Critical Distance

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….

28 thoughts on “Critical Distance

  1. Wonderful post, thank you. And I’d just like to say, this:

    “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.’”

    … is more or less exactly why I am far too scared to apply to do a PhD. Well, that and the cuts meaning I probably wouldn’t get a job at the end of it.

  2. We must be psychically linked, Litlove, because you’ve hit on several topics close to my heart this week – the blind peer review, “creative” writerly criticism, and how to respond to well-intentioned but blatantly wrong criticism. Ack! It’s enough to make a girl hide herself behind a tall shelf of books. The blind peer review issue is especially thorny, so important in theory, so messy in practice.

    Everyone hates criticism, I wish there were an easy and readily-learnable technique for how to handle it gracefully. I’m still exceptionally clumsy whenever this happens, and often regret it later.

  3. I’ve played many roles in the giving and receiving of criticism.
    The good kind–what I think of as working with an editor, although it can be student-teacher as well–essentially says, “This is an interesting piece. Lets see how we can make it even better.” When that works it’s magic, because things do get better.
    The bad kind–and this I think of as reviewing–is an exercise in ego. What matters isn’t the book/restaurant/play/movie but how well I, the critic, write my article to amuse and enlighten my readers.
    But criticism, good or bad, always hurts at first. The main thing is not to respond immediately. Deep breaths. Put it aside. Respond, when it’s necessary, after you’ve calmed down.

  4. Such an interesting post. I’m especially interested in your comments about being edited, since I work on the opposite side of the desk. I’m grateful that I do at least get to communicate directly with my authors, but in the magazine world there’s not always as much time as I would like to explain the reasons behind the changes I’m suggesting. I try to put a lot of work into how I craft queries and comments to my authors–for example by phrasing them as questions even when I’m dealing with a clear error in fact that needs to be resolved. It’s a tough thing to do, though, and I’m sure I’ve trampled over an author’s feelings or made a preposterous suggestion more than once.

  5. I’ve also been on both sides of criticism and it certainly is a delicate matter. It can be so constructive and so damning. As an aspiring author, I’ve had to learn to take criticism and I do think it makes my manuscript ever stronger. As a writer in a community, I also give criticism and I catch myself sometimes doing what you so aptly describe as letting small faults have a disproportionate effect on my judgement. It’s at that moment that I have to remind myself that it will never be how I would do it, because it’s written by someone else. I have to try to read the piece with them in mind and my ego largely erased. When ego takes part in criticism, both the receiving and the giving, then the whole thing becomes destructive.

  6. Look, not to be obvious, but Ernest HEMingway? A MUSE? Gross. That irritates me, and I’m not the one at whom the criticism is being levied. Ernest Hemingway? Admittedly I am unfair this way, because of how much I dislike Ernest Hemingway, but seriously, Ernest Hemingway was way the hell too selfish to be anyone’s damn muse. Gross.

    (Did you hear about the time Wallace Stevens punched him in the face? It’s a good story because two authors I really don’t like hit each other! Wallace Stevens punched Ernest Hemingway in the face, and then Ernest Hemingway beat the shit out of him. Ah, the good old days.)

    I’ve been in the slightly awkward position at work of passing along criticisms not made by me (but by our editorial boards) to authors who do not always appreciate them. Many of them assume that the editors refuse to compromise, which isn’t really the case.

  7. K – my heart goes out to you. It is a rotten time to be anywhere near academia at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, alas. But if you do want to do a PhD, just hang on in there until the right supervisor comes along, because it makes all the difference in the world. Otherwise, go find something more fun to do. Three years on one topic can be quite a battle in any case.

    Michelle – ah we have said it before, and will probably say it again – we are joined on a ley line somewhere, no doubt! You are quite right that taking criticism is always hard. My plan generally is to keep quiet for a while afterwards until the feeling passes – on this occasion, I thought I’d share! Blind peer reviews are too often a chance for someone to be mean with no comeback. I’ve seen that happen enough times.

    Irene – completely agree there with your distinctions between good and bad criticism. The evaluation has to be made by the effect on the recipient, I think. And putting things aside for a while is a must. I find it helps to go and do something else completely.

    Teresa – oooh I’m sure, too, that I have hurt the students’ feelings at times. It is sooooo hard to be consistently careful, because there are so many variables of mood and sensitivity in play. I think the more chance there is for conversation, the easier it can be for all concerned to emerge feeling they have made progress. I think it’s tough for anyone having to hand over feedback without the chance of supporting its reception.

    Charlotte – yes, do agree. I remember that old adage about marriage – attack the problem, not each other – nnd think it applies perfectly to criticism. If it gets personal, it gets problematic. And it is tricky to work with a piece of writing that doesn’t adhere to one’s own ideology or perspective. Even things that are just very different can be difficult to deal with at first. I think at basis we are all very conservative readers; we like to see what we already know about inside. But isn’t it hard to work creatively on that basis, from either side of the equation! I’m sure you are always kind and constructive, though.

    Jenny – ah your last paragraph there shows how much the reception of criticism is all about fighting our own inner demons. Once crossed, one assumes that there is no flexibility in the matter – I am quite sure I’d be guilty of thinking like that, too. But I’m delighted it’s not just me who thinks the idea of Hemingway as a muse is extraordinary and I love the story of the punch-up. They don’t make authors like that any more, do they?

  8. I am absolutely terrible with criticism…much worse at giving it, actually, than receiving…which I realize is an odd thing to write. I have come to realize I have a naturally uncritical attitude…I love most of the books I read, most of the plays I see, most of the movies I watch…you get the idea. I think it made me a rather poor student in my MFA program (although we were never graded on our comments, only on our own work) and it is what has kept me out of acadamia since. In terms of accepting criticism, sometimes I am good at doing so and sometimes not, but if anyone ever told me Hemingway served as a muse? Well, that would be one tough pill to swallow. I have always been resistant to him and to his work…

  9. Hemingway as muse? That’s rich. It is always easier to give criticism than it is to take it and some who give criticism take great delight in ripping others apart for no reason other than they can. I think that you are right, providing constructive criticism is indeed an art.

  10. I find unfair criticism wounding; but, constructive criticism is something I relish receiving, especially in my professional writing (since the whole object is to win the argument – whatever the argument may be) and I want the point to be made as sharply as possible. It is the best way to learn. But you are so correct…the ability to deliver helpful criticism is almost more difficult that being on the receiving end.

  11. First of all Hemingway as muse made me laugh too. Next: “That’s the kind of criticism that is hatred and annihilation dressed up as good advice.” Perfectly put. I was just thinking about this. I recently had an editorial conversation that was so constructive it was shocking. The shock reminded me of when I first realized how badly treated I had been by some people because I had a t who treated me decently, and the penny dropped. I suddenly saw the difference between abuse and normal courtesy, and realized that normal courtesy was not angelic kindness but to be expected. In the arena of criticism, normal courtesy has not yet been institutionalized as a social value and expectation. It is time it was.

  12. I was very lucky to have a dissertation director who was great with criticism and suggestions and never tried to make my work at all like his. I realize how wonderful that is! Your post comes at just the right time for me — at the beginning of the semester when I’m gearing up to give students comments on their papers. I do try to imagine how they will feel and react, but it’s easy to forget to do it sometimes.

  13. I’m not in the academic world and never have been, but it seems that people who tear an article or a book to pieces for a typo or a wrong date can’t possibly be taken seriously by their peers, or can they? (from the business world that seems at best strange) If they get known for being unreasonably quick-tempered or biased against certain persons, are they asked for reviews again?
    I’m almost as ignorant of academic ways as of Hemingway (except for compulsory reading at school). Would you kindly point a good biography of him?

  14. Fabulous to see some righteous anger directed at Hemingway (have never been a fan – he lost me even before the misogyny with all the hunting stuff….) I’ve been a bit lax with my blog-following lately, but what a wonderful post to return to – I really enjoyed it!

  15. First I know nothing much about Hemingway beyond once giving up on one of his novels. However I would like to think he could be a muse on the basis that if anyone can be a muse there’s hope for me yet! As to criticism it can be difficult at times not to slip into something unwarranted,with the best of intentions. The regular nasty critic, the type who will pick up on a typo or a slip in grammar or punctuation, etc, seems to me nothing more than a bully and like a bully is probably just demonstrating their own low self esteem or other psychological lack. Over my years of teaching children I saw this many times. Genuine criticism, generously and kindly offered is sometimes difficult to take, but the other kind can be soul distroying and pointless.

  16. I’ve been on the receiving end of “hatred and annihilation dressed up as good advice”, and it’s neither pleasant nor helpful. I too see this as a real problem in academia, and yet it IS encouraged as long as enough sarcasm or cleverness are used to disguise the barbs. Good, helpful criticism is indeed an art form in itself.

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  18. This post made me laugh! Wholeheartedly agree that interfacing vis-a-vis criticism is an art form, on both sides, that doesn’t get addressed enough.

    I snorted at the idea of Hemingway-as-muse, but then when I thought about it I started questioning myself. I don’t think the muse-artist construct is necessarily a healthy one in the first place, as plenty of more “traditional” muse figures haven’t been very supportive people when you get right down to it, nor have the artists inspired by them. Many examples I can think of just play into the “(S)he’s so crazy and beautiful and self-destructive!” fascination. Neal Cassady for Jack Kerouac, for example – not exactly a giver, that Neal, definitely a taker. Or Edie Sedgwick for, well, seemingly everyone who hung out with her. I don’t know anything about Hemingway’s relationship with Gellhorn, but he definitely fits the crazy and self-destructive qualifications for muse-hood!

  19. I’ve found that I need criticism of my academic writing because I get too close to it/too bored of it after awhile and I can’t see what needs fixing. So I can generally take it as long as its professional in tone and seems genuinely aimed at helping me to improve what I’ve written even if I don’t agree with it. I don’t enjoy but I can handle rejection too. What I do get very sick of is anonymous reviewers taking the opportunity to snidely and unnecessarily get the boot in. Some of the nasty stinging phrases I’ve had from reviewers will probably stay with me forever.

  20. It would be hard enough for artists/writers to just put there work out for the world to see as surely it must be like baring your soul, but how totally crushing to be so harshly criticized that it might make someone want to stop creating. I’ve heard people say it’s easier to write a damning review than a positive one and that is surely telling. I think someone who is really, really good at editing would be of the ‘nurturing’ sort–isn’t it to everyone’s benefit that the work is improved? And for once I’m glad I don’t know much about an author–maybe I should be embarrassed by not knowing more about Hemingway, but in this case it seems better to be blissfully ignorant of his personal life. I still want to read his work and best in this situation to keep it apart from knowing personal details, I think.

  21. I’m the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book that required a tremendous amount of revision, more than anything I had ever written. That was tough!

    It takes tremendous mutual respect and faith — certainly in the world of commercial publishing — between editor and author to work on material, and trust it will work out well for both. The editor’s career, we know, rides on the success of each book s/he edits just as every book we write and publish also affects what happens to us next.

    That every book we sell to a publisher is, to some degree, an intellectual blind date between an editor and writer who have never before even met and must now collaborate closely for years, makes it even more challenging.

  22. I’m fairly sure Hemingway was a muse (that is, inspirational) for a whole generation of authors. Maybe not Gellhorn, but others.

    I am terrible at taking criticism, though better now after years of practice. My dissertation advisor was wonderful at giving it, constructive and helpful just as you say, but I would still march round the room in a fury after every chapter’s comments, fuming, WHY didn’t he think it was PERFECT, he was SO WRONG about EVERYTHING, until I got a grip twenty minutes later and got down to making edits! This isn’t good in marriage either, by the way 🙂

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  24. Courtney – oh I hear you. My students used to joke that when they were right I said ‘Oh yes!’ and when they were wrong, I said ‘Well, ye-es…’. It can be very hard indeed to give criticism. But that you enjoy most everything you read and watch is simply a lovely character trait, and need not be tangled with at all.

    Stefanie – believe you me, I have seen plenty of academics let rip because they feel it is a) revenge for all they went through b) an expression of superiority and c) expected of them. It’s never pretty. My feeling is that criticism always reflects most of all on the person doing the criticising! And I’m very glad also that both you and Courtney think Hemingway not, ahem, exactly muse material.

    Grad – I feel just the same. I want work to be the best it can be – and properly constructive criticism really helps a person get back to it and tackle those underlying difficulties. But it takes a sensitive soul to really understand what can be heard – and I sort of think we should applaud more loudly the constructive critic and hold up examples wherever possible.

    Lilian – exactly, exactly! I’d insert your comment into my post if I could. It should be seen as normal courtesy and it has instead become incorporated into the jolly business of the arts to rip another person’s work to shreds. That’s just plain horrible, to my mind.

    Dorothy – I would bet good money that you are a very sensitive and constructive criticizer. When you read my work that time you were absolutely brilliant and helped me no end! So I have every faith in you.

    Smithereens – oh alas, we poor academics are trying to do things PERFECTLY, and haven’t quite grasped that that’s not possible! So whilst there are some who can keep themselves intact over a piece of stupid criticism, there are many who find themselves undeniably hurt, even if some part of them knows it is unreasonable to be so. And after all, imagine if some stranger turned up on your site and took a big bite out of you for having spelled something wrong or made a grammatical error. You’d know it was unfair, but it would still rankle, right? Writing is a very vulnerable thing to do…. As for Hemingway, hang on, I’ll check..

  25. Smithereens – me again! The biography I’d recommend is the one by Jeffrey Meyers. I really like his style.

    Baker’s daughter – it’s lovely to see you back! You can always rely on me for righteous anger against poor old Hemingway. He just riles me!

    Bookboxed – I think you are absolutely right that that sort of critical harshness is a close relation to bullying and stems from exactly the same causes. I also think you are much more likely to be a muse than Hemingway – I’ve never known you utter an unsupportive word! And I could have altered your typo for you, but in the end I left the comment where it was because it did make me laugh!

    Nymeth – I think it’s a sad fact that anyone who’s spent any time in academia ends up having to deal with this at one time or another. If we validated proper criticism more, then we might start to erode the stronghold of the other kind. Well, that’s what I hope!

    Emily – I know what you mean about the crazy/destructive thing, but I still think that to be a muse, you have to be named as an inspiration to the creative artist, and alas, Martha Gellhorn had no such pleasant words to direct towards Hemingway either during their marriage or afterwards! She may have had to strengthen her will to write despite him, but I’m not sure that quite qualifies for musedom. Still I agree that the muses did some pretty outrageous things – Francine Prose’s book The Lives of the Muses (or at least some of them) is a wonderful account, and I loved it.

    Amanda – oh doesn’t anonymity mean trouble on so many occasions! I’ve had very few blog trolls, but for the most part, they have appeared on the blog without their names attached. I think rejection always feels bad at first, but can be rationalised, and criticism can be really great when it points you in the right direction. And I also think people should put their names to everything they do – as a precaution at least.

    Danielle – there’s never any need to know about an author’s life, thankfully! No reason why you couldn’t enjoy Hemingway straight up, with no extraneous biographical details! I think that writing is a really vulnerable thing to do – any sort of creation, if it’s worth something, puts a person on display and reveals a bit of their soul. I do think it’s only basic respect to treat them carefully and sensibly. I completely agree that the nurturing editor must be the very best sort to have!

    Broadside blog – first of all, the very best of luck to you with your publication! I hope it does wonderfully well. I quite see what you say about the trust that has to go into the author-editor partnership. When the advice comes back to change from first to third person, or to add or drop material, it must take a great leap of faith to embrace those big changes and make them. I hope your editor was very good at explaining what s/he wanted and why!

    Jenny – lol! I think everyone, deep down, is bad at taking criticism, unless they are completely disengaged from the task. It just comes out nearer the surface in some of us! 🙂 I still think that a muse is someone in direct and close relation to the author, someone who is clearly inspirational in the creative process (even if they behave badly). Otherwise the concept of the muse gets a bit flabby. I’m sure Hemingway’s writing has inspired many a young author, but I’m not entirely convinced still that he is a muse. But this isn’t a criticism, I hasten to add!! Just another point of view. 🙂

  26. I just read the article at Open Letters Monthly and I’m glad you were able to keep to your idea that Hemingway was not a muse to Gellhorn! (On a sidenote, I’m glad Virago published her.) I thought it was a great article, I have a few of Duras’s books (The War, Writing and of course The Lover) and you definitely make me want to read more of her, she sounds a bit crazy in a way that I wish was more socially acceptable for women to be… Hemingway is embraced for acting like that, but not so many women.

  27. I’ve kept this post on hold for a few days because I wanted to take the time to read it and not just skim through it. It’s very good and so true.

    Is that what’s ahead of me?
    The only article I wrote that was peer-reviewed was for a journal aimed at non-specialist, so the peer-reviewer was from another discipline. I really felt like she really went looking for something wrong in my article and I didn’t feel some of her comment (with spelling mistakes) were justified.

    Like you, I am lucky with my supervisors. They are very respectul of my ideas and offer constructive suggestions to strengthen my argument, as well as helping me with the writing style while preserving its originality. They’re great! I’m glad I chose them as I know other postgrads who are not as lucky.

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