Monthly Archives: November 2014

Questioning Critique

It’s been said that a writer fluctuates between believing they’re the best writer in the world and the worst writer in the world—and in some cases, that they hold both views at the same time.

The point is well-made. When the creative faculty is fully engaged and the characters on the page writhe and pulse with life, the writer is in heaven; but when the inbuilt editor that any good writer possesses kicks in, or the work runs aground on any of a myriad possible shoals, the writer is convinced his work is crap.

Writers work in isolation. They’re very close to their work. And a piece of fiction is a dynamic, interdependent, sometimes fantastically complex web of forces and relationships. It’s therefore vital, as the work approaches its final completion, for the writer to get outside feedback.

Over the last dozen years I’ve participated in or mentored several critique groups, as well as founding one (“Written in Blood”) several of whose members are now widely published and have even won major awards. I firmly believe in the now standard writer’s group critique process.

And yet I’ve begun to see its limitations. Bear with me as I approach my point obliquely.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my dislike of the way the publishing industry, steered as it is by suits and the pressing imperatives of the market, is increasingly adopting the Hollywood approach, where everyone gets input on the final result. I personally know of several authors whose book was turned down by a publisher because the marketing department had issues with it (sometimes just because it didn’t fit a clear category) despite the fact that the editorial team were unanimous in approving and wanting to acquire it.

My point is that when we try to second-guess, we can always, always find issues; and in addressing those issues, we end up making so many changes that we can suck all the life and uniqueness out of a work. Today, a book is first critiqued, often multiple times, before going to the author’s agent, who often initiates a whole new round of revisions; and then the same occurs at the publishing house. This in my view is why so many genre books today seem generic, formulaic, and about as exciting as the kind of art that hangs in bank lobbies and Comfort Inn rooms.

I’m beginning to think that the word “critique” itself is problematic (the etymology goes back to the Greek word, krites, a judge) and tends to slant the process towards fault-finding; “evaluation” may ultimately be closer to what a writer needs, but I’m probably splitting hairs.

Let me be clear: I do believe writers should seek critique and feedback**, and am not for one instant devaluing the formal writers’ critique group. But as we grow as writers, we need to be really sure that the type and direction of critique we’re receiving is keeping pace with our skills, and that our beta readers “get” our work and our intent. Writers need to be very aware that it’s easy to critique anything to death. Tangents and irrelevancies creep in as the well-meaning critiquer casts around to address anything which may raise a question. In this fishing process, things may be caught which materially and subtly contribute to the flavour and uniqueness of the story; and in their doubt, the writer, once alerted, removes or alters the item, and in the process diminishes the final work, bringing it closer to the ordinary.

As an example of this, imagine a Gothic, claustrophobic tale set in a remote castle. In the process of critique, one or more readers may feel that they want to know more about the world outside. What’s going on there? Why doesn’t anyone in the castle go down to the village for supplies? Where do they get their water? And so on. These questions may be fair and even relevant, but there’s every danger that an insecure writer, in attempting to address them to please some theoretical contingent of readers, begins to put in sentences or scenes or infodumps which degrade the atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia and consequently lessen the power of the work.

Even more of a minefield is the advice frequently given in critique about adverbs, flashbacks, show don’t tell, etc.; while all the standard writing advice is founded on solid principles, it takes true maturity to understand its limits; and likewise to know how and when to break the rules.

The point of critique isn’t to make the story or book attain some theoretical ideal of perfection (ideals which are usually based on writerly dogma and oversimplified writing “rules” than anything else); the point is to end up with a publishable piece of fiction which readers will enjoy and which communicates the creator’s vision in as unalloyed a form as possible. The mature writer needs to have the self-confidence and feel sufficiently secure to say, “no: enough”.

Perhaps this is why most pro authors, or even those who are multiply published, seem to move on from formal critique groups and instead pass their manuscripts on to a very small, handpicked circle of other mature authors for beta reading, people who they know will “get” exactly what they’re striving for, and what the reader wants, rather than taking more of a scattergun approach to finding fault in the manuscript. The line may be a fine one, but it is, in my experience, very real.

To my mind, the best beta readers and editors will understand the distinction between on the one hand fully respecting the author’s intent, direction, vision, and style, and on the other, obsessing over some cookie-cutter notion of what the market wants and what constitutes good writing. The focus needs to be on two things only: what the writer intends, and what matters to readers. Nothing else.

And that’s all it ever was about.

What do you think?

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**In fact, I offer manuscript evaluation/critique and copyediting services for writers—see main menu bar above

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