For Frank, in gratitude

I’ve written some fairly scathing reviews – and hope that at least they were fair even if I don’t really like to think of them as reviews. There are bloggers who are excellent literary critics and bloggers who are excellent reviewers, but I don’t belong to either group. It takes a sound education, deep-ranging reading, critical skills, and sheer intelligence and sensitivity (and life experience) to say something that isn’t commonplace about a piece of fiction. So what I write are at most impressions – notes to myself, almost – not reviews.

I’ve also received some scathing criticism of my own work, beginning with my first reader (a friend), then my first and only agent, and though I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t pinch, even hurt at times, I actually do welcome reviews – and not just because of the publicity! It’s always salutary to be forced to reconsider what you’ve done, and why. We all know that we learn best when confronted by the things which make us most uncomfortable. Perhaps equally as important, we also learn to trust ourselves, and to persist. To move on to the next challenge.

As with all craftsmanship, each problem solved only brings with it new ones, problem solving and problem finding being intimately linked, to paraphrase Richard Sennett. There is no such thing as perfection. And we’d be bored by perfection, in any case; it’s the flaws which make art, well, art. Think of the beauty of a hand-thrown pot compared to a piece of factory porcelain. (Perhaps this helps explain the driven consumerism of our mass culture, its desperation – the futile attempt to be satisfied with the next indistinguishable product, and the next.)

I don’t want to write factory fiction. Let me be clear about this: I’m convinced that there are teens – perhaps only a small number of teens – who read beyond Ypulse, who appreciate more than action and a grab-me style, who are puzzled and excited by the complexity of our world, who enjoy the richness of language, who are willing to work a bit.

To do good work seems to me a satisfying way to spend our short, fragile lives.

I can’t say it better than a dear and wise e-friend, Frank Wilson, poet and critic and blogger extraordinaire (and former Book Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer):

Now here’s how I approach criticism of my work: Does the criticism raise an issue I wasn’t aware of when I wrote it? If not, then I made my decision and will stick with it. If so, is it valid or not? If valid, then I guess I screwed up. Time to move on.

The lesson you need to learn as a writer is not to be like Lot’s wife. If you keep turning around to look at where you’ve been you’ll be frozen into a pillar of salt tears.

Criticism can be a beast, but after my many years in Africa, I wouldn’t like to cage all those elephant and lion and buffalo – nor neuter them.


2 thoughts on “Taming the criticism beast

  1. Lee 16 years ago

    Judith, having been privileged to read a few of Frank’s poems, I keep hoping he’ll put together a volume (or e-volume) of a larger number of them one day.

    As to my own words, you’re very kind, but there are plenty that could – and should – be changed. Thank you, though, for your support. I won’t be forgetting it soon.

  2. Cogito Ergo Doleo 16 years ago

    I can vouch for Frank’s approach to criticism since I am privileged to see some of his work under construction; not a lot since, natch, he is careful with others’ time and knows the value of respecting boundaries.

    He’s a great poet, though, I can say that much without reservation; and, I hate him :). In the work I have seen, I’ve only ever had one query on one little word; and, it took him a day or two (but, he did “fix” it; and, then, another perfekk poem resulted).

    It is said your enemies are your best promoters (and, McLuhan said, precisely, it’s “better than being banned in Boston”); but, Lee, ever the contrarian (as you yourself e-tapped elsewhere recently), you certainly prove that one wrong (with class and a lovely splash of panache).

    Your measured and thoughtful tribute to Frank and your sense of what you are doing with your own work are rock-solid wonderful. I wouldn’t change a wor(l)d.


    — Judith Fitzgerald,
    Professional Commentarian