“Do these jeans make me look fat?”
That’s the classic relationship question that has only one answer, unless you want to hurt the asker’s feelings. And largely, the asker wants that one answer. The reassurance. They’re not really looking for the asked to use their critical eye, not wanting raw, unflinching honesty.
This, precisely, is how the overwhelming majority of wannabe writers/artists/musicians ask for critique of their work.
They don’t want to hear that their characters are dull stereotypes. They don’t want to hear that they have the grammatical instincts of George W. Bush. They don’t want to hear that their twist ending has been done already a godzillion times, and possibly was trite the first time.
They want to hear that they’re good.
Know what? Me too. When someone reads my stuff, I settle in for the praise. Kudos to me. I’m validated as a writer, and as a human being. That and my sharp blue eyes and square jaw means I am prime breeding stock.
(Which seems to be true, if you look at my son. Hopefully he mostly got my good traits, such as they are.)
When I get a negative comment about my writing, it annoys me. I take it personally. Can’t help it, I’m an emotional dude. And I, like all artists, carved that piece out of my very self, my blood and bone, my soul. The reflex is to defend it.
But I’m a pro. I’m looking for that criticism. I need it, I need to absorb it and look at it from all sides, and I need to, as objectively as I can, decide if the critic has a point. That is how a pro deals with a criticism. They don’t argue with the person who gave it to them, even if it’s a stupid, invalid criticism and ultimately can be ignored.
You take what they say, you respect their opinion and the time and thought they gave to you and your work, you seriously consider their point (unless it’s completely patently obviously stupid), and you either alter the work or you don’t.
It’s not easy. Most people can’t do it.
Most people won’t make it in the arts.
In the “Timformation” section of this blog, I wrote:
Feel free to contact me through any of these sites, or through a comment on the blog. I’m friendly and rarely bite, though I am very busy being a dad and a writer and may not always be as prompt in replying as I’d like.
Also, no, I won’t read your story, novel, idea, diary, outline, fortune, pie chart, autobiography, recipe, or the bumps on your head. I’m bogged down in research, way behind on personal reading, generally even more behind in my daily life, and have been strongly advised not to look at other’s unpublished work for several solid legal reasons.
All that is true. I suspect it will all, every line of it, remain true until I die. The main truths it offers are these:
- I just don’t have time, sorry.
- It’s legally perilous to look at other folks’ unpublished material.
I focused on those two truths because they’re impersonal truths. You may be the next Bradbury, or you may be the suckiest suck in the history of literature, but either way, I don’t have time and I can’t take the chance for legal reasons. The quality of your work, the value of your genetic stock in the gene pool, will not change those truths.
But also, I don’t want to read your stuff because I don’t like hurting people’s feelings, and odds are I would. Sturgeon’s Law applies: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” And further, ninety percent of that last ten percent is either not personally interesting or just kinda average.
Maybe you’re an exception. Many think they are. I hope you are. If so, refer to truths 1 and 2 above.
Asking a writer to read your work puts them on the spot, and if they agree, and find that your stuff is part of Sturgeon’s 90%, they’re really on the spot. They can either pat you on the head and assure you you’re on the right track, avoiding the unpleasant task of saying bad things about your baby. Or they can try, as best they can, to be honest and helpful by telling you what they perceive to be the piece’s flaws.
“Do these jeans make me look fat?”
It’s worst when it’s someone you know. I experienced the worst case scenario when I was a teenager, a wannabe myself, many years before I managed to break into print.
My father wrote a story, and he wanted “an honest critique.”
I read it. It was terrible.
But I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So I didn’t just tell him it was, uniformly, a waste of dead trees and ink. I chose a couple of minor things, easily corrected, and mentioned those.
And he argued with me about them.
Like many people, his notion of “an honest critique” boiled down to this: “Kudos. Better than fresh lobster, better even than sex with a movie star.”
It actually went downhill from there. He started talking about sending his story to Stephen King. To read (because, after all, Stephen King has plenty of time on his hands to read such a special piece of literature, and no worries about legal stuff). But more than that, my father figured King could take his story and rework it with that ol’ King magic and publish it.
“Why,” my father asked, “would Stephen King turn down a good idea?”
This, my friends, is crazy talk. And successful writers hear this sort of crazy all the time. I heard it over the years I was procrastinating and calling myself a writer but actually waiting tables or selling hiking boots. And I bet King could build a skyscraper with all the crazy he’s received over the years.
“You’re a writer? Y’know, I’ve always wanted to write but haven’t gotten around to it. But I have great ideas. Maybe we could do something together, I could give you my ideas and you could write ‘em up…”
Shut the hell up and write ‘em up yourself, doofus. I have more ideas, already, then I’ll ever manage to do anything with before I go to Writer Heaven, and I get more every day.
Truths 1 and 2 were the eternal, unchanging impersonal truths, and they should be enough. If not, if we need to get personal, here’s the other:
3. I don’t want to be put in the position where I might hurt your feelings. Or piss you off. Or even enrage you, if you’re a psychotic, and they are out there.
So, no, I won’t read your stuff until I come across it on my own somehow after it has been published. Nothing personal, I’m not just talking to you. I’m talking to everybody.
Note: It’s not just me. Here are a few other writers’ takes on this, largely harsher than mine:
No one bothers to tell you, when you’re poor and hungry to make it, that fame – of even the smallest sort – brings with it a disconcordant hire of moochers, self-seekers, time-wasters, dynamiting hype artists, emotionally starved groupies and just plain clipsters. One tries to be polite, but after a few years, after a few million incursions, after a ceaseless barrage of requests, demands, hard-luck stories and assorted annoyances that in and of themselves are minor but taken in sum drive you bugfuck, one looks up with flaccid onion hanging out of one’s mouth and says as sweetly as possible, “Get the hell out of my face, you spittoon; can’t you see I’m trying to eat? Have a little common courtesy and a little respect for someone’s privacy.”
John Scalzi (from a great blog post on the subject):
…The people who ask a writer to do things for them underestimate the number of times authors get asked for these sorts of favors. People: you’re not special when you ask us for our time/effort/connections. Personally, I started getting asked for hook-ups by strangers when I was still in college (I was freelancing for the Sun-Times then), so that’s two decades of being solicited, and no, not even posting a “why I won’t read your unpublished work” post here stops it, because lots of people believe, oh, that doesn’t apply to them.
Stephen King (from his website FAQ):
Q: Do you accept story ideas? A: No, I don’t. I really have enough story ideas of my own. Every now and then somebody will advance a concept the way that my foreign rights agent, Ralph Vicinanza suggested wouldn’t it be fun to do a modern-day serial story. The result of that was The Green Mile which was published in installments-these little paperback books–but he never suggested what sort of story I might have written in installments and I wouldn’t have accepted it if he had done that. I believe in thinking up my own ideas. I really have enough. I really think if I have two or three ideas ahead I’m in totally great shape.
Q: Will you read my manuscript and tell me what you think?
A: No. If I did that for one person, I would feel like I’d have to do it for a great many people and in a lot of cases you can read a page or two or three and just say to yourself, ‘This is terrible.’ But nobody wants to write that kind of letter, ‘Dear so-and-so, I started to read your manuscript but it was just awful so I tossed it aside.’ That makes everybody feel bad, including me, so I don’t do it. There’s another reason, and that’s a legal one. I’ve been sued for plagiarism 8 or 9 times. Any writer who has deep pockets has been sued for plagiarism from time-to-time-that goes for J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, really everyone. For everyone who publishes best-selling fiction, somebody wants to think, ‘Oh, he got that idea from me’ and so it’s just much easier and much safer to say I never read that book at all.
Josh Olson (Academy Award-nominated screenwriter):
I will not read your fucking script.
That’s simple enough, isn’t it? “I will not read your fucking script.” What’s not clear about that? There’s nothing personal about it, nothing loaded, nothing complicated. I simply have no interest in reading your fucking screenplay. None whatsoever.
If that seems unfair, I’ll make you a deal. In return for you not asking me to read your fucking script, I will not ask you to wash my fucking car, or take my fucking picture, or represent me in fucking court, or take out my fucking gall bladder, or whatever the fuck it is that you do for a living.
This last was from a recent column in The Village Voice, and has led to a great deal of vitriol slung Mr. Olson’s way. Just reading through the comments under the column is interesting. There’s a lot of crap from cowardly anonymice like this:
Josh is a self-hating Jew who only got into show biz by dropping to his knees and doing what he does best – sucking.
I wouldn’t let you read my grocery list, you untalented hack.
But there are also comments from actual professionals, who actually identify themselves by name (like Adam-Troy Castro, Lee Goldberg, David Gerrold) and agree wholeheartedly with Olson.