At what point do critiques of a piece of writing cease to matter? Like all art, poetry and prose are similarly subjective beings. What’s pleasing to one is not necessarily so to another. Take modern art: two individuals, side by side, gazing at a piece, can be of two completely different mindsets. One sees a genius display of the abstract, meaning in every stroke. Another, a projectile vomiting of paint onto canvas with no sense of purpose. Who is to say which interpretation is wrong? Additionally, who is to say whether that piece is fit for a museum? Here, we must call it a draw and shake hands with the subjectivity of art.
I attended my first non-academic critique today for a short story I wrote. I tried to ignore the fact that the two providing the feedback were at least 10 years my junior, undergraduates making their way in the world. The first appeared nervous, eyes darting from the screen to my face, and assured me that although he had read the piece, he couldn’t quite remember much about it. Looking it over again, he told me he enjoyed the ambiguousness of the story and the power of the social criticism. Despite his shyness in the delivery, I felt he really got it.
The second reviewer, another of the editors, jumped right in with his “complaints.” There wasn’t enough to the story. Mob mentality doesn’t just occur overnight. It wasn’t believable. Essentially, it fell flat. Of course, no writer wants to hear such things about their craft, so naturally I felt myself tensing, jaw set. I became defensive and began to explain my reasons for the aggressive transition, the lack of details: it was meant to generate conversation, to make people question the decisions of the society in the story. But I could see that he did not like this push-back. I should have rolled over and taken his word as law.
The final nail in the coffin of this exceptionally disagreeable interaction was the point at which he explained to me that they had three boxes for the submissions: definitely no, maybe, and definitely yes. My piece, he continued, was in the maybe box and, “would probably be published unless something amazing came along to knock it out.” At this, my eyebrows raised. I had heard quite enough. Maybe seeing my expression, or maybe remembering the constructive criticism, “safe space” bit, he threw in half-heartedly that he liked my prose and writing style. With that, I thanked him for his time, but left feeling angry and indignant.
I’ll be the first to admit that I do not take criticism well, especially not when it comes to something I care so much about: my writing. I had sent this story to a number of people, one of whom recently submitted a novel for publication, and it was very well-received. But while I present this as proof, I also acknowledge that it’s unrealistic to think everyone is going to like everything I turn out. It’s like having an opinion; not everyone is going to get your reasoning, people may not agree. And that’s OK.
Which is where I come back to my first question.
At what point do critiques cease to matter?
Should positive feedback from many be disregarded in order to accommodate the negative feedback from a few? In this particular case, since I disagree with the criticism, I can’t see the use in conforming to another’s ideal of my story. If Robert Pirsig or James Joyce or Gertrude Stein had taken the opinions of the publishers who rejected them to heart, where would we be?
If you feel confident in your craft, you push on past the negativity and work to improve; not for others, but for yourself. There are always new avenues to explore in this field, so walk down those roads poised and ready to learn all you can.