CRITIQUE? YES, BUT BY WHOM AND HOW?
by Paul Saevig
Yes, writers at all levels from neophyte to expert need feedback on their writing. They need one or more human reactions.
Unfortunately, though, a useful reaction is not something all your friends or even teachers can give. Critique is a specialized form of feedback, and should only be given by a qualified, trained professional writer or other expert. Otherwise, what happens is the blind leading the blind, or the almost blind leading the blind. Instead, ask a few trustworthy people you know for feedback, which is simply reaction, and not the trained, educated and highly structured complex reaction known as critique.
The Nature of Critique
Writers tend to invest critique with importance and validity. Therefore they regard a critique as a carrier of implicit or explicit instructions for change. To receive a critique properly, a critic must carefully consider what instructions he conveys, although the writer is not obligated to follow them.
A critique is a tricky commodity that can go wrong in many ways. If it becomes personal, or envious, or too general and not specific, or if it champions an idiosyncrasy of the critic, it may well cause damage to the writing in question. Worse, it may discourage the writer or even motivate him to quit writing, either a particular project or all writing.
In addition, a critic must employ tact, courtesy and goodwill. Anyone unwilling to observe these amenities should not critique work by others. The sting of the lash does not improve writing. Even the wording of a critique must be carefully chosen. A competent critique requires some time and effort, so if a critic intends to rush and cut corners, he should recuse himself.
Examples of A Good Critique
Let’s choose an example we’re all familiar with: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Every writer and critic should know, by the way, that no piece of writing has ever been universally acclaimed, not even Shakespeare’s or Dr. Johnson’s or Dante’s. For every work, there are critics who won’t like or approve it, and who will furthermore suggest or even insist on changes to “fix it”.
After all, at least one editor or publisher has passed on many if not most of the greatest books, stories, poems and other writings in history. Some legendary and canonical works have been rejected dozens of times before finding a buyer. Therefore, The Great Gatsby is not such an unlikely choice as our example.
Suppose a critic finds the narrator, Nick Carraway, objectionable for one reason or another: maybe too naïve or coy, or too worshipful of Gatsby. I don’t happen to agree, but it’s understandable that some critics might feel that way. Let’s look at useful and destructive ways to express that point.
GOOD WAYS TO SAY IT: 1. “It would be worthwhile for you to reconsider the narrator: is there any problem with him? Could he be too naïve, or two deferent to Gatsby?”
2. “I’m not sure if the narrator is effective. I think you ought to go over what he says and how he’s described, to be sure he’s right for your story. I suspect he may be too naïve, and may not be credible to some of your readers.”
EXCESSIVELY PERSONAL WAYS TO SAY IT:
1. “Nick is just too naïve and coy. He nauseated me.”
2. “Narrator all wrong; I couldn’t stand him”
1. “Your elaborate creation does not quite ring true, especially your narrator. Sorry.”
2. “You’ve done a very nice job but unfortunately your narrator spoils everything.”
TOO GENERAL, NOT SPECIFIC:
1. “Just not believable, George.”
2. “Not bad at all, except the middle sags.”
1. “Your narrator fails you because every narrator must know at least 5 important things no other character knows.”
2. “Your daytime and nighttime scenes are imbalanced. Must have the same number of each. ”
“I’m not sure if you ought to put any more time in this story. It’s up to you.”
“Sally, I just don’t think you’re cut out to be a writer of fiction. You’re a good journalist, so why not stick with that? Why do you want to write novels, anyway?”
I hasten to add that no one should ever expect any such critique, good or bad, from an agent, editor or reviewer. It could possibly happen, but these people are not in business to nurse your talents along, or to instruct you.
What you might receive occasionally are phrases or brief comments from these professionals:
1. “Nice narrator but didn’t work for us.”
2. “Enjoyed it but not now. Try us again.”
3. “Lovely story but not what we publish.”
4. “This seemed like 2 stories and neither quite complete.”
5. “Didn’t care for the ending. Sorry.”
That they’d respond may be encouraging, but don’t get your hopes up. You might be hearing from an especially kindhearted (or not busy) editor. Or maybe you just happened to write about his pet interest. Or he may be the low person on the totem pole, so that no matter how much he liked your story, it didn’t matter.
There is an excellent and amusing website about rejection, with traces of tragedy. It’s http://rejectioncollection.com/, and subtitled “The Writer’s and Artist’s Online Source for Misery, Commiseration and Inspiration”.
What I Want To Know
I’m a loner as a writer but I always want to know if readers enjoy and understand something I write. That is, I have confidence in most elements of my work, but there is one question I cannot answer by myself: is my story or novel enjoyable to read, do people follow it easily enough and like it? In fact, in this current era of fewer and more demanding readers of fiction, I need to know if readers are willing to continue reading after the first few pages.
Now if I don’t get some positive indications on these questions, I know I should probably go back to the very beginning, or maybe put this project away and work on another one. If a few readers don’t react with any favor at all, why go on if you intended to publish something?
When I ask others to read my work in progress, I emphasize that I want a consumer’s reaction. That is, “How did you like it and was it what you wanted? Is it a novel you’d read at all, and would you pay for it?”
The manufacturers of sports cars, sausages or chewing gum all need to seek answers to these questions, and so does the writer, I think. Manufacturers and corporations have marketing and research departments, and use focus groups, surveys and other ways of finding out that are not available to us writers.
Strangely, people I ask these questions find it difficult to assume this role of consumer for a novel or story. They’re eager to circle misspellings, factual inaccuracies, contradictions and other basic editorial matters, but hesitant or unable to say – at least honestly and sincerely with consumer reasons:
1. “I love the San Francisco parts and my sister will, too.”
2. “I don’t like stories about Los Angeles”,
3. “I’d like more about the guns and rifles.”
4. “Not enough sex in it to interest me.”
5. “I had to read it real quick because I have company at home”,
6. “I loved the actress who had diabetes!”
7. “The main characters reminded me too much of my in-laws”,
8. “The cool title sold me!”
9. “I don’t like to read third person stories”
The exception I’ve found is that almost all casual readers will tell you when the book or story “reads too slow”, “slows down” or “meanders” or “gets lost” or “gets off the track” or “doesn’t flow”. This attention to pace and action seems to be the most important consideration to most readers I’ve talked to.
I call them casual readers with complete respect and mean only that they do not make it their practice to seek out great books and examples of literature. More likely, they read books their friends and family have recommended, or heavily advertised books, or even books with fascinating covers. Like or agree with them or not, I suppose they’re the salt of the earth and buy the most books of all, so they must be listened to.
Finding the Right Critics For Your Stories
Of course, there’s no point in setting yourself up with cheerleaders and yes-men, by asking your wife, mother and employees to critique your novel. They won’t be very objective.
Nor do you want to throw a well-crafted story or novel to a general group of readers. That’s not giving it a good chance. Unless it reads fast all the way through, it’s not likely anyone will like it much.
What you need to do is find some readers who will be receptive. That’s all. You won’t be serving tacos and enchiladas to someone who prefers steamed rice and Kung Pao Chicken, and hoping she likes it. You’ll be giving your story a chance.
For example, if you write historical fiction, see if you can find some readers who have enjoyed it in the past, along with other kinds of novels. Choosing only historical fiction aficionados tilts the odds too much in your favor.
If you write a long, complex novel of character development in a literary mode, choose some people who read these kinds of novels. If you can find two or three of them, that’s good, and you might want to include a test person who usually reads mysteries or science fiction or historical novels, too. He may tend to be a valuable devil’s advocate.
Again, if you play reggae or polka, don’t expect jazz lovers to be much interested in your music. Devise ways to receive reasonable critiques from people who know what they’re talking about.
That leads us to our next question.
Who Is Qualified?
Well, I tend to think not many people. Again, most readers can give you worthwhile reactions, but not many can deliver valuable critiques.
Haven’t we all been stuck in critique groups where the members are widely divergent? That is, one person is an 82 year-old retired electronics engineer who loves Tom Clancy. Another is a 19 year-old poet in love with Emily Dickinson. A third is a middle-aged advertising writer who’s published one romance already. The fourth is an immigrant from Uruguay who plans to write his first book, a long saga about his family there over four centuries. The fifth is a 55 year-old woman in remission from stomach cancer, who wants to write the story of her struggle. The sixth is a 65 year-old emergency room physician who has observed UFOs for twenty years and wants to write about the time he was abducted by aliens. Then there are three or four people who admit they have never written anything but might like to give it a try.
Sound familiar? There’s no commonality among these people. They have different levels of competence and no way to understand what the others are doing. Most likely they won’t even understand each other’s comments.
There are even some writers who claim these groups are the best. I disagree and consider them a waste of time for the experienced writer.
Choose people who have certain kinds of knowledge, understanding and the ability to communicate. It’s not such a tall order. Other writers and writing instructors are sometimes the best. Teachers of various subjects can be wonderful. So can experts. So can people who love to read.
Critics are not like the socks where one size fits all, though. I’d be a pretty critic of your science fiction, romance, Western, children’s book, or mystery. First, I don’t have much interest, and second, not much experience or knowledge, either. Mainline and literary fiction is my fields.
Try to match some critics to your work. Let’s try a few examples.
Suppose you’ve written your fourth romance without selling one yet. You know it’s competent and professional. You know you use the conventions correctly, and you’re confident of your mechanics.
First, in all situations, you can try to find other writers similar to you. In this example, maybe you’d meet some at a romance fiction convention or seminar. Or maybe at your local library, from readings or receptions for visiting authors. If you’re outgoing, you can approach people in bookstores, sit down for coffee, and if you hit it off at all, maybe later ask them to critique your book.
Or suppose you’re a college sophomore and over the summer you write your first stories. Take advantage of being in school and take a writing class. Maybe some are offered to citizens in the evening. Meet some people who might make good readers, and don’t overlook your friends and classmates as potential critics.
Hard to Find
Now I don’t consider myself a pessimist when I repeat that appropriate readers are hard to find. If you’re a student in a writing class, or a beginning or even intermediate writer in a writing group, there’s always a tinge of competition and envy (or gloating) in critiques from peers.
If you take what your peers say seriously – as I think you ought to – you will often need to ignore or strain out misinformation and misinterpretation of your work. Someone is always ready to dismiss your work entirely because you use adverbs, or because your use of point of view is not perfect by his standards, or because your story is perceived as too spare or too detailed.
Some peer critics are so literal-minded that if you make a mistake in geography – writing as if the city of Bakersfield is on Interstate 5 in California, when it’s not – they will consider your story an abject failure because of that error alone. Often other peer readers will find nothing to say but feel obliged to think of a remark, usually not helpful, e.g., “Your hero sure wears a lot of sun tan lotion”, or “I’m not sure if St. Louis really gets that cold in the fall.”
As we’ve seen, many other peer readers will offer little or no opinion at all, and will simply praise your work mildly, e.g., “I liked it a lot. Really nice.”
I have no intent to demean these good people, and I’m critical of their comments only because these reviewers are not trained, which a good critique person must be.
Who Are Ideal Critics? What’s the best training for a critic? It’s a very deep and wide knowledge of writing and fiction, across many periods and genres. It’s a consistent ability to accept a work of fiction for what it is, and from that point read and criticize it accordingly. It’s to be helpful and not simply destructive.
For example, if the work is a Western story, the good critic will not waste time complaining that the characters seem to be of rather common types, because they have to be by conventions of the genre. A good critic of a literary novel will not complain that the story is “not a page-turner”, because that’s not an objective in this context. Similarly, a good critic of a popular novel will not fault the story for lacking deep portraits and psychological complexity. A good critic of a story about subtleties of relationships will not complain that the narrative lacks thrilling action.
Again, these days many readers complain that novels “slow down” or “meander” or even “gets boring”. (Try a Google or Alta Vista search for “novel” and “meander”.) Certainly these narrative phases, if accurately noted, can be a problem. But in many novels, the rhythm of narrative, mood and feeling dictate that there must be phases of relaxation, of reflection, of looking inward before the plot – or the main plot – proceeds. In the novels of Raymond Chandler, this relaxation occurs when the detective detours from the main pursuit to eat, or sleep or simply think. Sometimes Hemingway uses a moment of reflection to offer exposition. Virginia Woolf writes in a largely interior manner and long stretches of her novels lack action. Mark Twain often pauses in his novels to present humorous detours. So do Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Richard Brautigan often pauses in his narration to insert whimsy. Kurt Vonnegut inserts sharp comments.
Virtually all good writers slow the action from time to time. Those who complain about slow passages are often questioning canonical novels and stories, and whining about fine writers, whether canonical or not. These critics are entitled to their own perceptions, though, that are not helpful to other writers. Only some novels read like action movies.
What do Agents, Editors and Publishers Say?
Instead of trying to read their minds, and being aware of how often they, too, disagree, let’s say merely that their judgment is binding when any story is offered for sale. Let’s sidestep the old discussion of whether they know “good writing” when they see it, or whether they’re more interested in profits. Obviously many of them are in the profession to find and publish good writing.
Pragmatically, the best strategy for a writer is to assume they all do respect good writing, and that the best writing is what they want, and want desperately. True, we may see some published novels and stories that we consider awful. But if we remember that every editor and publisher has a specific type of written product in mind for a specific audience, then we can understand why they use their professional judgment to choose certain books instead of others and publish them.
Let’s not any of us squander any time agonizing over what agents, editors and publishers do or don’t like. Keep writing, and write the best you can.
Should I Figure Out What They Want?
Go ahead if you want to, but you may figure wrong. Besides, how will you know if you’re right?
If you copy best-selling authors, you’re planning your own failure. Anything you plan is likely to be six months late already the day you start it. Publishers plan far ahead in the future, and it’s almost impossible for writers to keep track of what they want. Besides, what they want much more is always something new, fresh and excellent. That’s always their best bet for good sales.
Don’t try to outguess them. When I was newly out of university, disaster novels and movies were becoming popular and registering huge sales and box office successes. Many of the writers I knew in Los Angeles scrambled to create disaster stories, one after another, and no one among my friends were successful. They might have saved time and energy if they’d stopping to consider how many other writers were doing exactly the same stories. The market could only bear so many of these epics.
Worst of all, the disaster story craze only lasted for a certain period, but many writers kept writing and submitting these stories for twice that long, even past the time when no more disaster movies were being made.
No, you can’t outguess the publishing establishment, not unless you’ve been successful in developing creative relationships with executives who might suggest to you what they’re interested in as subjects. But the way to begin developing those relationships is by writing good books and selling them, as we said to begin with.
Protecting Your Work
I don’t mean protecting it from idea theft, which is seldom much of a danger. Rather, protect your work from decisions that might weaken it or even deflate the creative balloon. We’ve mentioned critiques that can injure or even trash your work. Something just a dangerous is talking about your stories.
Most successful writers are protective about who sees their work in progress, and make certain only certain people ever see a first draft or any draft before publication. The first draft of a novel is a fragile organism, and most experienced writers know the sorrow of being distracted, discouraged or even undermined by inappropriately negative reviews or comments.
Discussion kills a story, and bragging about it is bloody murder. Find something else to talk about at parties and social occasions. Don’t even let anyone else know you’re working on a novel or story. You’ll never hear the end of it. People will want to read it “as soon as you’re done”. Some of them will be offended if you say no. Quite a few people will tell others you’re working on a story, and these others in turn will ask you whenever you meet. If you work with them, they’ll tell other coworkers what you’re doing, and your writing career will become a subject of general discussion and resentment as well. There’s no end to the annoyances.
If you must, tell people you write. When you’re busy with it and must tell them, something, simply tell them you’re writing. Refuse to discuss it.
Should you hire someone to read your story or novel? Let’s leave this subject unanswered, if only because professional readers and editors advertise in this publication. Suffice it to say there are pros and cons to the question.
Human Relationship Is the Idea
The more I try to visualize a good critique and someone offering the critique, the more I see a good human relationship between the two people and perhaps more important, qualities of a good relationship at work in the critique itself.
D.H. Lawrence famously said, “Trust the tale, not the teller,” and he was certainly right. A story or novel must stand on its own merit. Knowledge and understanding of the writer can certainly deepen appreciation of the story, but must never become essential to appreciation. That would define something beyond storytelling and stories.
But in the creation of a story, I think the author must always be considered as part of the subject. Stories are never impersonal as spark plugs or ball bearings are. Who the writer is, what he’d like to say, even where he’s from and where the story takes place – and many other questions about him – are indispensably important. As in all human endeavors, relationship is a key element.
The author and the critic should therefore communicate, and not only in one direction. The author needs to ask questions and the critic needs to answer. They need to be talk about the same things, and in the same te. A critique won’t work or be worth much if a critic is concerned solely with commas, point of view and a detail of setting. Both must engage the story as a whole and its elements.
We’ve understood all along that to a critique of a story is not like giving a haircut, tuning up an engine, installing a printer driver or serving a kidney pie. It’s a serious undertaking that should be assigned and planned carefully, with nothing casual, off the cuff or impromptu about it. No critique any less than this is worth undertaking or paying attention to.
Copyright Paul Saevig 2004