Taking Criticism: Are You Man (or Woman) Enough To Be A Writer?

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.

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  • I would be happy to take a ‘Wow” from you, John!

    And on another subject: When was the last time a writer graced the cover of Time magazine (a la Jonathan Franzen this week)? At least the headline wasn’t “Dinosaur.”

  • Donbob–I was never told I wrote like an ‘angle’ while at SLU, those others were told they did. However, we do know that there are many fallen angles, and I did not suffer that fate!

  • I couldn’t agree more! You point out the reason why I’m always wary when people suggest that I write a book on my PC experience. Having amazing experiences doesn’t automatically make one a good writer.

    I was excited to see you are also a fellow Billiken! I graduated from the Cooks School at SLU in ’08, just few weeks before I joined the Peace Corps in Cameroon!

  • I’d argue that one hasn’t arrived as a writer until getting, and surviving, a negative review. Because it’s only then that you truly ask yourself if the art is worth it, if you really believe that your work has value when others are publicly saying that it doesn’t, if you will continue to work not only in the face of the great wall of rejection, but the rejection that comes even once you have made the Herculean hurdle into print.
    If you can continue your work knowing that not everyone will appreciate it, will even attack you, you become a member of the fellowship of writers who ‘pressed on’. And this is a very good fellowship to be in, includes all real writers.You don’t have to like it, but you aren’t ‘for real’ as a working writer until you develop a thick skin. The thin skin is the hallmark of the amateur.
    It’s embarrassing to see people lament the criticism and rejection they’ve received when as a working writer, one has already dealt with this many, many times. The words that come to mind are, ‘Suck it up, honeypot.’
    That said, when I’m reviewing, I leave the really hardball stuff to others. Knowing how much effort I put into my books, it makes it hard for me to sling barbs at anyone.The harsh critic is a necessary, but strange and vile sort of animal. From what rank cave slinks the harsh reviewer? Not enough love from Mommy? To fat as a child, too thin? But thank goodness for these heartless, twisted bullies. Because harsh criticism is necessary stuff, to make working writers question themselves and perhaps work harder, to produce better books. At the same time, one should never forget that reviewers and critics are often just wrong. The examples of great books poorly received, and bad books celebrated, are endless.
    Now here is something else…How can any of us know when our work is ‘good’? It’s the essential question for all of us. I think in the end it has to be a completely personal decision, ‘I believe this is good, no matter what anyone says.’ Then you send it out and find out what they have to say about it. Then you send it out again. I personally don’t believe in talent. I do believe in hard work and perseverance. Years of imitating at first, then pushing, sitting in the seat day after day, working with words, a mania, an obsession. Reading everything. Listening to criticism. Separating out the useful criticism, taking it to heart. Believing in oneself. And hopefully after long last, as John Gardner put it, “Catching on.”
    Bottom line is, send out your book and celebrate whatever comes, praise, rejection, whatever. Because everything can be a teacher. And you should already be working on something else.

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