A few days ago I had dinner with a writer friend whose new novel is about to hit the NYT bestseller list. We shared some of our disastrous Amazon reviews. I had one that not only suggested I stop writing but also stop teaching while she described personal attacks couched in literary criticism that made me cringe. We have also both been the recipient of lavish praise. My novel was a New York Times Notable Book while her current novel is receiving stunning accolades. And yet, we could recite those mean Amazon reviews nearly word for word, reviews that are anonymous which could be written by ex-boyfriends, jealous fellow writers or people who specialize in hurtful feedback,

I recall comments about my body with stunning clarity. Going all the way back to high school one girl said, "Molly has a funny body." the person she was speaking to said, "I like it." and the other girl said, "Really? I don't." I can't remember how I was privy to this exchange but I never forgot. Despite the intervening years of praise from lovers, friends, etc I have that brief conversation burned into my brain. Despite a lack of information about how and when these two girls came to be discussing me like this I can still feel the burning shame of the negative criticism.

I have been teaching for twenty years, writing mainly, and I never give feedback without a positive comment. If the work is completely without merit, I usually find a way to avoid commenting. Thousands of teenagers who have passed through my classes have been told that their ideas were "original, thought-provoking or had 'great energy'" while I struggled though a swamp of unclear, overwritten, grammatically flawed muck. Too bad. Part of agreeing to teach is agreeing to encourage, to support, to voice belief in even the most convoluted prose. Ask those same teenagers about their own work and most of them will say something terrible. When I asked them why they were so negative they usually shared a story about a teacher who said something cruel or offhand. This abuse of power horrifies me because I am someone who was given the courage to be a writer because of a single English teacher, Peter Sears, who wrote on an essay I turned in, "Perhaps you don't spell or punctuate perfectly but you have heart and passion. Don't stop." I was fifteen. At 53 those words still comfort.

 I am a huge fan of Raymond Carver who once voiced his fear that he would be the one who stopped a struggling writer with careless criticism. My experience with "constructive" criticism has been that the person with the least amount of true heart for the work is the most vocal.
So, what about honesty? Well, it's overrated. By that I mean, how can anything issuing from a person, a reviewer, a friend, an enemy, a lover be considered "objective"? The bottom line is we are all our histories, our biases, our old hurts and hidden hopes. As a writer, I've had to ignore the people who have said my novel is the best thing they ever read along with those who claim it is the worst. The truth lies somewhere in between.

Children never forget criticism. Never. Do no harm is the best piece of advice I have ever been offered.


Popular Posts