Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Critiquing the Critique: Effectiveness and Honesty

From amid the aeromantic poetics of Barth Anderson's blog:

When you take your car to a mechanic and ask why it's making that funny pinging noise, the mechanic doesn't say, "You know, I really don't like this car."

Take an oath with me, writers wokshops attendees, critiquers, and facilitators? Let's vow to scrutinize and challenge phrases such as "I really liked.." and "I didn't enjoy..." when critiquing our colleagues' work. Relative enjoyment is important for readers, but it should be tertiary or quaternary for writers in a critique circle. Enjoyment isn't irrelevant, obviously - it does speak to the aesthetic experience that a writer is trying to create. But describing how a story operates under its own rules is far more important and may speak to the gear works of that aesthetic experience, and, as a writer-critiquer, you may be short-changing yourself by relying on language that stands in the way of a closer examination ("I didn't like...") because your ability to create a vocabulary for such examinations is key if you want to see your own work effectively.

Kelly had a few points of clarification that he made over on Barth's blog, but since all of us in Wyrdsmiths regularly engage in critique, and without doubt have occasionally uttered the words "I liked this," or "I didn't like this," I thought I would open up the conversation here.

Does "liking" something matter to the critique? Should we omit that bit of info?


lydamorehouse said...

Actually, my car mechanic _does_ tell me when he doesn't like my car. I find that information very helpful -- it means the car is probably junkie and breaks down a lot as a rule. Then, if possible I try not buy that kind of car again when I have the opportunity.

I find identifying whether or not someone likes the kind of thing I write similarly helpful. Unlike with a car, it won't actually determine whether or not I'll write that sort of thing again, but it will determine how much value I place on the critiquer's comments. If they don't like space opera and I'm writing it, they're probably not going to have the best comments about THAT aspect of my work. The rest I listen to.

Tim Susman said...

I assume that what is meant is divorcing "I didn't like it because the main character doesn't have enough depth" from "I didn't like it because I don't like this kind of story." I've had people give me emotional reactions like that before and I usually find it helpful to know. Then again, I also find it interesting to ask, "WHY don't you like this kind of story?" because maybe it's previous experience, or maybe it's a common trapping of that kind of story; there could be nothing I can do about it, but there might be something I can learn from.

Anonymous said...

In part, I think Barth's talking about our over-reliance on the words "I really liked..." or "I didn't like...". They've become a bit overused and hollow, and I think he's asking us all to dig a little deeper into our reactions to find out we really mean, and then frame that in language that reflects a deeper look at our reactions.

And, as Barth says, "Enjoyment isn't irrelevant, obviously...". I think it's fair to say that what he's talking about is the role of a critique group, versus the role of a reader.

Bill Henry said...

To answer Sean's question specifically (without any wider consideration of Barth's original post) "Does 'liking' something matter to the critique?":

Yes, of course it matters, and no, you shouldn’t omit it, for the simple reason that readers want to read stories that they like--or, better still, love--not stories that they dislike, or stories whose technical merits they recognize but are left cold by, or stories that "succeed on their own terms" but reveal the author’s morals or politics to be repulsive, and so on.

When a half-dozen professional F&SF writers (who are, by extension, professional readers) tell you “I like this,” what you’re hearing is that you’ve succeeded in satisfying--in entertaining--a significantly representative cross-section of the larger audience of genre readers whom you’re ultimately aiming to reach. I might even go so far as to say that “liking it” is what matters most. Certainly it does to an acquisitions editor; when your manuscript has reached that point, most other considerations are pretty much by the way.

Bill Henry said...

And now about Barth’s post:

I think I hear what Barth is asking of us here: he’s asking us to stop being lazy with our speech acts. He’s asking for writer-critiquers, whose tools of the trade, after all, are words--and whose expertise consists in using the right words--to use a more precise and analytical language when we respond to the workings of a story. (As Tim says neatly enough above, Why do I like, dislike?)

In a nonconfrontational way, because there’s nothing to argue with in Barth’s post, I wanted to say that within the tight orbit of the Wyrdsmiths, for me, hearing “I like” is a nonissue. Language, the words we say--the meanings we make in this way are conventional. In a group of high-level critiquers like the Wyrdsmiths, I think we all use semantically lazy utterances like “I like” to metonomize a lot more information. Lazy, yes, but, most of the time, sufficient.

For instance, when someone at the table tells me, “I liked the bat,” or, better, “I loved the bat,” or “The bat makes me very happy” (guess who?), what I hear is “the scene with the bat succeeds in its formal, structural, aesthetic, and humorous intentions, yes, in its very evocation of batness,” and so on.

On the other hand, when someone admonishes me, “No food for you yet, Comrade Baboon!” I know it’s time for this indescribable super-ape to go back into his cage and reflect on the improvement of his conduct for a while.

Kelly McCullough said...

Condensed from my several comments on the topic over at Barth's most excellent blog:

As a critiquer, not acknowledging your own personal prejudices about a work can lead to dishonesty and distancing of your points, especially if it's dislike at a macro level. Now, if you didn't like this little bit over here, but the rest or most of the piece works for you the dislike comment is a cop out.

But if the whole doesn't work for you because you dislike it, you need to let the writer know that the piece fundamentally doesn't work for you as a reader and that that's going to color everything you have to say about it.

There is excellent work out there that I absolutely hate, and often it's excellent and works because of the same things that make me with my subjective filters dislike it. If the writer of that piece follows my advice and tries to make it into something it's not, they run the risk of gutting the work.

Of course, civility is important and I much prefer "didn't work" with a brief explanation of reader prejudices than "didn't like" but that subjective component is very important and very important to convey. Both ways. I loved this with an explanation of why is not only valid, but can be an excellent critique.

On the opposite end of the scale, I've found that occasionally I need to recuse myself from a critique because I know I'm not going to have anything useful to say, or partially recuse myself and say "look here are my prejudices. I have these issues, but they are at least partially driven by the prejudices I mentioned, you may need to disregard or pay less attention to my critique."

I will always try to give an honest dispassionate informative critique, but sometimes I fail and it's important for me as a critiquer to understand that and understand why and that sometimes the why is just simply about like vs. dislike.

I mostly agree with what Barth says in his post, and it made me want to add a note that expands and clarifies my take on his point.

Kelly Swails said...

What I got from Barth's post (and ensuing discussion) is this: like a story, don't like it, whatev. But put your money where your mouth is and be specific about why. "I don't like time-travel stories, period." "I love this character! She's so sharp and vile and funny!" "I like how you've make this plot point work."

Recusing yourself is always an option, of course. Every reader isn't going to like everything you've written just like you, as a reader, don't like every book on the shelves at the bookstore. When a story you've written is critiqued you've got to make that concession. That said: one person doesn't like it, eh. Ten people don't ... something's wrong. Fix it. And if your critiques are good ones, you'll be able to.

Anonymous said...

Actually I find it's an extreme help to know how I've manipulated the reader, what they are expecting, if a certain passage makes them proud, or scared or hits them in a particular way. In the end all I can say with critiquing is my opinion, actually improving or changing the story if I wasn't affected strong enough is up to the writer.

Aureliusz Kalliokoski said...

From experience, whenever someone critiques my work with "I really liked it!" or "I really didn't like it!" (they're quite interchangeable, in my mind), it usually means one of two things: they didn't actually read it, or it sucks.

Those responses tell me that no detail, no issue, no facet caught the reader's eye, for good or bad. The story's bland, the writing's bland, and so on. "I [don't] like the story" means the same thing as "I have nothing to say"; and that tells me what I've written ain't good.

As a reader, I'd also like to, respectfully, disagree with this opinion by Mr. Bill Henry:

"Yes, of course it matters, and no, you shouldn’t omit it, for the simple reason that readers want to read stories that they like--or, better still, love--not stories that they dislike, or stories whose technical merits they recognize but are left cold by, or stories that "succeed on their own terms" but reveal the author’s morals or politics to be repulsive, and so on."

I happen to like and love many novels, stories, films that leave me cold, or whose authors display morals or politics I don't like. And technical merits just turn me right, damn on.

Sometimes I think writers underestimate readers, thinking of them in Alfred Hitchcock's term: "the moron masses".