“thanks for your literary critique,” he smiles, “all very constructive”; translated: he hates the ground you walk on – there, I told you I was a translator…

I received a comment a few days ago about a blog post of mine. It was one of those out-of-nowhere types, totally unexpected. Previous to the comment, other commentators, myself included, had gotten so engrossed in discussion that I went on to write a follow-up post; a part 2. Indeed, both posts hit home with people from all four corners of the globe. And yet the comment I received a few days ago, the one “out-of-nowhere”, just may have suggested otherwise.

One line; to the point, where a little elaboration wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Still, I fully appreciate the comment, that someone had taken the time to read the post; and let’s face it, debate hardly arises through perpetual praise – bring on the contradictions, that’s what I say!

I had to smile, when reminded of The Frasier Crane Show, an episode in which a focus group is asked to make comments about Frasier’s show. He dreads the idea, until each member begins to sing his/its praises… that is, all except for one, right at the end, who simply states: “I don’t like him” – or something akin. One tiny comment, with all the power to block out the sun.

The scene, of course, plays very much on a truth.

With comedy, a scriptwriter will take a quality to an extreme, as is the case with Frasier Crane’s neurosis. Part of the fun is that, whilst we can, reassuringly, distance ourselves from the character in question, we still recognise the traits, some of which we either own or which belong to people we know.

But then I wonder whether we don’t all own a spot on the neurosis-chart when what is criticized is something we believe we’re great at. And are writers more vulnerable than most?

Frasier Crane isn’t a writer, he’s a radio – chat-show – psychiatrist; he gives advice, publicly, to people who call in and ask for it. He cares, too; he sympathises and empathises with them, is ready to bare his soul to make a point, if he feels it will help. Indeed, he often does bare his soul to America’s North-west, and as often regrets having done so at a later date – it’s a comedy, let’s not forget. What I’m trying to say is that there are other lines of work, near to writing, where a person is vulnerable to criticism.

But no-one is as vulnerable, as wide-open, as is a writer.

It isn’t how many people you reach with your trade. A footballer might miss a penalty and so eliminate his country from the World Cup finals. And actor might fumble with a line. A singer might fall from the stage during a live performance, or say something trite and silly receiving an award; a politician might reverse a policy s/he has thought twice about – politicians don’t lie for votes, slight cough. But all it amounts to is that those people are human.

People make mistakes. Besides, they can lock themselves amongst their loved ones, in the privacy of their own home. And in time we forgive them.

Although a writer is human too, s/he scribes his/her “mistakes” into immortality. And furthermore, whilst s/he may also find comfort in the bosom of his/her family and friends, s/he will never be privileged to the same kind of privacy. For s/he gives that away when pouring out his/her soul between the pages of a book.

It may sound like an exaggeration to an outsider, but a writer gathers together a life’s worth of history, whether s/he realises it or not, a history dictating why s/he should accommodate that given space and time and endeavour to connect souls, via a desire verging on desperation that someone just might understand.

A writer doesn’t hold anything back; it’s the nature of the game. And criticism will be most welcome, while ever it’s ‘constructive’. Or is that just another word for praise?

The reason for this post isn’t due to me being upset in any way a few days ago, on the contrary, there was nothing to be upset about: I honestly believe my commentator’s comment, the one following said post, was genuine, in that, however terse, it was more to do with cultural references than anything else, which, as stated, I fully appreciate.

But it did get me thinking about how, when faced with real criticism of my debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J, I might react. Within the confines of these walls, that is.

But then there is another side to the coin, the side I’ll be ready to rub whenever I see ‘unconstructive’ criticism heading my way, which is that, considering what goes into a book, each and every comment thereon will be a subjective one, again by its very nature. And whilst every comment, therefore, will count, a writer will never please everybody. What we should thus ask ourselves is, wouldn’t pleasing everybody devalue the art of writing? Writing would surely become passionless, if we had no-one to ‘convince’. Wouldn’t it?

I’ve recently read what I truly believe to be a 21st century classic: Anna Funder’s All That I Am – I left a goodreads/Amazon review stating such, why shouldn’t I? Funnily enough, though, just before reading it, I read someone else’s review, someone claiming to have given up on my “21st century classic” only a few pages along…  Is that person’s view valid, then? Yes, it is. And although I don’t agree with it, I, too, have given up on books after only a few pages, for a number of reasons.

But if all opinions are valid, what else might we consider? Age? Background? There must be a multitude of reasons. Reasons for which someone arrives at a conclusion, however hasty it may, at times, appear – particularly people in certain professions: “But will it sell?”

I recall, many years ago, having sent a piece of work to a publisher residing ‘out in the sticks’, as they say: somewhere in the Home Counties; way out of London at any rate. Not only was my manuscript rejected but I received a list of the reasons why, along with the publicist’s autobiography, or rather how many books he’d written – books I’d never heard of and still haven’t – and, more importantly, how a writer should write, hence why he was able to write the books I’d never heard of, out in the sticks, in his little publishing house. And yet I couldn’t help feeling his critique said a lot more about him than my work – had he not taken to rejection either? According to an American friend of mine, who also read the letter, “Jeez, he’s not out to critique your work, he’s tried to destroy you!”

Following the experience, I’ve always believed I ‘know the score’, am ready for anything; it’s all subjective, don’t take too much notice – move on by writing…

And yet writing this blog post – or maybe more via its inspiration – has got me wondering after all. And because I don’t have the answers – hence why I write; isn’t that the same for everybody? – I’d like to ask you, whatever your line, how you deal with criticism. Do you have a technique you can pass on? One that, perhaps, doesn’t involve liquid from a barrel or a bottle?


Chris Rose

Your literary, soulful friend

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