Monday, December 27, 2010

What is CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM?

I recently dealt with a "critic" who derided my entire body of work because in one story I referred to shotgun shells as bullets.  The tone of this person's "criticism" was such that one might think I had sanctioned the public torturing of fresh-born puppies.  I occasionally am confronted by this type of "criticism"-- the anal pointing out of trivial elements that have nothing to do with the overriding concerns of the story.  You know the type, they can't watch a movie without saying, "that couldn't happen!" every two minutes.  An old friend of mine who is slowly becoming an unfriend (in real life, not on facebook) has the same problem.  She claims to be a writer, though I have never once in thirty-plus years of 'friendship' seen anything she has actually written.  She is always "planning something" in her mind but she doesn't have the discipline to sit down and do the work necessary to bring a piece of writing out of the ether and into reality.  This poor woman is almost 41 and has never left her mother's home.  She has never had a serious job and, at the moment, is entirely unemployed and living off of the labor of her hardworking mother.  On Christmas, she engaged me in a raging argument over the plot-points of a porno movie from the 1970s.  She has never been able to read my work without making a comment such as ,"you use the word 'the' quite a few times."  When I finally called her on this habit last spring she shouted at me, suggesting that I can't take criticism.

Now, I have been "taking criticism" for as long as I have been a writer.  I put together writing groups for that specific purpose.  The problem with my friend and the psychotic who missed the entire purpose of my story in effort to point out the difference between bullets and shells is that they don't understand the difference between CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM and ANAL CRITICISM.  Constructive criticism entails helpful comments on how to strengthen the story through structure.  Anal criticism is critcism made by people who obviously aren't writers themselves and think a minor technical gaff is reason to attack the (real) writer.  I realize most of the people who read No Moral Center are real writers, so I wonder what your thoughts are on this matter.  How do you deal with people who just don't understand the difference between constructive and anal criticism?  What can we, as writers, do to help the general public understand how infuriating it is to have someone read an entire story only to miss the point because they are paying attention to the number of times you typed 'there' instead of 'their'?

3 comments:

  1. Hey you,
    This made me laugh! There is NOTHING you can do! I get that all the time. I make so many so mistakes I can't possibly even begin to count and I will be the first to admit it! If one wants to cock their pistols and shoot. Hot damn--let them! At the end of the day, you are making more mistakes then they are because YOU are the one writing and they are farting around thinking about writing. I find the people who criticize the most are the people who talk about writing but never actually write. Humility, I believe, is a very important part of the process. I'm not saying that criticism doesn't have its spot. But I am saying that if you and I are both well known for writing our asses off, and I ask your opinion on a piece of work, I will hold it in much higher regards than someone who is always firing off at the mouth and never writes a thing. Ha. I'm ranting. This topic always pisses me off. ;-)

    Merry Christmas!

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  2. Good post, Alec.

    The "nit-picky" types are good for one thing: technical editing. I let them pick out the spelling and punctuation errors and ignore everything else they say.

    The main thing I'm concerned about in my writing is clarity. If someone critiquing a piece says something like "I don't think this character is likeable enough because she lacks true emotional depth, blah, blah, blah" I don't take it seriously, but if they say something like "I can't tell what's happening in this scene," then I'm all ears.

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  3. Jodi, Merry Christmas to you as well. I agree. If I give somethng to my dad to read and he makes a silly observation, it's no big deal. He's a reader, not a writer, and he doesn't pretend otherwise. It's definitely people who talk and don't walk and I wonder how much jealousy plays into it. I suppose we should be "bigger" people and let it drift.

    Garnett, it's difficult to find people who understand that a writer who knows what he or she is doing is only looking for the kind of criticism you're talking about. That whole 'emotional depth' crap, by the way, is exactly what you'd hear in Hollywood! Can you believe it? The kings of short attention span storytelling actually having the nerve to talk about character development!

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