Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Art of Criticism

I didn't intend to let so much time lapse before getting back to this blogpost. I took a road trip to Colorado to a reunion where I enjoyed visiting with siblings, nieces and nephews, and cousins, some of whom I hadn't seen since grade school. On the following Monday, I spoke to about 550 Namaqua elementary student in five sessions. I am grateful for the opportunity as interacting with children inspires me. It was my pleasure to accept an invitation to the home of the grandparents of three of the students for a lovely dinner. I feel very blessed that my writing serves as an avenue to make many new friends.

My last post was about how to receive criticsm. I will now take a look at the flip side—how to give it.

Beth Hodder, author of "The Ghost of Shafer Meadows," commented, "I think it may be difficult for some critics to face the author with their criticism if they're a friend or family member." A member of our local writers group expressed similar concerns and asked how one can be encouraging, constructive, and truthful all at the same time; honest without being hurtful. Understanding how sensitive a writer may be, we realize that criticism is an art.

William Zinsser, in his book, "On Writing Well," agrees. "To write about the arts from the inside—to appraise a new work, to evaluate a performance, to recognize what's good and what's bad—calls for a special set of skills and a special body of knowledge." Does the average writer have that? If not, how can we cultivate it to the extent that we can be helpful to other writers when they ask for our opinions? Since I don't have the answers, I read what Zinsser, Wallace Stegner, and John Gardner offer on the subject.

Zinsser gives these criteria for being a good critic.
1. "Critics should like—or better still, love—the medium they are reviewing."
2. When publishing reviews, don't give away too much of the plot.
3. Use specific detail, i.e. avoid generalities. This is equally important in critiquing a work we love as it is in discussing writing in which we see errors or fault.
4. "Avoid ecstatic adjectives."
Finally, remember that all forms of criticism consist of personal opinion. "What is crucial …is to express your opinion firmly. Don't cancel it's strength with last-minute evasions and escapes."

But this brings us back to the problem of ensuring that our words encourage rather than discourage. What if our impression of a work is negative? Do we want our opinion to dash the author's hopes, blocking him or her from writing at all? No, of course not. The only case I can think of where I would consider disparaging a written work is if I felt it had either the aim or potential to demoralize the reader. But that's a discussion for a future post.

I look to Wallace Stegner to solve the issue of giving constructive criticism. This may apply in places like writers clubs, schools, posts on public forums, online stores like Amazon, where customer reviews are encouraged, and in talking to fellow writers who ask us to evaluate their work. In his book, "On Teaching and Writing Fiction," Stegner answers questions of an interviewer. I think his treatment of the writing students in his classes is a good example for all writers, whether in school or not, as we are always seeking to learn more about our craft.

When asked what most needs to be done for his students, Stegner replied, "They need to be taken seriously. They need to be assured that their urge to write is legitimate." He reminds us that "these are hearts you are treading on." Yet he emphasizes the need to be honest. "Every student has a right to be listened to and be told honestly whether what he has written strikes no sparks, or few, or many. Before a teacher tells anyone he is good and has that magical promise, he had better make sure of what he is saying; before he discourages anyone, he had better remember how intimate a thing writing is and how raw the nerves that surround it."

So where has all this led us? It reinforces the quandary we sometimes face, the need to be both firmly honest and at the same time, very kind and supportive. Stegner says it's an attitude more than a technique. And, in spite of Zinsser's advice not to dilute our opinions with evasions and escapes, we must remember that others may have a different opinion and acknowledge that fact. Criticism, done properly, is not only an art, but a juggling act if we find anything offensive in the work we are judging. Stegner says that in his classroom, it is his job to manage the environment as students critique one another's writing, "which may be as hard a job as for God to manage the climate."

My grandma Elkins gave me these words of advice long ago that may be helpful here. "Before you speak, make your words pass through three gates of gold. Are they true? Are they needful? and Are they kind?"

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