On Critique

(or, Randy Olson, erv Is Absolutely Right to Be Kicking Your Ass Right Now)

Here’s the thing about being an artist.

  1. You have to communicate to do art.
  2. Communication requires someone on the other end.
  3. You require feedback to know whether you’re communicating.
  4. Critique requires time, thought and investment in your art by someone else.
  5. Art (and all communication) is subjective, so not all your critiquers will agree. Some will strongly disagree.
  6. Sorting through widely divergent critiques is not a comfortable process for the artist.
  7. While some may be more useful than others, none of the critiques are wrong.

I have a good friend with whom I’ve had exactly one fight (plenty of arguments, but that’s part of the fun). He’d written a book that he felt was the best thing he’d ever written. His critique group thought it was the best thing ever, period. He asked me to read it.

It took me forever. I didn’t want to keep reading or to pick it up again after putting it down. It left me feeling icky and cheated. I hated it. (Sorry, dude.)

I usually like his stuff, so I spent some serious time breaking down which parts of the book were causing this reaction. I spent a couple of hours on just one email to articulate my overall problems with it and plenty more on the usual line edits. I scoped out continuity glitches and pointed to places where characters fell flat. I spent extra time with this book that creeped me out to be fair and give him what I normally give him from a critique.

I then spent a few hours talking to him mostly about other stuff but with the conversation frequently circling back to the book. By the end of the day, he said he’d figured it out. The book was deliberately manipulative. I dislike being manipulated. Therefore, I didn’t like the book.

I was immediately upset, but it took me until I got home to realize the full extent what had just happened. After all that work, I had just watched myself being categorized and filed away. I’d been explained. To my face. Needless to say, I kicked his ass for it. He took it quite well, since he really does understand the whole critique thing. The wide difference of opinion had just briefly overwhelmed his judgment.

Filmmaker Randy Olson has just done the same thing on a larger scale, soliciting reviews of his new film from 50 bloggers, then releasing a memo classifying the positive and negative reviews by the character of the reviewer the day after the reviews came out. Abbie at erv, quite rightly and beautifully, starts the ass kicking.

Randy, you say you’re listening. I hope you do it better this time, because you’ve got a few things to learn on this particular subject.

On Critique
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30 thoughts on “On Critique

  1. 1

    I disagree with number 7. It is possible for a critique to conflict with the fundamental nature of the universe in such a way that it can be called bullshit. A critique can be nefariously or politically motivated, or it can be fascist (if it includes the idea that all conflicting critiques are wrong). Some aspect of the latter are seen in some of the scienceblogger reviews (both the negative and positive reviews) because these critiquers are amateurs for the most part. (Myself included). I can see why Randy’s memo would get these responses and I think you’ve done an excellent job analyzing why that happened. I honestly do think that Randy’s analysis is partly correct, or at leas going in the right direction, however, I think (in retrospect) it would have been much much better to wait this out, focus on other things, and go back later and have a look from a bit more of a distance.

  2. 2

    Number 7 is somewhat weird in that is both true and not true. Critique can be wrong in just the ways that you say. It can be critique of the shadows in the critiquers head instead of what they’re presented with. It is, however, particularly in solicited critique, almost impossible to address this in any useful way. Trying to do so usually hurts the artist. So it is much more practical to treat number 7 as true, even though it can’t possibly be true.

  3. 3

    As I always tell my students: The critique on your written work always means something, even if it does not mean what it says it means.Have you read through Randy’s long reply, just above your comment, on Erv’s blog?

  4. 4

    I have, but it was only annoying me more, regardless of content. That’s when I figured out there was more going on from my perspective and sat down to write this. I need to reread it with a little more distance later.

  5. 5

    I think you should re-read it. Consider this: Randy’s memo is itself a critique. The description of what critique is and how to handle it, applied to Randy’s email would probably recommend a reaction other than deciding to hate him and all he does forever (which is the somewhat more extreme form of reaction many bloggers and commenters have put out, quite explicitly). One could say that the science community is not handling this critique very well. But I won’t say that because that would get them mad at me. They would spank me and tell me to stop struggling and just get into line with how they think. So don’t tell them, OK?

  6. 6

    Oh, I will reread it. I just want to be able to do it dispassionately. As for it being a critique, there is a big difference between solicited and unsolicited feedback.And I think you’re quite capable of telling them what you think all by yourself. 🙂 I’m not sure, though, that extreme statements are very helpful in this case. You’re dealing with people who are used to making important fine distinctions. Unless you want to point to specific extreme examples, which I haven’t seen in the 7 or 8 reviews I’ve read, extreme statements appear to be getting a “you’re distorting what I’m saying” response. I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for.

  7. 7

    I also disagree with #7. Not all critique is good critique or even meant in the spirit “I’m doing this to help you”. Not all critique fits in with the story you’re trying to tell or within with the world you’ve set that story. Moreover, critique written with the sole intent of “blowing sunshine” isn’t helpful – to anybody.

  8. 8

    I think #7, in spirit, is true. I think in the context of someone doing genuine critique, the purpose is to assist the writer. No one is going to spend hours on a read & crit that serves no purpose other than to tear down the writer. And any reader can have any opinion, even if it's "this sucks."I think it's the word "wrong" that is the problem. I have had crits that were "wrong" — like telling me blue jeans didn't exist in 1938. That's wrong. It also clouded the rest of the feedback. But when it comes to stuff like tone, character, etc. and it's opinion, there may be something useful in the crit even though the writer thinks it's wrong. If the reader/critiquer isn't picking up what you're putting down, the work needs to be re-examined at the very least.

  9. 12

    I totally agree with the solicited vs. unsolicited distinction, because those are very different social contexts. BUt I’ll be dollars to donuts that a third or more of the sciencebloggers would not accept that distinction if applied to them. “The facts are what the facts are regardless of social context.” is what you’ll get.

  10. 15

    Just to make it clear, we have both fiction writers and science writers in this discussion. There will be terms that appear to be in common between the two groups but are not. That said, argue away. 🙂

  11. 17

    Eden: I don’t think you put that the best possible way. Your comment is brief, which is good, but you risk it being misunderstood. Your use of the winking smiley face is ambiguous and rather derivative.

  12. 18

    Greg, two things. One, having reread Randy’s post on erv, I have to ask: is this the same guy as the one who put out the memo?Two, when I’m arguing with someone and I think they’re going to say something totally wrong, I usually find it’s better to let them say it instead of me, then point out how wrong it is. It makes it much harder for them to suggest I’m setting up strawmen. Of course, that doesn’t mean I haven’t set them up to say it….

  13. 21

    Greg saying Eden’s 😉 was ambiguous. I got right away what she was saying – but then again I know her too. But it seemed quite straight forward to me. 🙂

  14. 22

    My use of the wink was trite and expected. I should have used a fresher emoticon to convey my comment. I've always liked this one: };->This emoticon is meant only in the fiction writing context and not in the science writing context.

  15. 24

    Eden: Excellent demonstration of spring back from critique, however dumb the critique was.Stephanie. I cannot speak for Randy, and although we do communicate I honestly cannot answer your question from anything he has indicated, but I can guess. I think that the difference between the two (the memo and the comment) is 36 hours of time.I do honestly think Randy’s memo includes information that is important and interesting. I thought there would be blow-back from sciencebloggers, and I assume Randy did too. That blowback would probably happen no matter what, so maybe there is nothing to do about it (science bloggers are so tickley sensitive).But yes, in retrospect, I think it might have been better to walk away from this discussion, move on to the opening, etc. and then go back to the issue later on. In fact, I think that is what is happening now.

  16. 26

    BUt I’ll be dollars to donuts that a third or more of the sciencebloggers would not accept that distinction if applied to them. “The facts are what the facts are regardless of social context.” is what you’ll get.Yes indeed, social context is of absolute importance when considering the meaning of facts, words, and actions. I absolutely agree. Readers here may be interested in a great post on just this topic over at Field Negro.

  17. 28

    I think I owe an apology…. The ‘o h’ thing only works if the leading is much tighter than the default on this blog. Try it in a text editor, it works better.

  18. 30

    Eden, I like kissing the ring, although, with this font placing the asterisk very high, it looks a bit like licking the ring. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. :)And no, my use of the smiley emoticon is not trite. It’s minimalist and classic.

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