What Critics Say

A critic is someone who reads/views your work and gives you feedback: good, bad or somewhere in between. We all need critics. There would be no way on earth to know whether what we have accomplished as writers (or anything else) has value in the eyes of the world. (If you only care about the value of your work to yourself, then you are operating in safe, albeit, cocooned mode.)

Hollywood author Dashiel Hammett

Sometimes the feedback of critics can be lacerating, even when those critics are dear friends who have, until that moment, seen eye-to-eye with us on almost everything. This puts me in mind of the movie Julia starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda. Jane Fonda plays the playwright Lillian Hellman. Dashiel Hammett was the author of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon (classic films that can be viewed on TCM); he was also Liillian Hellman’s mentor and lover. In one part of the film, after Hammett has read the play Lillian Hellman has worked so hard to complete, Hammet tells her to tear it up. He says it is not worthy of her and that she can do better.

The problem with accepting this scene as real lies in the fact that Hellman was notorious for embroidering her memoirs to make them more—um, literary? For the sake of argument, let us suppose Hammet really did as the scene in the movie suggests, and that Hellman did go back to the typewriter, starting afresh.

I would not always advise this as a safe course to writers, even if their lovers are older and far more successful writers.  A critic’s opinion is that of one person.  While a seasoned writer should be listened to, other considerations are what kind of reading material that person favors, what kind of material he or she writes, and what kind of success that person has attained, given the circumstances.  Success means financial or recognition in the form of awards, a writing job, publication, and of course, popularity.  Notwithstanding all this, feedback must be taken with a grain of salt.

For one thing is dead certain: critics will disagree. It would be senseless to try and please everyone. Make up your mind not to, instantly.

Colin Pink, playwright

As my extremely talented playwright friend, Colin Pink ( http://freespace.virgin.net/colin.pink1/pages/about_backup.html ) wrote to me some time ago as a result of feedback I gave him on one of his works:

“I think you must be psychic or something.  You always send me an encouraging email at just the right time!

Thank you for your lovely words.  When I got your message I was feeling very down.  I had just finished the final draft of The Confraternity when I received an email from [a friend] giving some belated feedback on the novel.  And he disliked everything about it, which completely shattered my confidence in it! So your email was soothing balm to my tattered confidence.

Yes, we must be obsessive types or else why would we put ourselves through all this struggle and expose ourselves to the hurtful comments of critics etc.

Status is a strange thing is it not?  It doesn’t ever seem to be based on anyone’s true worth as a human being.  It’s all to do with money, connections, reputation, job position, never anything to do with kindness, empathy, responsibility, love etc.

And yet it is the latter things that make life worth living and the former things that get in the way of achieving real happiness and fulfillment.  That is perhaps why we seek fulfillment in writing?”

Yes, Colin, I think so too.