Monday, January 14, 2013

Ask JKM a Question #61: How do I like seeing my own work criticized?

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous writes:

“You write criticism for a living.  Turn the tables for a minute.  Look in the mirror. How do you like to see your work criticized?”

Anonymous, that’s a very intriguing question. 

All artists and creators -- even critics -- tend to be thin-skinned, to be truthful.  Criticism can hurt.

And though I write film criticism for a living as you correctly note, I prefer to term my approach “art appreciation” because -- unless I am deluding myself -- I tend to write from an affirmative and appreciative standpoint.

“Art appreciation,” however, is still, in the final analysis, a euphemism for “criticism,” and hell, nobody likes to be criticized.  However, I have found over the years, especially since the Internet arrived, that how I receive and interpret criticism depends largely on how I am criticized.

Destructive criticism is snarky and mean-spirited, and it absolutely hurts to be the target of a hit piece, one designed solely to rip you apart. 

Constructive criticism, on the contrary, is a wonderful gift to artists, in my opinion.  Years ago -- and forgive me if I have written about this before -- I read a very detailed, very finely-written negative review of one my books.  It was a “thumbs down” every step of the way.  The author didn’t like my book.  At all.

But the author wrote a piece that refrained from personal nastiness and snark.  The review developed strong, substantive points.  That’s what good criticism is, or at least what it can be in the right hands.  It would be incredibly hypocritical for me to write art appreciation (er, film criticism...) every day and then turn around and whine when others review my work according to their own aesthetic ethos. 

I have never forgotten that negative review of my book, because it made me reconsider some aspects of my writing style, namely an apparent over-reliance on the passive voice.  I don’t happen to think passive voice is as bad as many grammarians seem to, but at least now I am always conscious of how and when I deploy it.

So, to answer your question: I love to receive good reviews of my writing, naturally! 

But I also understand I can’t please all readers, all the time, and that, sometimes, I miss the boat.  In those cases, I am eternally grateful for measured, smart, constructive criticism.  

In the final analysis, you don't get to pick your critics.  It hasn't always been easy for me to acknowledge or deal with that fact, but I'm getting there.

Don’t forget to e-mail your questions at

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