On Dialogue – Not the Written Kind
There’s a great post today over at Stacked. The author, Kelly, is a YA librarian (as far as I understand from Twitter and all), so she’s the kind of person we want and hope to be out in the world, a one-person marketing machine that directly targets the individual readers she knows – ideally, with the books that we like or even better, books we might have written. She also reviews books, and her writing today on Critical Reviews and Critical Advocacy is incredibly thoughtful, especially in light of my own recent experiences with the Critique Partner Dating at MSFV’s site (in fact, last Friday’s post is rather timely to this as well) as well as Dahlia’s series on relationships (this one: critique partners).
I’ve met three people through MSFV and I hope we’ll all become good CPs of one another, but that necessarily involves a certain amount of work (straightforward effort on both sides), a certain amount of timeliness (getting stuff done on a schedule), parallel interests (do we offer appropriate criticisms to one another), and, eventually, trust. We may or may not become friends, but at the bare minimum there will be some level of respect.
Which is the trick with reviewers. There is no relationship to speak of – or perhaps, there is an imagined, one-sided relationship. Let’s say I read Kelly’s reviews consistently and I grow to like and appreciate her tastes. Then she goes and reviews my favorite book of all time – for argument’s sake, Finn Family Moomintroll (not an all time favorite, but dearly beloved) and says a whole bunch of things I don’t like. Assume that to an outside observer, her review is neutrally critical, balancing the good with the bad, the flaws with the gems. To me, however, she’s gone and betrayed our relationship (which I have developed all on my own). It’s like I don’t even know you any more!
Then there are the reviewers that we don’t know, random (to us) book bloggers or, heavens to Mergatroid, a review on newsprint, any of whom might take issue with our writing.
We make a big deal of TRUST in relationships and TRUST when we hear criticism from CPs or from beta-readers, but not from reviewers, and I think what happens is that the lack of trust, the lack of a relationship comes across as an attack when negative or a lovely bouquet of flowers when positive – reviewer as goat or hero. The lesser point for me here is that the reviewer’s relationship is with her readers, not mine, though there may be overlap. The greater point is to ask what we do with criticism from people who we don’t trust?
My suspicion is that one of our primary experiences with critical feedback from that latter category has not been “criticism” so much as “attacks.” As a result, we read non-trusted critique as such. That is to say, we lump it in (consciously or not) with the people we don’t or didn’t like who called us names, insulted us, were generally assholes. Another category, teachers and professors who were simply (!!!) part of the education-machine that we suffered through. [Find a good mentoring teacher who shepherded you through some bad or inspirational times? See: trust, above.] Get a grade lower than you wanted from a teacher you couldn’t care less about? What did you expect, that’s school and he barely wrote anything anyway, just a couple of scribbled notes and a big red B or C on the final page. This is criticism we can ignore, because after all, we graduated, moved on.
What Kelly’s post made me think of is that we don’t have many venues for learning how to take criticism well. Good experiences, teachers, and books (or plays, movies, music, etc.) can teach us to read and think critically and to have a critical discussion about a piece of culture with another similarly skilled and distant person. We don’t really learn much about being involved. Agents and editors will tell us what to fix, as will CPs and beta readers. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t develop trust with these people.
I do think we need to consider how to engage with our own work in that “distant” framework. That’s not to say we have to agree with every note or observation. We need to assume a different kind of trust – one that presumes the criticism is offered in something like good faith, if not friendship. It’s a lot easier to think about this in an abstract setting (i.e. no one is criticizing me at the moment) and I don’t even know how we’d go about teaching this skill to one another. Sure, sure, “active listening.” Blah blah. I’m looking for something concrete, but I don’t know what that something is.
I bet social workers will have some insight into this. Then again, as a culture we seem to value neither their work nor primary education enough to bother with teaching it to our kids. Does that mean we won’t want to learn it, either?