Saturday, January 13, 2007

Individual Taste, Critique and Recusal

So, one of the things I do as a part of my life as a writer is read and critique manuscripts for friends, students, proteges, and other fellow writers. This can be entertaining, educational, frustrating, and rewarding, all at once or by turns. Over 15 years of doing this, I've developed a number of personal rules on the topic. The main ones are thus:

1. Always tell the truth.
2. Always be constructive.
3. Always try to help the writer achieve their goals. Or, Don't try to make them write the story I would have written from the same premises.
4. Sometimes following rules 1-3 means recusing yourself.

2 is easy, 1 and 3 not so much, though 4 can help with that. Everyone has personal reading biases and tastes, things that work for them or don't for reasons completely unrelated to the comparative success of the work. For example, most time travel stories don't work for me. That includes any number of award-winning works that are loved by lots of other readers.

So, if someone gives me a time travel story and it's not working for me, I don't go into great scathing detail about the inherent problems of paradox and meaning. None of that is going to help the writer and it's likely to aggravate both of us. Instead, I recuse myself and politely let them know that I'm not a good reader for this particular story. This can also be frustrating for both reader and writer, but hard experience has taught me this is much the better choice.

Any thoughts on recusal? Types of stories or themes that don't work for you? Rules for critiques? Stories of critique where you should have recused yourself, but didn't?


Anonymous said...

Actually, Kelly, I think this is an important recognition of what the reader brings to the table in experiencing the story. Any number of things could trigger personal memories or biases that the author could have no knowledge of, and which should not impact the author's writing of the story; maybe the character happens to be named the same thing as the reader's childhood tormentor, or there is a phrasing that triggers a negative response to religious fervor--which has nothing to do with your story, but which still impacts their experience of that story.

Used properly, recusal is the same thing we all do in our day-to-day relationships when confronted with a situation where telling our true feelings would have only a negative impact and wouldn't be constructive--we talk about one or two elements that we did like, then note that we aren't particularly into Electronica, though, Jimmy, so perhaps there are better people to give you feedback on your band's latest song.

Kelly Swails said...

Critiquing is a strange animal. For me, I was a lot more open to critiques of my own work once I got over my pride and looked at my writing objectively. As in, "Hey, I don't like every Stephen King book. Why should I expect everyone to like my short stories?" The answer is, you can't. But whether they like the story or usually has nothing to do with how well-written it is. Now, granted, sometimes a story is horribly written and the critique should reflect that. This is my roundabout way of agreeing with Kelly Y and Sean: sometimes, all you can say is "The writing is great" and then "Why don't you have Brad read it? He loves trippy time travel stories."

Kelly McCullough said...

I'm not sure I entirely agree with this: Used properly, recusal is the same thing we all do in our day-to-day relationships when confronted with a situation where telling our true feelings would have only a negative impact and wouldn't be constructive

And that's because in day-to-day life when I hit a situation where I have nothing useful to say, I generally don't explicitly tell someone I'm recusing myself on the topic or tell them why. As opposed to critque where I will flat out tell the writer that I'm not their target audience for time travel stories because I have major issues with the sub-genre. But it's still a good point as is Kelly X's about sending someone on to a more likely reader.

Anonymous said...

I suppose what I mean by that, Kelly-Y, is when you are asked rather point blank for your opinion on X. There are times in social situations when ignoring the question or changing the subject simply doesn't jar the person out of wanting to get your opinion, and at a certain point, recusal--carefully worded, politely delivered--becomes the only remaining out. I'm not saying that the majority of social situations fall under this umbrella, only that there are definitely a solid class of them that do, and that recusal functions in a way quite parallel to the social shuffling necessary to excuse oneself from that sort of situation.

Kelly McCullough said...

Okay, that's much clearer, and I have to agree with you, though I must also say I don't often find myself in those situations. That may be because I've developed a reputation for brutal honesty, or it may just be because of the way my social and career world is structured.

Kelly Swails said...

I'm with ya Kelly Y. Friends have never accused me of being shy about my opinions. Are my opinions always right? Of course not. That doesn't mean I'm not gonna tell you what they are. I've never recused myself from critiquing a story ... then again, I haven't critiqued a whole heck of a lot of them. I would, though, if I felt I couldn't give it a fair shake.