Friday, August 7, 2009

How to Receive (and Give) Criticism

I'm not good at taking criticism, though I'm better at it than I used to be. The strange thing is, recently I've become angrier when someone criticizes something I really love (like a movie) versus something I've written. With something I've written, I usually can tell if there's truth to the criticism or not, but as to my feelings about a movie, or a book I've read, I seem to take much more offense when someone bashes something I love, or loves something I hate. Perhaps I'm more insecure when it comes to my opinions of the works of others than to my own works.

For example, recently I got into an argument (online) with one of my friends over the movie Up. I was shocked that she didn't like it. She said she thought it was too slow. So, thinking maybe her ADD had something to do with her assessment of the movie, I told her that if she wanted to see a really slow movie, she should see The Thin Red Line or something by the late Anthony Minghella. I thought, at the time, that I had "found the explanation" for why she didn't like the movie; instead, I had been insensitive to her opinion, and her diagnosis, as she likes both Terrence Malick (who directed The Thin Red Line) and two of Anthony Minghella's movies (The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, movies I found to be much slower-moving than Up). Being that there are many classic novels that I don't particularly care for, I should have been okay with her opinion, even if I didn't agree with it, and while I am now fine (if still puzzled) by the fact that she didn't like it, that was not the case when we began our argument.

Are there absolutes in the world of art? I have been wondering about that recently, especially since Roger Ebert has written some blogs within the past month dealing with opinions about how good or bad a movie is (see July 5th's and 10th's entries) . Though liking a movie (or book) and recognizing it as a great movie (or book) are two separate things, can one not like a work of art and still consider it "great?" For art is (or should be) an emotional experience, and yet the only absolutes in art are the unemotional "facts" of its composition. For a movie, they include acting, directing, cinematography, dialogue, and storytelling, among other things. For Up, it would involve animation, as well. And yet you and I could agree on all of these basic factors and still have wildly different opinions of the movie in question, because culture, upbringing, and our unique personalities are what make us respond positively to some movies but not to others, even after we have trained ourselves to recognize great dialogue or great acting in a movie (opinions of which also can differ wildly). After all, if one could guarantee that all critics would say the same things about the same movies, or even like all of the same movies, all but one movie critic would be out of a job.

To test this theory of appreciation versus admiration, let's take a recognizable masterpiece: The Godfather. Suppose I found someone who didn't like The Godfather, and not because it portrays Italian-Americans as gangsters, nor because it's not his or her "type" of movie. Would that person still recognize its greatness? Maybe the way to tell if a work of art is great is whether or not you can successfully argue that it's not great. Mark Twain attempted to do just that (in the realm of literature) when he chastised James Fenimore Cooper's novels as being unrealistic by listing his "literary offenses." And yet, there are other factors within Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales that make them classics, and an important part of American literature.

To return to my original topic: while I'm not sure how I can become less offended by opinions that strongly clash with my own, especially among people with whom I share so many similar opinions (maybe I just have to accept that two people seeing the same movie see two different movies, and leave it at that), I can tell you why I react better to criticism of my own work. First off, when I open myself to criticism, I either have a strong idea of what I want the work to accomplish, or I have no idea what I want the work to accomplish. The former situation allows me to discard criticism that will not help the piece achieve the goal that I have in mind for it; the other leaves me open to any criticism that would make the work better, or give it clarity. But, if you are going to criticize something that someone else made, wrote, painted, or otherwise created, there are certain rules you should follow. Below are my rules for critiquing. And while my below comments refer to literary criticism (specifically novels), the rules can be applied to criticism in general, and to critical debates:

1.) Don't attack the other person directly.

In other words, don't do what too many "interviewers" do on shows that have a political or personal agenda: attack the other person's credibility. You are not engaging in character suicide; you are trying to help the work be the best it can be. Also, don't try to figure out the author's motives in including a passage (or leaving one out). Your only question should be: how can this be made better?

2.) Be brutal, but fair.

It's best if you don't know the person whose work you are criticizing (a friend of a friend, for example). The reason for this is because friends will often let their feelings get in the way of being brutally honest, which is why one should only be open to criticism when one has done all he or she can on the work in question. Otherwise, one is already on rocky ground, and any criticism might crumble what structure was in the novel to begin with. By being brutal, but fair, the author is given an overabundance of good criticism. The author then can decide how brutal he or she wants to be in correcting his or her work. On the flip side, if one is tepid in his or her criticism, or is unfair, then he or she doesn't give the author much to work with, either because he or she isn't giving enough criticism, or is giving criticism of an inferior quality.

3.) Don't lose the forest through the trees.

In books, pacing is critical. If you tell an author to slash an entire episode out of a novel, notice how doing so effects the flow of the story. Maybe nothing is needed to fill in the vacuum. Maybe something is. Also, don't be so concerned about grammatical and spelling errors that you ignore the arc of the story or the development of the characters. You should make a note of such errors, but chances are that the author will pick up most of those errors himself or herself through the many rewrites that follow your critique. On the other hand, always correct passages that are murky in meaning, or that could be taken to mean something intentionally hilarious.

4.) Read through the work more than once.

Ideally, you should read through once without stopping, then write down anything you noticed that was wrong on a sheet of paper. The second time, do a close reading, stopping to write down further criticisms. Finally, read through it a third time to see if there is anything that you missed. You shouldn't read through the manuscript less than three times, but feel free to read through it more than three times. The more times you're willing to read through the piece, the more helpful your criticism will be. And, like a novel, it pays to step away from the manuscript for a while, then come back to it and see if any of your criticisms have changed.

5.) Make sure to point out the good stuff, too.

No one likes hearing all bad news, so make sure that you mention what works as well as what doesn't work. After all, the author needs to know what he or she is good at, as well as what he or she is not good at. And be specific. Don't just say that everything you didn't criticize was good. Mention which parts were effective, and why, which leads me to my last rule...

6.) Be thorough, but concise.

Explain what works and why, what doesn't work and why, and suggestions on how to make the bad parts better. Include as much criticism as you can in as few words as possible, using proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Unless you're writing an article for a magazine or newspaper, your purpose is not to show off your brilliant writing skills. The only skills the author needs from you are your analytical skills.

This last rule applies equally well to writing fiction, or any other genre, for that matter. Don't be a showoff when writing. Writing should serve the work it's in, rather than the other way around.

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