Years ago when I was an undergraduate in the Writers Institute at Saint Louis University I had a wonderful creative writing professor who taught me what publishing and the world of literature was all about. He told us then–and there were twenty-five of us would-be novelists in this freshman class–that what we write would be judged by him, not against the person in the next desk, but against the whole cannon of literature.

“You want to write and be read?” he said. “Well this is your competition, these are the great writers of the world. They are the standards I use to evaluate your prose.” And then he pointed to a bookshelf of the greatest books in the world.

Well, I never did very well against the Great Writers of Western Civilization, but occasionally he would nod approvingly over a sentence of mine, or the way I used a metaphor, and sometimes even have some kind to say about a whole paragraph of my prose.

I could live for a week off such praise.

At the end of four years, there were 3 of us left in our Writers Institute. All of my would-be writers classmates had decided they weren’t up to the job of being a writers. And after all of these years, it turns out I was the only one to publish a book from that class. Well, it wasn’t that great a class.

The first 7 novels I wrote never got published, and while I have written or edited over 25 books since then, none of them are literature. I’m still writing and editors are still saying, “Coyne, well this isn’t quite good enough….”

I say all this because I have had a number of email exchanges with RPCV writers who get all upset, tearyeyed, and ‘mad as hell’ when I make comments about their writing or the reviews I run on the blog do not claim to the world that their book is the greatest thing to come along since sliced breads.

Recently an RPCV writer wrote to say I could comment on his work, but I had to be ‘gentle and kind.’ 

Sorry, I won’t. Sorry I can’t.

A friend of mine, an artist, commented when I told him of this dilemma that I should say “wow!” and let it go, that the writer isn’t serious, wanting just praise for their prose.

I have had RPCVs write me wanting to have their self-published reviewed only by friends expecting, of course, that the friend will be ‘gentle and kind’ and only say nice things about their books.

Not all criticism is negative, nor even on target. Everyone brings their experience, knowledge, and bias to a review.

The wonderful thing about criticism of any sort is that a real writer learns from it. I spent four years in the Writer’s Institute at St. Louis University and since then been in writing workshops and shared my work with editors, friends, and strangers. I’ve learned to listen to what others have to say.  Readers and reviewers teach us. They teach us what works and what doesn’t work on the page. If as a writer you aren’t up to these evaluations, then you will never get better, and the best that you’ll receive in the way of praise is an occasional ‘wow’ from someone just like me.