressing the same idea(s) but in different words.

  • Have the very best words been used?

  • Does the poem rely heavily on clichés or out-of-date and hackneyed expressions?

  • Who's the poem's target audience?

  • Is it relevant?

  • Does the work use esoteric terminology or require specialist knowledge?

  • And I would look at spelling, punctuation and grammar too.


Don't look at this as a checklist so much as things to think about when you look at a poem. Obviously the first time you run across a poem you're seeing it in isolation. If I can I'll have a squint at a few other poems by the same author to see what their style is, if they have one, and that will help me see if what I'm about to review is typical of their work.

I come across a lot of poems on the boards in certain forms (the haiku is obviously a popular one) so, if they're writing a haiku are they abiding by the rules and conventions that govern that style of writing. In simple terms, it is simple a poem with three lines with a 5-7-5 syllabic rhythm or is it true to the basic principles of haiku. Or does any of that matter? Western haiku is so far removed from its origins that beating someone over the head about their approach or subject matter is probably not going to help. I do usually mention the 5-7-5 structure IF the poem would work better with an extra syllable or two more or less.

The most obvious thing is first of all to look for what works about any piece – and even the worst poem has something praiseworthy about it. Note I didn’t say what's 'good' about it. Before you start dissecting a piece, find something – anything – nice you can say about it.

Then point out what doesn't work as well as it could, not what's 'bad' about it. Both of these should be objective comments.

Then what you like and dislike about the piece. These can be subjective remarks but it's so much better if someone tells you WHY they liked the piece. A comment like: "Great poem!" is … well, great, but not very helpful. If they're completely misread the piece then maybe it wasn't as great as you've been led to think it was. And, "That's the biggest load of horse manure I've ever read," is probably not the right thing to say either even if it is the biggest load of horse manure you've ever read. If they've put it out there for the world to see then they probably don't think so and no amount of persuading will convince them that it is.

One site I looked at suggested including a disclaimer:

Include a disclaimer that says you recognize the poet has the right to throw your critique into the nearest dumpster. "Take this for what it's worth." is a very common way to say "This is what I have to say, but you don't have to listen."


The next thing you know they'll be asking for a lawyer's letter.

But, yeah, make the point that this is an opinion and your motivation is to encourage and support the writer. You're not telling them what to do. You're telling them how their poem has affected you. So many writers forget that what they write is only part of the equation and their readers will bring only what they are capable of bringing to the table. Readers complete poems. In some cases this will be too much. In other cases not enough. I've had poets come back at me on both counts.

The Poetry.org website gives its own list and includes this option:

Offer suggestions for the poem from the point of view of a reader: point out the places that you don’t understand or sections that you find inconsistent with other parts of the poem. Give advice on the poem that is as concrete as possible. Tell the poet that you didn’t understand this line, or that word, or ask why each stanza begins with a capital letter.


You can also see some sample critiques there if you're interested.

I have completely reworked poems before to demonstrate a point I was trying to make. There are those who say this is an absolute no-no but sometimes it's easier to show rather than tell. But I'm always quick to point out that this is not saying their way is wrong and mine is right because so often there isn't a right and wrong way. Look at my post on my poem 'Stray', for example, and all the different ways it could have been laid out. That, I have to stress, is not something I do very often but a few lines is probably okay to illustrate your point.

I found this fun list on Author's Den. The author says of it: "I chose the letter 'I' to do this to remind us all that poetry is subjective and so is a critique."

Insight: A poem will often give us insight into a person's thoughts. What does this poem tell you about the poet?

Interpretation: What was your interpretation of the poem? What do you believe the poet meant for you to interpret?

Impact: How did the poem influence you? What impact did it have upon you? Describe from your own perspective remembering that this might not have been what the poet intended. Ideas Comment upon the ideas used. Was the poet original?


The article goes on to list illustration, inspiration, information, imagery, and a good many other ‘I’ words, some of which are a bit of a stretch. It is worth the read, however. The first comment on the list got to me:

Thanks for the info here, but basically, I think someone's write's either do it for you, or they don't. I personally don't try to find meaning/substance in others writings if it just dosent turn me on, that simple. And i am sure others feel the same way about my work. Each to his own.


And she's right, even if her English needs a bit of work. Or is that me being critical? Not everyone wants their work dissected and presented back to them arranged on a plate. For some people poetry is a take-it-or-leave-it medium. I don't get it. I think it's stupid but it's their right and so when I do encounter someone like that I apologise for any offense caused and move on to someone who might appreciate my efforts.

And that's the thing. When someone reviews your work never forget the fact that they've given up some of their precious time to try and make you a better writer. And that is the motive behind the majority of critiques. And even if it's not you can still learn from a bad critique. Just don't let 'em get to you.

For the record the next commentator on the 'I' list had this to say:

You are sooo awesome! You have helped me so much, now I know what questions I should ask on my critique. Thanks alot!


You never know how people are going to react. Some will be appreciative and other not. It's life and life sucks but we get on with it anyway.

There are other lists. Here's one taken from Poets Dictionary by William Packard:

And, lastly, how NOT to critique: DON'T CRITICISE THE POET. Was that clear enough? It's the old: hate the crime, not the criminal mentality. You can get away with quite a bit IF you're respectful. And if they won't listen don't try and force them around to your opinion.

All of the above is assuming that the poet has asked for comment in the first place. I've come a cropper before for saying too much when the poet has simply posted their poem on their blog. To my mind, if a poem's out there in the open then it's fair game though I've learned not to say too much on a blog. I just touch on a point or two and pass on. Poems on discussion boards are a different thing completely.

So, go for it. Just don't go for the throat. Okay?

30 comments:

shug said...

This popped up just as I was putting my bawbee's worth on criticism on Rachel's blog. My problem is that the only valid criticism I feel competent to give - beyond the blandest generalisations- is to advise how I would have written the piece, which makes the advice partly redundant.

I have to suppress a laugh at the bit you quote above about questioning the poet if you don't understand what they mean. That's the whole short list of last time's TS Elliot Prize as far as I'm concerned. But maybe I'm thick.

NathanKP said...

I've appreciated you detailed analysis on my poetry. You have a very balanced approach. Some people are just all gushy, "Oh, I loved it." I'd rather see some thought put into a serious comment about how I can improve as a writer.

"To my mind, if a poem's out there in the open then it's fair game though I've learned not to say too much on a blog. I just touch on a point or two and pass on. Poems on discussion boards are a different thing completely."

Are you on any discussion boards out there. I'd love to benefit more from your critiquing.

Nathan

Jim Murdoch said...

Gushing is something I always view with a wary eye, Nathan. I know when I've written a good poem and the best poems I've written have left people lost for words usually because I've written something that they always wanted to say themselves and what more is there to say than that? My wife gets to read every poem I write before anyone else and she is miserly with her praise I can tell you but I know when she says a poem is 'good' then it's damn good. Like most lay reviewers she's not keen to be pushed to explain why it's good but really that's what I'm looking for: Tell me what I did right so I can go and do it again.

The only board I visit is Zoetrope and not very often these days – too busy – but now I know you appreciate a word or two of criticism then I'll continue if I think I can say something positive. I visit one or two sites where I've got to know the poets and know they're keen for constructive input so I do what I can.

Fiendish said...

I have slightly different thinking about critical feedback.

I love receiving it, mainly for the rush of "wow, somebody bothered reading my piece! and oh my gosh! they thought it was 'great'!". I also love giving it, because I am a deeply critical person at heart.

But I don't know if it's useful.

Very very rarely have I revised anything based on criticism, except some paragraph re-ordering in my fiction, and I know nobody ever changes anything I tell them to change. Looking back, I got tonnes of good advice I never took - but I never did take it, and here I am anyway.

You're either a good writer or a bad writer. If you're good, you get better on your own and learn from making your own mistakes. If you're bad, nobody can help you get good.

This may seem a slightly calculated approach, but hey. It's how I feel.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Fiendish, when I was seventeen I was much the same, simply to be read by anyone was a big thing for me. Bear in mind there was no internet back then. (Christ, I feel old.) But over the last thirty years I can honestly say I've received next to no useful criticism from anyone. My first reaction to that sentence is: Well maybe, Jim, you're simply not responsive to criticism? And that's a fair comment but I think I'm objective enough to say that's not the case.

The biggest problem with what criticism I've received is that people, no doubt scared to offend, pull their punches. I know I do. I pick a couple of tweaks here and there and leave it at that. And I have seen people take my advice but usually the odd tweak has turned an awful poem into a not too awful poem. Really what I want to say is: Ditch it, it's not worth putting any more effort into and these are the reasons you should ditch it … but I don't, I just don't waste too much time on poets that clearly haven't got it. That said, if you read what I was writing when I was seventeen you'd not be too encouraged either, just the odd spark here and there. There are bad poets because they lack knowledge and experience and there are bad poets because they have no natural ability; if you have the latter then you might make a go of it but all the knowledge and practice won't make you into a poet if you're not. I agree with you there.

The really annoying thing is that I would have loved someone to sit down with me and pull one of my poems to pieces: Why does this work? Could it be better? I can do it now, look back ten or twenty years and see where I was going wrong but part of me thinks that I might have really needed to work through all that to get to where I am just now. No quick fixes, eh?

Oh, and when did advice become metric?

Kay said...

I found that I really value criticism when I trust the critic.

My editor, my fellow writers (who’s work I enjoy and find stimulating) make good critics and I value what they say.

The layperson’s response… well then I am not always looking for critique… from them the “audience” as it were, I am looking for emotional response.

Regardless, I loved this post… thank you for giving me food for thought.

J.C. said...

Jim, I agree with those who are saying that the only purpose of literary criticism and theory today is in its being a special kind of art. It has come that far - literary criticism is now a special kind of mental and artistic exercise very often not fulfilling its primely purpose and thus - not having much to do about the real novels and poems any more.

Art Durkee said...

Lots of poetry boards have another rule, "Don't critique the critique." But this rule has several problems. First off, it's sometimes good to engage in a dialogue about where you might disagree with the critique. (And never forget that there are lots of trolls who take delight in hatchet jobs but nothing else to say.) The rule is also often phrased in such a way as to require that all comments be about the poem, and nothing else. This can be artificially restrictive. It doesn't allow the critique to bring in examples of parallel poems that might have a reflection on the poem at hand. It also tends to prevent dialogue about sources, about inspirations, and other issues that are about the poem's context, if not a direct comment on the poem.

The best critique one can ever hope to get is from someone whose opinions and poems you also know and trust. They're going to be able to see your latest work and put it in context of your growth and background as a writer. Most critique doesn't get to this level of knowledge of the rest of the poet's work, or to the familiarity with the poet's work that comes of building a mutual relationship. In my experience, real-life writer's groups tend to be better at this than online workshop forums; although there are exceptions, to be sure. There are a few people online who I trust, because we've had a long relationship of mutual critique. These are the people, the poets I trust, who are most likely to give me an insight into a poem that would lead me to revising it, or reworking it. Without that insight, the critique is often not very useful to the poet. From pretty much everyone else, outside this known circle of poet-friends, I rarely get useful critique. Occasionally, yes, but not consistently.

You're right that most people pull their punches when critiquing a poem. The reason why punches get pulled is typically because far too many poets still young in their craft far readily confuse honest critique with a personal attack. Your advice to never criticize the poet is absolutely good advice. On the other hand, there are plenty of beginning poets who are painfully thin-skinned to any critique at all.

You're correct that there are lots of folks who just don't listen to critique, for whatever reason—so why bother? The difficulty is that one always runs into a few poets who can't take critique, because anything but fawning adoration is taken as a personal attack. Those are the thin-skinned types. I don't give those people the benefit of my critiques, because I'm just wasting my breath in their case. I've been giving good critique for a very long time—giving critique is a craft one can hone, a skill that can be learned well—in many venues, online and offline, and I don't bother with folks who really don't want to hear it.

The other group of poets who waste one's time, as a critiquer, are those who reject all critiques, sometimes quite forcefully, because they know they're right about their poetry's achieved perfection. (Even when they're not.) There's no small bit of cussed egoism about this. Such poets just want to display, they don't really want to dialogue. They also don't really want to grow and improve as writers, because they think they already have. So, again, it can be a waste of time.

My personal rule of thumb is that I do not offer critique unless it is asked for. Ever. There are plenty of folks who post their poems on their blogs: that in itself is not an invitation to critique (even if the poem makes one wince). Hopefully, the poems have already been revised, or workshopped, or thought through, before they appear at that point. (I do find it interesting that folks can't always tell what's a first draft and what's not. Some poets do write at a higher level of initial polish, it is true.)

I also take those rules of critiquing that the online poetry boards post with a major grain of salt. I have seen those rules honored more in the breach than in the practice, most of the time. People rarely walk their own talk.

So what is one to do? Why should one wade into this minefield of critiquing one another's poems at all? Sometimes that's a very valid question. Again, I think the best place way to get is to give, and to cultivate a small circle of trusted peers who critiques you trust because they know your work, and vice versa. A lot of the rest of it can be, well, fruitless.

tashabud said...

This is a very informative post. I've got my unfinished novel disected and critiqued recently by webfiction.com. The critic there shredded my novel to pieces. At first, I was very hurt. Actually, I still am, but I'm trying to take his criticsms constructively to benifit me. His words are motivating me to work more diligently, pushing me to strive harder in hopes of producing a well-deserving novel in the end.

Tasha

gingatao said...

Of course, critique-ing is frowned upon in bloggoland. I've never found being critiqued particularly useful, mostly because I have made all the decisions before I have presented the poem in public. Someone else maybe able to offer possible variations on those decisions but as the person who knows the poem and its intention best...

Ken Armstrong said...

Awesome post Jim!! :)

Fiendish pulled a good reply out of you there - I enjoyed that especially - and I'm never giving you any more advice Fiendish (cheek) and *I* have changed things based on things *you've* said to me. so you better change something, quick! :)

We all pull punches, I think. It isn't helpful but it's necessary, so that our world is not a constant merry-go-round of conflict and defensiveness.

Jim, in the post you say, "...and even the worst poem has something praiseworthy about it". This is benevolent of you. I have often to read a lot of stuff (less said...) and some of it has nothing praiseworthy at all. The search for that glimmer of light - something positive to say - is wearing sometimes. "well, you got it written..." seems to work well :)

lisaalber said...

I like the term "constructive feedback," and always remember it when I'm asked to critique a story. I like to provide the reason why something doesn't work for me and a suggestion.

I've found that I do use constructive feedback -- not all of it, of course -- when it's coming from people I trust and know what I'm about, what my writing is about. Some of my writer friends have good insights and help me see outside my own box.

I've had a few of my short stories pulled to pieces, and it was SO helpful. It helps when the puller is someone who obviously has much more writing experience than I do.

I'll tell you this much: I'm never going to put raw pieces of fiction out there on the 'Net for feedback. People have all kinds a funky agendas. Life's too short to put up to folks who don't know squat, like to be mean, don't know how to provide feedback, or simply want to feel better about themselves.

All any of us needs are two or three or four trusted "readers" (a term I also prefer) who will be brutally honest when required, and always constructive.

Frances said...

I've workshopped a lot of stuff - I feel I've got to know whose opinions I really value. Sometimes you can tell if someone hates a poem but is searching for something 'constructive' to say. A bit like filling in those ghastly 'feedback' forms after a conference when you say the catering was lousy because you don't like to complain about the presentations.
The best thing for an artist as far as I can tell is to know your own worth. But its also the hardest thing.

Jim Murdoch said...

As expected, lots of thoughts on this one.

Art, of course every poetry board is going to have its own set of rules most of which boil down to PLAY NICE – I have the distinct feeling I've written this before – and that's fine but I do like when I can get into a dialogue with the person I've critiqued to see mainly if I'm right. I can see how some people might equate critic with expert – I guess that's the point you're making Jasko – but I'm certainly not. The most I'll admit to being is experienced which is another way of saying old and set in my ways.

You're right when you say that the best critiques will come from people you know and trust but what do you do when you live somewhere, as I have done for all my life, surrounded by non-poets? The Web was a godsend as far as I was concerned and I was keen for discussion. I was lucky, because I knew nothing it was a long time before I got involved in anything groupcentric and all my early experiences were on a one-to-one basis. I had no idea of the rules so I just breenged in ideas flailing all over the place. And it was great. Groups, by their very nature, are structured and I've never made any friends, other than in the Internet sense, on any board.

I do feel that most of my experiences of providing critique have been atypical in that they have been quite positive but we've talked before about the thin-skinned breed of poet and I've learned to steer clear of them in case they peck my eyes out. Also the peacocks who only want to be told how great they are. I don't get either of those groups.

The bottom line of this wee essay was not so much to talk about the wastes-of-time that are out there but to address how, if one decides to have a crack at it, one should actually go about critiquing a poem. There are people who genuinely want to know – take Nathan for example – and what you have to ask yourself is, when I run into someone like this how can I best serve them? What questions should I be asking?

The thing so many people forget is that poetry is a collaborative exercise. Your reader is your partner in crime. So who wouldn't want to discuss your (plural) latest project?

Finding the right little group is fine, and I guess this is what you're on about Kay. Personally I like more than simply an emotional response because emotions don't tell me very much. I love you poem! Great. Now, why? My poems all have an intellectual centre and I'm curious what people get once they've chewed on it for a bit.

I like the point you make though, Paul, and this is probably why I don't find critique very helpful, because I've already ripped the piece to shreds and reassembled it. I never post a work-in-progress because I frankly don't feel I need any help writing a poem. That smacks or arrogance but it isn't. And it's not that I don't have a critic. My wife reads everything I write and if she doesn't think it's up to scratch then it doesn't go in the canon. Take that poem I put in the comments on your site a few days back, Art, that was twice the size before she'd finished picking holes in it. I did the rewrite, she simply told me that what I'd written wasn't right.

And that's the thing, Ken, she doesn't pull her punches. Although she may not gush over the good stuff, she doesn't pull her punches when I don't do as good as she knows I can.

It can hurt, Tasha, when something you've worked on, sometimes for a long time, can be pulled to pieces so easily. But, I think as long as we know that the person is doing it for the right reasons it's bearable. Calling it 'constructive feedback' is certainly one way of looking at it, Lisa, but the fact is, and you're right here, the rougher the piece is the more opportunity we're going to give people to poke holes in it.

And, finally, Frances, I've never been involved in any kind of workshop. Personally I don't think I'd like it. I've never seen writing as a collaborative or even community-based exercise. It's sitting in a room on your own and getting on with it and then presenting the world with what you've done on your own and hoping you've done not too bad a job.

I think the bottom line for many is to stop thinking that every time they put pen to paper what they write is somehow beyond criticism. I used to feel that when I was in my teens. I really did. I was in a state on inspiration and how dare anyone question what was produced during that state. Christ, I'm so embarrassed looking back. The sad thing is, even if I'd someone to give me quality feedback then I likely wouldn't have listened because I was too full of myself. And all you can do with people like that I guess is wait for them to grow up or quit writing altogether.

Dave King said...

A lot of good points made there, Jim, but two not sures: I have always assumed a critique would include comments about good and bad points; and I have always thought of a critique as being aimed mainly at the potential reader rather than the author. I reckon the poet knows - within limits - whether the poem is a success or a failure in his (or har) terms, but a potential reader may want help to understanding it - or if it is a book that's being reviewed, whether to spend the hard-earned on it or not.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think the difference here, Dave, is between a review for the general public as opposed to a critique of a work for the benefit of the writer. I think both should highlight the good and the bad or shall we say the strengths and weaknesses of a piece. When a book is printed there's pretty much no going back, is there? No, what we're on about here is work posted online and open to being commented on like we do with your work. I know you appreciate the input you receive – as do I – but not everyone does sadly.

Parvez Ahmed said...

How many critiques have written great works of literature? Yes, there may be one or two but the majority of the critiques - their job is only to find holes and maunder.

Critiques are an instrument of the market - the minions of money. You find them on newspapers and magazines. Their job, they do it for money.

A book might not sometimes be a bestseller overnight but that does not mean that the book is not good. The Harry Potters and The Dan Browns - they received good criticism, but, truly, they are just for a while. Even the readers forget their titles when they close them after the first reading.

Let the critiques shut their mouths and read and think about 'The Republic', 'War and Peace', 'The Brothers Karamazov' and the works of Shakespeare, etc. If they are so great why can't they make a 'War and Peace, or a 'Hamlet'. It is very easy to find holes and chatter and criticize.

We don't need them to tell us about the meaning of works of Shakespeare or Flaubert or Tolstoy or Hemingway.

True art can never be critiqued, for it can only be appreciated.

Greg said...

Over the years I've recognized that I'm a nightmare to have as a literary critic. In the few workshops I've participated in I've found that people either love me or hate me. So I think there is another aspect of criticism, the perspective of the critic, that cannot be overlooked.

A critic, and readers of critics, should acknowledge and understand that critics fit three broad categories: a reader, a marketer, and an artist.

Criticism as a reader comes from the angle you mention of the critic responding to how a piece personally affects him/herself. This lends to the ability of the writer to connect with the audience.

Criticism as a marketer is most often what we read in popular criticism. This is more a response to other potential readers and why they might enjoy this author. This lends to the marketability of the author.

Criticism as an artist is generally the sharpest. Here many people are prone to respond as an artist/writer, even though they never wrote anything worth mentioning. For those people who are qualified to respond in this manner, those who actually spend a great deal of their personal time writing (note that this does not include those who exclusively teach writing but don't actually write--which unfortunately includes a great number of people), this is the most useful criticism to the author.

The danger of artistic criticism is that it can be, and should be, brutal. Artists in general need to develop a thick skin early. Patting a writer on the back is great, but that is an artist-fan relationship. The peer relationship has a vastly different dynamic. Growth can only come from confrontation, and so a writer will never develop the writer-fan relationships unless he/she can survive the peer relationships.

I greatly like and respect your analytic approach in breaking down criticism. I would expand "Spelling, grammar, punctuation" to "Language use". Maybe it's just a personal pet peeve of mine that many often look at language use as spelling, grammar, and punctuation, which is the farthest thing from the truth. Shakespeare is a great example because from a modern grammar perspective, he should be horrid.

I'd also ignore the "Say something nice first" approach and replace this with say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. We shouldn't go for the throat any more than we should feel obliged to pat a writer obsequiously on the head. This is just too politically correct for me I guess. I prefer to leave emotion out of it as much as possible, forget about the author, and respond to the work. My difficulty here is that every writer is too emotionally attached to their work.

It's tough to receive criticism that doesn't "get" your work, yet as a writer, while I appreciate the pats on the back which help motivate me a great deal, I have a great deal of respect for people who have the courage to speak directly to the writing for good or bad. And as a writer whose goal is first to expand writing as an art, I need direct and honest feedback even if it hurts.

I would imagine that if I wrote to make money, then I'd be singing a completely different tune, probably preferring the reader and marketer comments over peer comments.

I can't think of any greater compliment to my work than someone who takes the time to respond for good or bad. This is the exact reason I've responded to this particular post, because I've connected to it in some manner.

Jena Isle said...

You should have written this before I posted the review about your book.lol

Anyway, I agree with you that writers have the liberty to write using their own style because that is what creativity is all about. Either your readers will take it or leave it.

Most writers though want a feedback if their work is interesting enough or not. It is just like saying that what's the use if you have written a very interesting article but no one gets to read it. So, writers should accept critiquing if they want to improve their craft.

There will always be the good and bad of a book. It is better to focus more on the good and less on the bad. People would be more open to you when they see that you're not out to tear them into shreds but to help them "shine."

A very informative post. Thanks for sharing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I see where you're coming from, Parvez, and up to a point I agree. I think the difference between professional critics and the amateurs who critique each others work online is an important one to make.

I watch the BBC film programme regularly and have always had a lot of time for the way it presents its information. It's never stopped me watching a film I wanted to see and I do always make my own mind up but having only a limited time and budget for filmic entertainment I do bear in min what they say.

At the end of the day these people are just offering opinions. In some cases these are educated – I have a lot of time for Barry Norman as a critic – some not so much. I don't think he has an agenda nor do I think he thinks too much of his own opinion. Others may disagree. There may be a whole side to him I've never seen.

There is also the breed of reviewers you mention but it doesn't take too long to see them for what they are. A lot of reviewers these days are writers, Jeanette Winterson for example, and no one can tell me she doesn't know how to string a sentence or two together.

Every great work can be critiqued. They can be criticised too. The latter is not so easy but people will try. I think it's a good thing to analyse and evaluate great works but, at the end of the day, I do agree, the books you mention are greater than the sum of their parts and analysis can only take you so far. That said I don't like being told that such and such book, film, whatever is great and not being allowed to ask why.

Jim Murdoch said...

Perhaps I should be glad I didn't post this earlier, Jena, although I actually wrote it two months ago. I've just been waiting for a gap to post it. The thing your comment has made me think about is how many different opinions any book can generate. I was actually pleased when someone recently said she didn't really like my novel. She's not going to say that to please me. I can trust a review like that. I'm wary about people who only have good things to say. Nothing, no book by nobody is that perfect. I'd be far happier to trust a review that was balanced: yes it's good, but…

And, Greg, thanks for the comment, an excellent addition to the discussion so far. (Yes, this is me getting the nice thing over with first. I'm not being politically correct, I'm just nice.) Now we've got that over with, I do like the idea of criticism as a rite of passage and indeed it is. This is why I like the opportunity to have an interchange with the artist because most of the time but it's hard to have a real confrontation unless there is an opportunity for rebuttal. This is where the Internet should be perfect and I have had a few good interchanges but it does seem as if this is not the way it usually goes. Which is a shame because this is such a super tool for writers do use to develop their crafts.

The hardest thing I find is where we have two writers who come at things from very different angles. I'm essentially a cerebral kind of guy who looks for meaning first and foremost in everything. It's a limitation but all critics come with their own limitations. So, maybe you're only going to get half a review from me because I'm incapable of accessing the touchy-feely Jim but as long as you understand that they accept what I have to give. I'm never going to get happy-fluffy-bunny poems, not in a month of chocolate sundaes.

The bottom line is that for anyone to sit down and write a few thoughtful lines about anything you've written whether you agree with it or not is worth something. You can't please all the people all the time; it's hard enough to please some of the people some of the time.

Jena Isle said...

Hello Jim,

(Can I post this?) Well, you can trust mine, because that was how I truly felt. And I know you were able to discern also the negative from the post.

Negative things can be said and noticed without offending someone. One can suggest or critique a work without creating fireworks. That was why we are given the art of speech. We should be creative enough to put across our message without offending the person, don;t you agree?

I firmly believe persons who come right to you and "critique" your work , rather "shred" your work in language that offends are people of poor breeding. In private, it would be okay, but if it's in public then the motivation of the person doing it should be looked into because his/her purpose is not to help but to destroy.

Your novel has a very unique plot. It is a great work worthy of a read. Don't believe otherwise!
Just make the opening a big "bang".

Cheers and happy blogging.

Art Durkee said...

I find it interesting that more than one comment has basically said, critiques are a tool of the market, of getting the writing out to the reader better.

That's fantastically weird to hear, for me, because every serious artist or writer critique group I've ever been a part of is all about improving the quality of the art. Not because the writer or artist wants to be a commercial success, or because they're trying to market themselves. But because they want to be better artists.

Maybe I've been lucky, or maybe my experience has been selective, but I have always found the most useful critiques (perhaps the only only ones worth listening to) have come from artists. I.e. critiques coming from peers, who know the tool of the craft well enough to say what works and what doesn't, and provide helpful hints for improving the poem or artwork. As you say, Jim, this is more than just saying "I loved it."

I find the marketing comments fascinating because they seem so embedded in cultural assumptions about how the market controls all aspects of our lives, even our art-making apparently. Well, I have to say, I don't think that's true. In fact, in my larger circle of artists, writers, and musicians, I really don't know creative person who would say it's true. What I hear all the time is that they do it because they must, it's a compulsion like breathing; or they love doing it, even if it's not their main thing; or they'd be doing it regardless of whether anyone paid for it or not.

What I find intriguing is the apparent underlying assumption that art is like everything else a commodity. These seems particularly weird in light of the process of being a solitary writer who isn't thinking about whether or not the audience will like it, when writing. Products of the process of art-making, in that they can be tangible objects, can certainly become economic properties, however the creative process itself has never conformed to the rules of economics. There's a word for adapting what one does to fit the desires of a particular audience.

The problem is that critique for marketing tends to level everything done to the lowest common denominator, and pander to audience tastes. That's fine if you're a hack writer who's just trying to make a living. Well, maybe it's fine economically, but it's hard to call that poetry. Critique for marketing can become toxic precisely because it is other-directed, market-directed, and tries to fit writing to current fashion. In the end, it's why so much mainstream fiction, not to mention poetry, is crap, indistinguishable from everything else.

So I can only shake my head in wonder at this attitude.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that critique should be ivory-tower theorizing, or that writing is "art for art's sake," with never an audience in mind. But I do think that if the writer isn't writing for themselves first and foremost, with any audience coming later on in the equation, then there's a priority error going on.

Even though writing is a solitary task, most writers remain social enough human beings that some sort of feedback is desired. The point, though, that the best feedback comes from one's creative peers, has been made lots of times here already, so I'd only be repeating that again. The truth is, feedback is necessary for most writers to improve. Occasional feedback, if not constant. Again, picking your critique group is paramount.

There's a quote from poet Odysseas Elytis that I think is very relevant here, and really gets at the heart of it:

"Every poet needs an audience of three, and since every poet has two good friends, the search is always for that perfect third reader."

Jim Murdoch said...

Jena, I was well aware that your review of my book was not all-glowing. I never expected it to be and that you enjoyed it as much was a surprise and a delight. But, of course, there are ways to go about pointing out the negative aspects of any work. I doubt breeding has much to do with it since I've known plenty of people who should know better let their parents down in this and other regards. It's the mentality of people who set of maliciously to hurt another person that I cannot get. I doubt I ever will.

And, Art, yes, marketing, it's never been at the forefront of my mind and when I critique I never consider it. That said when I review something that's already out there in the marketplace I think it's fair to comment on that. There seems to be two conversations going on in this thread, one about critiquing unpublished material with a view to improving it and a second concerning published material with a view to considering its worthiness if I can put it that way. I was really interested in the former when I wrote this piece. I just think that, as with so many things in the literary world, there are people who find themselves on one of the boards and they want to be a part but all they see is: I love your poem now tell me you love mine. And that's no good to anyone.

On Zoetrope in August I made one of the top reviewers – I've hardly looked into the site since then to be honest – and I can tell you here and now why – because I actually critiqued the pieces to the best of my ability, I said what I liked and why and what I didn't like and why and what they might do about it. A few of the responses made it very clear that no one had ever taken that amount of time over their work before and that's sad. I don't have the time to spend on it and I'm very cautious that I don't get drawn in like last time. I wasn't doing anything clever though, that's the point I'm trying to make, I just asked the kind of questions I list in the article and did my best to answer them.

Feedback is essential, Art, you and I both know that, even if you don't change a damn thing you need to see how people are responding to what you do. As for that perfect third reader … still looking.

Art Durkee said...

Your Zoetrope experience earlier this year is classic, in an archetypal way, on this subject. I've had the same experience(s) elsewhere. I think your choice not to get too sucked in again is a wise one. Still, it really is telling that so many had never received that level of critique before; that says a lot about the state of the online boards in general. I know what you mean by not having done anything special in terms of critique—but insightful critique of any kind really is the exception, in my experience, too. That's why I hang out with an ever smaller, better-known, smart group of poets, off in a corner of cyberspace where almost no-one knows we're there.

Also, I think you're right about two threads going on now. I think it might also be important to underline your point on this by separating the two different acts with different words.

I offer what I do, but only as an offer. I use the word "critique" exclusively for the workshop atmosphere, pre-publication. I use the word "review" for published materials. Anyway, that's how I keep them separate in my mind.

And I do think they need to be separate: the approaches, attitudes, tools, and assumptions one brings to pre-published vs. published are in fact quite different.

Jena Isle said...

Hello Art,

I agree that writers should allow their work to be critiqued simply because they want it to be perfect.

This is what writers most often want. In the process; however, commercialism comes in. And well, I would be a hypocrite if I won't admit that I accept this offers and make use of writing as a tool too to earn money. But this would only be the icing on the cake, because you see, I enjoy what I do and people pay me for doing it. Isn't that wonderful?

Happy blogging!

Jena Isle said...

That should read 'THESE OFFERS".

These keypads as usual have a mind of their own.

Cheers.

tashabud said...

Hi Jim,
If you ever have the need to point out obvious errors or would like to make suggestions on how I could improve my novel during one of your Entrecard droppings, please do so. I'd be very accepting, knowing that you're not going to go for my throat or going to crush whatever tiny glimmer of hope that is left in me to continue writing. I do welcome suggestions and corrections, not criticisms.

Thank you.
Tasha

Jim Murdoch said...

Right you are, Tasha, one comment left. I've not got for your throat but I may have nibbled your wrist a bit.

Art Durkee said...

Jena, that was my point. I think we agree more than disagree, yet I was going for clarity because as Jim said, a couple of threads of discussion seemed to crossing each other.

I make my living my creativity, too, so I understand. I just make it from other aspects of my creativity, rather than my writing. But even so, I make photographs because I love doing it; thoughts of income converge after.

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