I’ve been working on edits to a small article over the past couple of days and on the whole, the editors’ suggestions have been sensible and helpful. But the one point of contention that really sticks in the gullet and still has me holding my head in my hands when I think about it, is the argument made (in order to counter my own argument in the piece) that Hemingway could be considered a muse to Martha Gellhorn. Hemingway? We’re talking about Ernest Hemingway, right? Not some long-lost brother of his, who happened to marry Gellhorn later, because let’s face it that was a woman with a lot of relationships to get through? Ernest Hemingway, who sucked the vitality out of every woman he married, who exploited them, ignored their emotional needs, insisted they serve his every whim? The Hemingway who argued and physically fought with Martha Gellhorn because she wouldn’t give up her work for him, and who bewildered him by her inability to ‘tag along and like it’, as other wives had done? This man is to be considered a muse?
Obviously my own reaction here is disproportionate. I admit to it in print so that I can laugh at myself later, when I’ve stopped going around saying ‘Ernest Hemingway? A muse?’ in scandalized tones. But I also admit to it because I tend to think of myself as being quite good at taking criticism – or at least let’s say extremely experienced at it – and here is a little example where I am not being so good. The thing is, if I’m wrong, I will readily accept it. But I really hate to be told I’m wrong by someone who doesn’t have their facts straight. What makes editing worse is that it’s often done anonymously in my profession, so you can’t have a conversation about it. I know that if I said to the editor in question ‘Oh come on! Surely you cannot think….’ And the editor replied ‘Oops! Well, okay, I guess that wasn’t a good call,’ I would dismiss the matter from my mind in an instant. It’s having no right of reply that turns a simple mistake into a one-sided titanic struggle.
I was discussing the matter of criticism of both editorial and reviewing kinds with my friend and colleague at work the other day. We were having lunch in her rooms and she was crying with laughter over the thought of Hemingway as a muse (‘He must be spinning in his grave right now!’). But then she was telling me about a friend of hers, a fellow academic who had published a well-received book only to be felled by a particularly bad review. At one point in this book, which we must imagine to be several hundred pages long, the friend-author had got a date wrong. It was the only mistake in the book, but the reviewer picked on it, magnified it, and used it as the basis for his contention that this was a terrible book that did a disservice to the profession. The friend-author was now traumatized, and refusing to put in for promotion at work because she couldn’t face the thought of the possibility of rejection in her now fragile frame of mind. My own friend, with whom I was lunching, said that something similar had happened to her over a typo in an article. The peer reviewer had spent two paragraphs on the typo, which was clearly a typo, abusing the piece because of its jarring presence. Not that my friend was devastated by this; she simply withdrew the article concerned, leaving the editor spitting with fury and declaring her unable to take criticism.
And here we finally reach the topic of the day – this question of being able to ‘take criticism’. It seems to me so central to the practice and the study of the arts. Wherever you look, in schools, in universities, in cinemas, in books, on stages, there are people risking their all to produce something intriguing or challenging or beautiful or funny and lined up opposite is a bunch of people preparing to tell them that it didn’t quite work. Now, it’s absolutely essential that if it really didn’t quite work, those people get to know about it. There is no self-development without learning from mistakes. But at the same time there is so much criticism to be had, and much of it is unhelpful at best, hostile and aggressive at worst. When I belonged to the writing site, Litopia, it was a favourite reproof to throw at other vulnerable or wounded writers that they should ‘toughen up’ or grow a hide like a rhino, or else they weren’t fit for the profession. And yet how many decent writers are thick-skinned? On the contrary, it’s their very sensitivity that turns people into artists. There is a big difference, I think, between the idea of being on the receiving end of sharp criticism and the reality of it. The felt experience is always profoundly unpleasant, and certainly no one I know, thin skinned or thick, ever responds with anything other than shock and distress. So, this doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be criticism, it just means that some serious thought needs to go into its wording.
You don’t have to be a learner in education or in art for long before you realize that there is a spectrum along which criticism falls. Some, the best criticism, is genuinely constructive. It’s easily recognized because it is motivating and encouraging. Even if its consequences are wide-ranging, it doesn’t matter because you are invigorated to try again, this time with improved resources. I was lucky enough to have a PhD supervisor who gave this sort of criticism. She always saw what I was trying to do, and helped me to do it to the highest standard. I cannot tell you how satisfying this was, and a blessed relief after years of other professors effectively saying ‘No, that isn’t how I would write this piece, that’s not the argument that occurs to me; do it again, but this time on my terms.’ Not that this is as bad as the kind of criticism that inhabits the other end of the spectrum, and which I don’t doubt we have all experienced at one time or another. That’s the kind of criticism that is hatred and annihilation dressed up as good advice. I seriously think it should be an offense worthy of a fine, to be caught out giving this kind of criticism. That or a compulsory trip to the therapist’s office.
I’ve been on both ends of this process, giving and receiving criticism, and both are tricky in their way. I’ve caught myself overreacting to small errors in pieces of work that have a disproportionate effect on my judgment (although I hope I’ve always had the self-awareness to recognize that I was the one at fault in those instances). And I’ve had to swallow unkind and unhelpful criticism and make the best of it. But I’ve also received good advice and given it, and seen my own work, and that of my students, blossom and grow. What I think is that giving criticism is an art, just like the art it purports to judge, but not enough is made of how very important it is to give the right kind of critique. It seems to contravene some basic human right, to tell people they cannot just be rude and harsh if they feel like it. Well, certainly people can think what they like in the privacy of their own home, but when that opinion is used in the service of ‘helping’ another person, then some finesse is required. I know it’s a sickness in the academic profession to which we turn a blind eye, and even at times encourage, so long as those who are rude and harsh do it with sufficient cleverness. If criticism is hard to take, it’s even harder, I think, to give well. And now I will get over myself about Hemingway as a muse (a misguided suggestion but by no means an unkind one) and try and do a decent job on my edits….