Criticism is a vital part of literature, and for that matter most fields. Active, reasoned critiques help identify weaknesses and strengths, provide multiple interpretations and perspectives on disparate matters, and foster improvement, perhaps more than anything else. They are just as essential to individuals; critical feedback is immensely helpful to improving oneself in any number of aspects, whether that’s a specific ability, or more generally. It is something that we are encouraged to actively seek out in order to understand how our work and how we are perceived and received by others. Unfortunately, it is also something that I struggle with receiving.
Intellectually, and logically, I can appreciate criticism, and I know to seek it out. I don’t try to deny that critiques I receive are legitimate, or lampoon the intelligence of those criticizing me. Nor does it bother me (much) emotionally. However, I don’t do well with criticism because I have a hard time internalizing it. While I will accept criticism, my mental response is often something along the lines of “yes, I can see that, but…” Ideally, I need to eliminate that “but,” even in my own head. Let me provide an example to make this a bit more clear.
Say that someone told me that they didn’t think that a character in my story should have been able to do a thing that they did. In my head, my instinctive reaction to this is something like “yes, but you don’t know the background that I do. See, I know that the character has had these past experiences, and that the magic system works in this way, that makes what they did completely plausible.” It’s not that such a reaction is wrong, it’s just that it’s not helpful. Regardless of what I think I know about my story, that doesn’t make the criticism any less legitimate. My readers don’t have the information I have in my head, so my defenses based on what I know are rather irrelevant.
Now, there are some criticisms that end up resolving themselves. For instance, I once received a rough draft back with a bunch of comments in the beginning of the story complaining that the reader didn’t know what was going on and was confused. Most of those questions and confusions, though, were resolved by the second chapter. I suppose I could try to fit even more information into the first chapter to resolve those things sooner, but that would probably make the story weaker and even harder to follow. In most books that I read, I spend at least the first chapter or two with a lot of world building questions that are resolved as more exposition is worked into the text. So while that criticism was legitimate, it also didn’t need to give rise to changes (other criticism I received in the same session did eventually lead me to table that story for the time being, so don’t think I’m trying to undervalue it).
For the most part, though, I work very hard to accept and internalize whatever critiques are offered me on my writing. I don’t necessarily have to change anything in response to it, but I need to get better at accepting those critiques as legitimate, as opposed to simply becoming defensive, which is an unproductive reaction. Any and all feedback can help me improve my craft. This is also why I’ve really come to appreciate real-time feedback on my drafts, where a test reader will write down their thoughts as they are reading. I can then go back into those thoughts, and ask further questions, to learn exactly how a reader might be responding to the text as they are in the process of reading it (since our relationship with texts is different after we’ve read through it once and know what is going to happen).
All of this is in reference to critiques such as those offered by critique groups and writing groups. These are incredibly helpful, and I have been slowly improving my ability to solicit and guide the feedback and criticisms I receive in these settings to be most helpful to me in attempting to improve a specific story and my writing in general. However, when I say “literary criticism,” most people are probably thinking of the kind of critiques offered by stuffy English professors at prestigious universities, so it is probably worth addressing interpretation.
I suspect that most people have sat through English or literature classes where the teacher droned on and on about some preferred theory about the text, or were obliged to dissect every single word in a line of poetry (for instance, I recall one of my high school teachers was obsessed with Hamlet and the theory that Hamlet had an Oedipus complex, which I could never quite see). In a particularly memorable experience, I once shared a work of short fiction I had written for a class, and received all kinds of these sorts of “critiques” regarding all of the metaphors, allusions, and deep meanings I had apparently worked into the text. Never mind that I had just written it because I wanted to write about starships, and that the only reason everyone died at the end was because it was getting towards the due date and I had other homework I needed to do.
How relevant, or even legitimate, are these sorts of “artistic interpretations?” My first instinct is to say that they don’t mean anything, and that the goal of artistic interpretation should be to discern what the author was actually trying to convey. This we may call the “right answer” approach, in which there is a correct interpretation that the author intends, and all other interpretations are necessarily false. As an author, that is also my first instinct to desire for my own works, that people will faithfully receive the meaning that I am deliberately attempting to convey. The thought that someone might pick up one of my stories and decide that it means something completely different gives me a vague sense of dread, and definitely makes me uncomfortable.
Yet, that is probably not the right way of thinking of things. Reading is really a dialogue between the reader’s external context, and the story’s internal context. That interaction is what gives a text meaning. So who am I, even as the author, to decide what meaning everyone should derive from what I’ve written? If I want to convey something very specific with a given text, then I should make sure that it is obvious. Otherwise, it should perhaps be up to the reader to determine what I mean. This can be thought of as the “no answer” approach, and it probably fits most closely with other parts of my personal philosophies.
Back to the other kind of criticism, one of the difficulties can actually be with finding enough of it, and ensuring it is objective. Most of the time, the people who I can get to read my drafts are people who know me, and probably like me, and so they will generally be predisposed to like what I’ve written, or to tell me that they like what I’ve written, or at least to view the draft in a generous light. This is part of why I decided to post Blood Magic here on the site, even though I knew I wouldn’t have time to put each episode through thorough revisions before it went live. Though I dreaded the inevitable comments complaining about how terrible my stories are, I knew that the completely unfiltered, anonymous feedback would have the potential to greatly improve my writing. That hasn’t quite worked, since my readers so far have not been inclined to comment in any fashion on the Blood Magic episodes.
Of course, the single most important thing that I can do to improve my writing is simply to keep writing. I’ve also been practicing revisions recently, with the Blood Magic season one re-releases, which has been a learning experience in its own right. If you remember the early Blood Magic episodes, and read the new ones coming out for season two, I think you’ll see that I’ve improved significantly over the past year. Hopefully, I’ve improved in my ability to accept criticisms, as well.