If you critique other writers work, your own writing improves. Everyone knows that.
But can critiquing make you a better person?
In my experience, it can!
Have you ever read a book that’s technically flawless and yet left a bad taste in your mouth? Was there something in the great content that you didn't enjoy but couldn’t put your finger on why?
Well chances are it’s not the writing. It’s you!
The back-and-forth dialogue you have with another reader when you critique can not only bring out the shortcomings in the author's novel, but also the shortcomings in yourself.
Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.
—Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind (Tweet this quote?)
Projecting Flaws Onto Fiction
The other day I read a beautifully written memoir set in a little visited location, full of down-trodden refugees anyone would want to empathize with. There was also a love story filled with sturm und drang? What was not to like?
The main character, a brash twenty-eight year old who did what she felt and spoke what she thought was someone I would not have invited out to tea because it would simply have been terribly uncomfortable.
If this had been fiction, I wouldn’t have cared. I’d have gone right ahead with 5 stars and told everyone to read it. But this was a memoir, a true story. Judgments about the protagonist quickly became judgments about the author. “She doesn’t seem to like women particularly,” I said to myself, tsk-tsk’ing all the way.
Unfortunately, my focus on the protagonist's flaws caused me to miss a huge part of the sub-text of the book, which was about the tragedy of refugee women and the author’s empathy with those women.
How to Discover Blind Spots in Your Character
I was tempted to just put the book aside, to not write the critique. But that would have been unfair to the author’s work and to the reading community we all belong to.
What I did was send the review, with all my discomforts, to Karen Connelly—the now all-grown up author whose twenty-eight year old self I found intimidating.
As the world would have it, she surprisingly but graciously came back to me pointing out places in her work where she wasn’t being a “bitch” towards other women and highlighting that sub-theme of overlooked Burmese women. And no she wasn’t a harridan. But, she did point out that my discomfort with the protagonist was a personal reaction which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the writing.
What, she asked, was it about myself that was causing my discomfort?
Three Life Lessons You Learn From Critiquing
This exchange taught me something about being a writer, a reviewer and a person:
1. Criticism Is Different Than Critque
A writer should always remember there’s a difference between people criticizing you and critiquing your work. If a critic doesn’t like you as a person, it doesn’t matter. Point them back, as calmly as possible, to your work.
2. If You Don't Like a Book, It May Be Your Own Fault
As a reviewer, it’s imperative that you understand why you are uncomfortable about a work. If you don’t know why, reach out to the author to ask.
3. Smart-Ass Twenty-Eight Year-Olds Are Scary
As for being a person? Well, obviously I’m intimidated by lusty, smart-ass twenty-eight year-olds. But I do love a good sentence and great writing. I shouldn’t mix one with the other.
What do you do when you’re conflicted about a book? Do you just throw it aside, “Naaahhhh, not my style?”
For this week’s practice pick a book you don’t quite approve of and write a rant about it here in the comments section. Feel free to be as blunt as you need to be.
Then re-read it.
What happens to yourself as you read?
If the author’s alive, consider contacting them about your discomfort. Later, post what you learned—as a person, a reviewer, and a writer—and share your link in the comments section.
Have a great journey discovering yourself. Ciao!