If you ask me for critique, you better be ready to question your writing.
I've been critiquing others' works online for about two years now and it doesn't seem to get any easier. One of the hardest things to do in a critique is to know when to swallow your own pride and just admit that something is good. But that rarely comes along. More common is when you come up to a piece that is just bad. And there are all sorts of bad pieces. Bad is a subjectivity and as such I should delineate the exact scope of which I refer to.
What I'm talking about is the amateurishly-written but otherwise decent piece of prose or poetry. These are the usual kinds I get over at groups and get thrown at me through the random people who just find me through the writers and editors group. While it takes a great deal of care not to write a critique that is abhorrently sweet or unnecessarily harsh, it takes an even greater deal of patience to deal with people who simply don't care at all. In the face of your own overwhelming love for literature or for whatever art you embrace, this apathy, this stubbornly aversive attention seeker, ignores every careful word and places their own ego on top of your critique. In this kind of situation, it's hard not to feel like your words don't matter. It's hard to resist replying to those kinds of comments. It's even harder not to feel hurt and wasted on such egotism.
By now, you as a reader should realize this is not an advice journal. It's one of "those" journals. Filled with touchy-feely germs and angry music. The kinds of journals that can be reduced to a simple complaint. I don't want to complain. I've done that already and my mother had a wondrous time ignoring me. This is about communication.
For everyone who asks me for a critique, especially the few that actually do, note that I am harsh. I am abrasive. I'm an English major at a community college but I talk like I've already gotten a phD. This isn't smugness. This isn't egotism. It's who I want to be. I want to get through college. I want to go through an undergraduate program. I want to get that phD that my voice, tone, and words already seem to think I've gotten. The reason why I sound so smart isn't because I think or am smart. It's because I want to be smart.
Or at the very least, give the impression of it. Convincing yourself is the first step to convincing others.
But when I critique someone's work, or write a comment that seems like I picked it out of a scholarly journal, it isn't because I'm trying to impress people. I don't need people to think that I'm smart. I used to think I did, but what a cliche that was. Imagine me, a tall, overweight, Asian kid trying to impress people with his big brain and his nice vocabulary. Just another overachiever who fits in that invisible group of people who grow up and all become engineers and doctors, working in the backlot offices and underground labs straight out of a science fiction novel. I used to believe that I had to be right. Right. About what exactly?
There was nothing to be right about. Whether I'm defending my own work to someone who obviously hasn't read it closely and is trying to make a case against the grammar or taking apart someone's ten-minute poem and explaining to them exactly why concrete detail is so necessary (even if it is a poem, I mean for God's sake free verse or spoken word doesn't mean you get to crap on a page and call it art) it doesn't matter if I'm right.
I could have the most coherently written analysis, supported by ten periods of written literature. Shakespeare and Chaucer and the anonymous author of Beowulf in'self could come from the grave and say "Yes, you're right." and none of that will matter. Why?
Well, for one thing, a bad writer is simply not a good reader or listener. They won't "get" what you're saying. They will think you are wrong no matter how right you actually are. Self-imposed ignorance is by far stronger than human rationality. If rationality is a sun then ignorance is a black hole. It is oblivion in a vacuum cleaner twelve times the size of our observable universe. So if the writer I critique is completely against critique itself (whether constructive or otherwise) and the only reason they are asking for "critique" is because they believe you too are in on this hilarious joke of people writing shit, posting it online, asking for "critique", and participating in this orgy of monosyllabic, five-words-or-less, comment-kiss-ass feeding frenzy, then what exactly as a critic and writer am I supposed to do? Getting mad doesn't help. That gets you banned. Getting someone else to deal with it has issues too. They could get banned. Does one just suck their lips in and get ready to taste buttcheek? I certainly hope not. I will not coddle. I won't even lie. If I don't like something I don't have to pretend to like it. I'm not a business executive. I'm an amateur writer.
But I'm not so much of an amateur that I can't tell decent effort from slop.
Now I understand when someone gets a little emotional due to poor word choice, a hasty argument, or simply feeling vulnerable over the process however the people I'm talking about aren't these vulnerable, young, inexperienced writers. I'm one of those young writers. These people are playing pretend. They think you can win a Nobel Prize in literature by paying in compliments. They think the numbers on their account are actual increments and indications of talent, future success, and emotional worth of their pieces. They are full of trash. I'm talking about writers who have never written a poem in their lives. Only these sad, idiotic, morbidly-cliche love things that flop and drool on the page. Writers whose characters are cardboard and rainwater. They melt like butter against even a starved ray of scrutiny.
These are pretend poets, asshole authors, short-shit-story writers not because their work is bad, but because they don't listen to anything other than the incessant hunger of their own planetary ego.
I emphasize this with such "colorful" language because I'm genuinely concerned with what "critique" is starting to become for me. It's no longer a way for me to help others with something we both love. Instead, it's become a fear-based experiment. Will this person turn out to be an asshole, another pretend poet peddling his pile of 'potamus plop poems for me to read and die over? Will this person reading my work actually have helpful advice, or will they just be shit-story writer regurgitating motivational nothings and pointless jabs at phantasmal, non-existent flaws of aesthetic idealism? I hate this. I hate doing this so much.
I love writing, I genuinely love it. It is an entire world for me. I surround myself with sky, reading fragments of poetry superimposed in this imaginary world and through this watery lens I see the world more clearly. And it astonishes me to see how little someone can care for writing and still believe themselves to be writers. Bad work has always existed but the ease with which we ignore all the good along with the bad is painful. How can you love something so much and watch it die at the hands of an apathetic crowd? I'm exaggerating of course. Dramatic effect. But this is a silly issue.
Why would anyone purposely ask for critique and expect only praise? The expectation of critique is that someone says something bad about your writing, that they poke and nip at the flaws, bringing up something that is seriously holding the piece back so as to give the writer a chance to fix it. And this isn't even always the case. It doesn't have to be a bad work, filled with flaws for me to pry and poke. Often the longest critiques I've written, the best, the genuinely helpful stuff that goes light years beyond grammar lessons, is on pieces that are beautiful, amazing, filled with complexity and emotional vibrancy, clarity and precision wafting out like the smell of bread in an oven. I'm talking about stuff that's the polar opposite of what I mentioned before. These aren't people with talent. These are people with whole worlds in them, bursting out on the page. These are writers who seriously love their craft, who take every word of criticism, who have endured countless misreadings and misunderstandings on their work, and do it all with love brimming in their heart. These are writers who have fallen in love with poetry, flown through the air through unforgettable stories, who've dreamt in words and listened to the voices of language and life.
These are the writers I live to write criticism for. I admit it. I am an elitist. I spend more time and put in more effort on work that actually inspires me. I don't care about bad poetry. I don't care for poorly-written stories. I loathe the awkward amateur novel. I want the hidden gem. I want the writing that shines from the book pile. That sings.
But the problem is, I won't get that. Even the best of first drafts will have some imperfection and the worst of them is really due to a writer's reaction. If you get mad at me for misunderstanding something, I get it. But I won't apologize, it is your job as a writer to be clear. If you get mad at me for taking the writing to a place it wasn't going, I apologize. But I don't regret it. And if you blame me for pointing out something that is seriously limiting the piece, then it's not my fault you are a bad writer. And don't you dare tell me, "I'm not trying to be a professional, I'm only doing this for fun." Because then, you shouldn't be writing. You are not having fun. You are being rude and acting entitled at the expense of other harder-working, more-deserving, more-in-love people than you. You don't deserve the attention of a critic. You don't deserve the reading eyes of actually writing writers. Stay with your circle of self-indulgents. Stay with your words of shallow, empty, "just for fun". Stay. Don't come here. You do not belong in our world. We won't stoop to yours. You can have your countless watchers, your faves, your comments. You can have those hollow numbers tell you all you want to hear. It's fine. Live with your mediocrity, your shallowness. But don't ask me to tell you the words on your page mean anything.
If you come and ask me for critique, you better be ready to question your writing.