Sit Down and Shut Up: Authors and Criticism
by Emily Brunson
I really enjoyed and agreed with many points made in Rana Eros’s "Expect the Inquisition" essay. So true, to such a large extent.
Yes, there’s a "but then" coming along, right about…now. Heh.
One of the points to hit vividly home for me, I’ll quote here.
Also, and this is something a lot of authors seem to have trouble comprehending, not all of my critical discussions of your story are expressly for your benefit….
As an author who has had her work discussed thusly, my advice to you is to just sit back and stay quiet. Eventually you'll figure out if you'll get any use out of the discussion. If not, wander away. If so, keep watching, but resist the urge to participate, unless you really feel you have an insight into your own story that will contribute to the discussion. Such discussions are usually about reader response and interpretation, and authorial interjections will only derail the whole process, and leave you with a certain portion of your audience feeling rather resentful. This will often impact how your next story is received, so if you're a raving egomaniac who likes lots and lots of glowing feedback (like, say, me), then it's best to just bite your tongue and either take notes or walk away, if you find you have to bite too hard.
I’m not here to refute that advice. It’s sound, solid, and downright earthy-logical. The fact of the matter is that much of criticism is not, in fact, geared to the author, but to the reader, more or less, and therefore may not be pertinent nor intended to be pertinent to the writer.
As a writer first and foremost – a few forays into criticism notwithstanding, my qualifications are limited as a reviewer/critic, primarily to those issues that do in fact have a direct meaning for authors, as opposed to readers – I find this a fascinating and meaningful tangent from the broader idea of criticism as a whole. This closed circle, if you will, does seem very often to relegate the author to the role of bystander, even when his or her own work may be the direct or indirect subject of critical discussion. As such, it often presents a challenge in terms of the author’s interests.
I’ll digress a moment and explain, hopefully briefly, where I’m coming from with regard to this subject. As a writer, participating in numerous workshops and more individualized critique sessions, I had it impressed upon me almost from the very beginning that there was at least one cardinal rule for authors in such situations. You may not defend your work. Within certain distinct guidelines one may explain it; if you are asked to clarify point A or C, you may do so. But you may not justify it – you may not essentially perch on the reader/critic’s shoulder and attempt to sway how he or she responds to it.
That’s a tough role to play in the workshop situation, to be sure, but it’s vital. Realistically, when the work is completed, it must stand on its own. Authors will not be available to explain to every reader what’s going on, and why, nor should they be. The story must do that by itself.
It’s a harsh reality. Something one has worked so very hard on (hopefully), revised, polished, re-read, re-written, edited, proofed, and then done all of it again a few dozen times, is almost always very near and dear to one’s heart. Therefore, to let it go, whether in a workshop situation or online forum, or even to hard-copy publication, is very much like watching your child venture out into the cold, cruel world, without mom to hold his hand. You must trust that you’ve taught him to look both ways when he’s crossing the street. To do the right thing when he’s pressed. In terms of story, you must trust that you have prepared your manuscript to the extent that it will represent your ideas and intentions as clearly as possible. And as successfully.
And, just as with a child, you must do it knowing that bad things happen. That kids get hit by cars every day in this world. And stories fail, for no reason that we could predict, or influence. No matter how hard you work, strive, prepare – the unexpected is exactly that.
To be told to sit on one’s hands is tough. It’s tougher than anyone might think, who has not had to do it. Few avenues offer such a clear path to a person’s psyche as fiction. It is a glimpse, however brief or nuanced, inside a writer’s mind, and sometimes into her very soul. It is a vulnerable act, at its heart.
Tough love is sitting back and trusting. Believing in oneself and one’s work to the extent that one can walk away when the time is right.
But doing that – walking away, letting that kid do what he has to do – doesn’t end the process for writers. Any more than closing the door means you stop worrying about your child on his way to his first day at school. You think about it. You push it away, and it comes right back. Did he get there okay? Did he make any friends? Did he get into any fights? He hates spaghetti; did they serve that at lunch? Did you remember to GIVE him his lunch this morning? Run and check. Did you remember everything? Did you forget anything?
We do the same with stories, I’ll wager. Sucks to find something we missed when it’s all over but the crying.
And for authors, this anxious point, this place from which we really can’t return, even if we might want to, is exactly the point at which we must sit on our hands. When we must remain silent, creatively motionless. This is the point at which we must metaphorically sit down and shut up.
I do not presume to suggest that I speak for all writers. By any means. I AM a writer, but writers come in all shapes and sizes, any variety of backgrounds, styles, and technical ability. Just as our work reads differently from author to author, so do our styles vary in terms of how we handle that empty-nest feeling that sets in about thirty seconds after publishing a story.
For myself, a degree of desire does exist to know critical feelings regarding my work. I want to know how people feel. That includes a native curiosity about what did not work, as well as what did. It’s not a particularly good feeling to know one has not achieved what one set out to do, but nevertheless an important bit of knowledge.
The point I am meandering my way toward making is this. Just as authors need to understand that not all criticism is intended for the author’s ears, not all response from authors is intended to undermine or refute said criticism. This sounds like a given, to many, but it’s more complex a situation than it may first appear. There is a need on the part of many writers to discuss critical commentary. Part of that – a very great part – is a need for further clarification. Bear in mind that an author most often cannot view her work as the reader does. Aspects that may seem self-evident to the critic may be far from obvious to the author. It is not always willful ignorance. Granted, at times it may well be stubbornness, hurt feelings, anger – all permutations of negative reaction.
But it is equally possible, at least in the beginning of the critical process, that a vital connection is missing. And it is precisely at the time when that process is starting up that authors are advised to shut up.
This, I think, is at least one area where understanding is all too often utterly lacking, for both parties, not just one or the other. At the very point when you want me to back away and let you do your work, exercise your own passionate interest in criticism, my own investment in the work is at its apex. My knowledge of the material in question is at its clearest. My memory of the process, the ups and downs, the hows and whys.
And you want me to say nothing?
The point here, of course, is absolutely not to suggest that authors should indeed be welcomed to all critical discussions. As I stated at the opening of this essay, it’s a very important idea that in fact a great deal of criticism isn’t intended for the author’s personal and literary edification, nor should it be. It’s entirely possible that a great number of writers of any level of quality fail to recognize that fact.
It’s equally possible, however, that without a deeper understanding of the writing process than that generally offered to the occasional non-fiction-writing critic, the author’s interest in – and urge to be a part of – some of the critical process may be misconstrued. What appears to be affront, refutation, or outright dismay, may not have a single thing to do with the criticism itself. But instead be a reflection on the work, and on the author’s approach to same.
And that, quite frankly, is the area where critics…don’t necessarily want or need to go. Just as there are elements of criticism that do not apply to authors, the inverse can be the case. It is not all technical, by any means. It can be as intangible as the fact that clearly criticism suggests the readers’ reactions to a piece were not what the author anticipated. To ask, "But you didn’t feel X?" may be less a defense and more an expression of a far more personal dismay. That comment says, "They did not respond the way I thought they would; therefore I did not do the job I believed I was doing."
And yet such reactions are vital to the author who intends to progress in her craft. Until you know, until you recognize this sort of thing, you will not be able to address it.
Does that matter to the critic? I would argue it doesn’t. This is the point at which writer and critic truly part ways; the author is reflecting on what these opinions mean not only for the work in question, but for future works as well. The critic has no access to ideas, cannot address ideas percolating in the author’s brain. Just as the writer will not be able to take all critical points mentioned and apply them with the idea of improving future work, the critic not only cannot review work they haven’t read, but cannot be assumed to ever read a subsequently published piece of fiction from a given author. Critics work in the moment. Authors very often do not.
(This assumes, of course, that we’re talking about a single story by a given author, and preferably one new to our hypothetical critics. Reviewing an ouvre is a different subject, with somewhat different expectations and requirements.)
With these ideas in mind, perhaps we need to reconsider a flat approach of "sit down and shut up." The point is not to encourage authors to argue critical points with which they disagree, necessarily. Once again, in the long run the author MUST let the work speak for itself. The point, really, is that the critical process is perhaps more meaningful to the author than even experienced critics may realize. And that meaning may take on far different forms from, say, advice on point of view, or grammar, or the success of a particular plot point. There is in fact no good way to predict what might be meaningful – or not – to a given author.
But it is only through criticism that authors are given a window through which THEY can peer back. It is only through not only reading but at times questioning criticism that authors can get the clearest glimpse of what that criticism truly means for their work. And so dialogue – at least in limited form – can be not only interesting for the critic, but vital for the author.
You never know. Criticism is not as much of a closed circle as you think. And critics, too, can learn about their own craft, in discussions with authors. Stranger things have happened.