Lately, the topic of critique groups has reared its head. Valerie Chandler represented both Austin Mystery Writers and Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter at the Third Thursday meeting of the Writers League of Texas at BookPeople on July 21. Valerie was invited to join local critique group leaders/members to make announcements about their organizations before the main panel discussion of the evening.
I was privileged to moderate a panel of local authors and members of Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter on our July 10 meeting at the Yarborough branch of the Austin Public Library. Included in the wide-ranging discussion was a ringing endorsement of critique groups and how they helped writers. The panel was composed of writers Doris Christian (writing as Sara Caudell), Francine Paino, Noreen Cedeno, and Martha Carr.
Below, see a post I wrote some years ago about the difference between being critical and being helpful in a critique situation. It appeared in one of the Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter’s HOTSHOTS! newsletter. I thought it would be helpful to resurrect it.
By Gale Albright
I grew up admiring critics.
Critics like Dorothy Parker and Rex Reed. Their comments were witty, dry, often acerbic. For many years, Rex Reed has been known for his acidic movie reviews. Just a small example among many is this one, from the New York Observer, July 13, 2010:
“At the movies, incomprehensible gibberish has become a way of life, but it usually takes time before it’s clear that a movie really stinks. Inception, Christopher Nolan’s latest assault on rational coherence, wastes no time. It cuts straight to the chase that leads to the junkpile without passing go, although before it drags its sorry butt to a merciful finale, you’ll be desperately in need of a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.”
Pretty funny, eh? And then there’s the iconic Dorothy Parker, whose critique of a youthful Katharine Hepburn’s performance on Broadway has become legendary: “Miss Hepburn runs the emotional gamut from A to B,” Miss Parker was supposed to have said to a colleague during the play’s intermission.
So, naturally, I thought you were supposed to basically heap scorn on books and movies and performances you didn’t like. As long as you were witty, dry, and often acerbic. A good critic made expert use of sarcasm and unkind jokes and metaphors.
I thought the critic was the center of attention. The bringer of wit and laughter.
I learned that the origin of the word sarcasm was from Latin for rending the flesh. Apt indeed.
The trouble is, when your flesh is rended, it doesn’t feel very good. As a person who thought cheap shots and ill-considered comebacks were the height of wit, I discovered how devastating it was to be on the receiving end of those oh-so-clever comments and witticisms.
Especially when it involved something I had written.
When I went back to college after intervening years of Real Life, I decided to major in English Writing and Rhetoric. To my chagrin, I had to take some classes in which, among other things, we had to learn the proper manner of critique. Critique etiquette, as it were.
I found I was not the second coming of Rex Reed or Dorothy Parker. Nasty, witty comments were strictly taboo. I had to learn how to give constructive criticism to classmates.
At first, I had a very hard time. What if I just hated what the other person wrote? What if it was stupid, boring, idiotic, or insane? Too bad. And I had to do it over and over again. In short, I hated it. I felt totally out of my depth.
It was pure torture. Witticisms leaped to my tongue, only to die a stillborn death within my mouth. It was discipline. It was a change of habit. It was hard.
Then I understood. A critic is a star. She is the center of the universe. She earns her money by saying clever, often unkind things. But a person who offers a critique is not a star. To offer a critique is to offer a somewhat educated opinion, encouragement, and suggestions. One endeavors to be honest without being cruel or funny. I had to learn that I was not the director of the show. My lofty pronouncements did not come straight from Mount Olympus. I was merely a handmaid in the service of some other writer’s creative birthing.
At school I was told to start out a critique by telling the writer “what worked” in the piece. Sometimes I had to look pretty hard to find something “that worked.” It was like your mother telling you that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Except, the catch was, you couldn’t abstain. You had to give feedback.
After stressing the positive parts of a piece of writing, the critiquer would then write down “What didn’t work so well was ….” And say it without making a cruel comment at the writer’s expense.
All the critiquer has to offer is a personal opinion. It is to be hoped that critiquers in writers’ groups are people who love reading and writing, so that their opinions might have some literary weight. But it’s still just a solitary opinion.
As a critiquer, I’m not writing a syndicated column. I’m not an agent or an editor. I’m a fellow writer who needs another pair of eyes to look at my work. I want feedback, gentle feedback. It’s a balancing act.
I can’t lie and say something is great when it’s not. That’s evading one’s responsibility as a critiquer. But I’m not mean. The aim, I should think, of a writing group, is to keep the writers writing and coming back to the critique group. You don’t want to be so witty and sarcastic and cruel that a writer quits the group, shreds all her writings, shoots her laptop and treks off to Tibet in search of the spiritual peace of which you robbed her.
If a writer seeks out a critique group, obviously said writer, number one, wants to be read and, number two, wants feedback. Number three, said writer probably wants to continue writing.
A writer puts his heart and soul and ego on the page. A writer needs tender treatment. Tell the truth, but do it in a constructive manner. To critique is to help a fellow writer improve, not implode.
What goes around comes around. Yesterday’s witty, cruel comments may come back to haunt you when your own heart and soul are exposed on the page.
Writers. Handle them with care.