Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wanted: An Honest Critic

When I was 21 I attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and almost gave up fiction writing altogether.

My manuscript was critiqued by the novelist Stanley Elkin, an exceedingly grouchy, old white man whom I now suspect was in some significant pain; he had MS, was in a wheelchair and often called attention to the fact. He was prolific and successful and smart and ruthless. I was eager and inexperienced and unskilled and vulnerable. He told me my manuscript wasn’t a manuscript at all; he didn’t know what it was. The characters were undeveloped and unbelievable, the writing poor, the plot non-existent … there was more, but I’ve blocked it from my memory. I do know I cried, right there in front of him, and he looked genuinely surprised.

“This is going to help you,” he said, with a tone that hinted of helpfulness. Then, he lapsed back into attack mode.

I cried for most of the rest of that day. Another friend, also 21 and also assigned to Stanley, drank half a bottle of Scotch following his critique. Both of us vowed to never write again.

Twenty-seven years and three book deals later, I finally understand what Stanley was up to. If called upon to critique, you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind. Well … maybe not exactly cruel. But honest. If someone is trying to break into this business and make a career out of writing, you aren’t doing them any favors by avoiding the hard truth. One could waste years sending out seriously flawed manuscripts which “nice” people say are wonderful.

Friends don’t let friends write poorly. Put that on my bumper.

When I was in that isolated, full-of-self-doubt place called Drafting a First Novel, I shared the first 50 pages with a writer friend and a college acquaintance who has her own imprint at a major publishing house. My writer friend, who is an extremely nice person and has published many books, was … extremely nice. “You have talent!” he enthused. Imprint Woman delivered the goods. She treated me like a potential client: she told me exactly what was missing and why she wouldn’t be able to pitch it to a committee. This did not make me happy, but it set me on the right course. I rewrote, and a year later had an agent who also set the bar high and pushed me to rewrite. And cut. A third of the manuscript, if you can imagine. It was like surgery without a spinal block. But … she sold that baby. And now I have an amazing editor who helps me improve my writing.

Your favorite elementary school teacher, the person you sleep with, your best friend and your mom are not going to give you the straight poop. Not only is it unlikely that they have the editing/critiquing skills you need, but they don’t want to make you feel badly. Stanley Elkin had no such tender feelings toward me, so he didn’t hold back.

So if we don’t have agents and editors already, where do we go for genuine critique? Among my writer friends I’ve witnessed several good options. Some make the commitment to obtain MFAs at non-residential programs; others attend writers’ conferences in which they submit manuscripts for critique. Some form critique groups. One friend hit the jackpot and received excellent advice from a writer in our town who is not only highly skilled and successful, but also a kind, constructive teacher. Bingo.

My Scotch-drinking fellow sufferer went on to write for magazines and become an editor at Rolling Stone. Stanley Elkin published 10 novels, two volumes of novellas, two books of short stories and a collection of essays. Wikipedia says he obtained great critical acclaim throughout his career, but not much commercial success. He died in 1995. RIP.


  1. Well then there is always the random friend of a friend from a social networking site who writes you to critique because she happens to be in the field - but on the other side of the fence in the field. :)

    And yet I will say I have had the same experience. In academic writing, the same blows are received and the results are the same. At times I've cry and never want to write again. And I'm still not much a a Scotch drinker! Ha ha!

    And that, as I tell my students, is why everyone needs to remember writing is work. But it is rewarding work when the job is done, although most of the time, my writing just feels like it is abandoned since I can tinker forever.

  2. Excellent post! It’s so true that writers need critiques beyond family and close friends. Your personal story is both inspiring and sad. Elkin could have delivered his critique with some encouragement.

    The criticism I have received didn’t discourage me because the readers believed I had the skill to fix it. They also told me what was working along with what was not. The most important skill of a writer is an ability to take criticism, to learn form it and to keep writing.

    I also think age can be a factor. There are some J. D. Salingers, but most writers need time to improve their craft and to live life for experiences to share. As we age, we also get better at taking criticism.

  3. Thanks, Tammy and Sarah. T., I'm not much for Scotch either. S. I think you're right about how advanced age helps us better handle criticism. Perhaps we take ourselves less seriously and have more perspective on what constitutes "bad news!"