“Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.”
Recently I had the great privilege of receiving criticism on a rough draft of my novel from a renowned literary critic, a phenomenal novelist and an intellectual who is considered unparalleled in his field: my father. Prior to receiving my manuscript back from him, the first 100 pages marked with marginal comments such as: “I don’t get this” “nonsense” “huh?” “unlikely” “what?” “cliché,” my mother said helpful things like, “We love you,” and “Remember, your father is treating you like a professional writer.”
Never mind that they are both 87 and I just turned 55. This entire episode reminded me how fortunate I am to have such a resource, but also how it can feel to be handed your heart on a platter, neatly dissected. My dad would have called that previous metaphor, “overblown, unoriginal, what heart?”
So, how do you proceed? In this case I called him immediately, thanked him for his close reading, asked a few questions, recognized how much he wants me to succeed and after hanging up the phone, I cried a bit and then took his advice and started over.
My experience with criticism has run the gamut from praise beyond anything I could have imagined to specific and detailed negative feedback that has caused me to question my choice of careers.
I was a babysitter years ago for the fiction editor of the New Yorker in Maine, a lovely job that enabled me to observe the secret life of famous writers on vacation, some of which I had already experienced, but some of which provided me with a lifetime of memories of celebrities getting drunk and falling off boats, asking me to mix martinis before the sun had passed the yardarm, and being told by this employer’s stepfather, E.B. White, that life had his moments, but he was looking forward to dying.
Years after this job I sent a short story to the magazine and received a nice note, a rejection letter detailing my virtues as a babysitter and this, “We all read your story, no one liked it.” I had a brief vision of the entire staff of the New Yorker passing around my poor little short story, shaking their heads and wondering why I hadn’t remained a professional child-care worker.
Then there was the New York Times review of my third published novel, Stone Garden, that referred to the book as The Catcher in the Rye for this generation and said it was better then the bestseller The Lovely Bones. When I read the review I felt a plethora of emotions. There was relief that it wasn’t bad, shock at how good it actually was, an odd sort of grief that my moment in the sun felt so anti-climatic, and anxiety about people being mean to me because I had received a full-page rave in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
So it goes. We scratch and claw our way to the top of the mountain (cliché!) and find ourselves looking down and wishing the descent was less steep.
I have also criticized. I was a critic for the Dallas Morning News years ago and wrote a bad review of a novel written by a very famous and good writer, a writer I respected enormously but I thought her novel failed. After the review was published I had a moment of fear thinking that if this writer was ever asked to review one of my books she’d probably not recuse herself and write something equally snarky. Then I realized I’d done exactly what I’d been asked to do, I reviewed a book as honestly and thoroughly as possible.
Criticism is valuable and painful. It is also just information, like your weight. Its most important function is how it affects the future. If criticism causes a writer to throw away a project and stop writing, that is a tragedy. In my case I decided to follow my father’s good advice, “Start again and do better.”
Molly Moynahan’s latest book is about writing college essays and both her parents love it! www.pitchperfectwriting.com.