CRITICISM: WHO NEEDS IT?
Criticism is easy, art is difficult
Constructive criticism is a profoundly ironic oxymoron. How can any form of a judgmental review be helpful? The media is chockful of cynical, hard-edged blog posts, articles, and commentaries tearing apart awards shows, television programming, movies, actors, artists, people thrust into the limelight, fashion, and sports. Twitter memes trolling for practically anything the user deems worthy of attention often border on cyber-bullying, hateful commentary, or opinions which can’t be walked back. The underlying theme often castigates imagination, suggesting conformity as the desired outcome. No one is exempt! While criticism of poor behavior may be justified; objective assessments are more often drowned out by outre disparagers who consider their pronouncements the last word!
Years ago I wrote a post entitled Criticism vs. Feedback Know the Difference. It was hardly my best work, and the content reflected my frustration. Since its publication, I’ve come to question the necessity, if not the relevance of criticism. Flawed human being that I am, I admit I am not above being critical of people, places, things, and events, myself included. Old habits die hard. However, I still find much of the criticism I read difficult to stomach. I’ve been composing expository and literary works of art for twenty years. As I’ve matured into my craft, my attitude toward criticism has evolved, heavily influenced by the explosive and negative impact of social media. I am a proponent of feedback; it offers so much more room for growth when given honestly and objectively.
I posited the following in my original post: Criticism can be harmful. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, offers the following definition: “…1a: the act of criticizing usu. unfavorably, seeking encouragement rather than~…c: CRITIQUE 2: the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature…”
The same lexicon defines feedback as: “…2b: the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event or process to the original or controlling source; also: the information so transmitted…”
Obtaining input on expository and literary writing is a helpful method for assessing legibility and internal consistency. Understanding the difference between criticism and feedback empowers the discerning scribe. The two are not similar. Arguments parsing perceived comparability miss the point. Recognize the source! Is it commentary, disapproval, interpretation, or judgment? How does it affect your efforts?
I love writing. When I put pen to paper I am in my element and life is good. It’s my passion and I pursue it joyfully. As I became more immersed I eventually experienced the startling sting of criticism: blunt, cruel, damning, and perplexing. I was unprepared for it. Rereading my blog I realized I’d confused the act of being creative with my decision to focus on a personal desire. I’ve long since moved on from my detractors. When I think of criticism now, I’m referring to work products and end results. I value commentary and interpretation. They are substantive forms of input enabling me to see my work through an independent lens. When content which initially made sense comes under more rigorous scrutiny, I can be proactive if I so choose. Judgment, or disapproval, are potent indicators of the impact of prose, regardless of the format. The inditer who elicits reactions has achieved success. The practice of “reviewing”… in general has nothing in common with the art of criticism, wrote Henry James in his essay, Criticism, 1893. In and of itself criticism is damaging simply because of what it is. Feedback is an objective analysis. Criticism offered as a form of condemnation has nothing to do with creativity. It’s an expression of animus bordering on hatefulness. It screams how dare you?
Feedback doesn’t carry baggage. Some critics communicate rage through acerbic statements and stinging rebukes. They aren’t content to identify elements deserving closer analysis; instead the put-down reads like a diatribe, or a fierce attack on the jugular. The message is clear and overstated. Feedback is meant to be objective, honest, and encouraging. It comes from the heart and offers a sober assessment by probing and seeking clarification. It gives the artist insight into someone else’s perceptions of her or his work. Feedback is respectful.
I recall the first time I solicited feedback from someone I trusted. I felt pretty good about what I’d produced. What I received was a stern rebuke for indulging my imagination. It was a reaction to me and my efforts to realize a dream. It had little to do with what I’d written. My short story got ripped to shreds. In retrospect I recognize my error. I expected the person with whom I shared my work to be objective. It never occurred to me to consider the reasons for my choice.
Exercise sagacity when soliciting feedback. Engage one or two people you believe will be objective. Do your homework first: take time to acknowledge the rationale behind your choices. Determine what kind of input you want. Discuss your expectations, and if they aren’t met, write the interactions off as lessons learned. I came away from my initial experience wiser. I knew I needed to do a better joy of selecting the persons with whom I chose to entrust my manuscripts. I know what I want when I request feedback. I also know what to do with the negative stuff. “I am bound by my own definition of criticism: “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world,” wrote Matthew Arnold in The Function of Criticism at the Present time, an essay contained in his book Essays in Criticism 1865. Ironically, some things never change.
Learn to distinguish between criticism and positive feedback. The former won’t necessarily prove worth your time or trouble. The latter offers opportunities for improvement. Evaluate the input, consider the source, and pull out the nuggets worth keeping, if there are any. Criticism versus feedback: KNOW the difference.
©November 3, 2018 by Theresa Bennett-Wilkes. All rights reserved.