Monday, December 2, 2013

Why I Disagree with the “Silent Treatment” in Critiques

“The Silent Treatment” seems to be a common academic strategy used in critique sessions to prevent hostility and argument. The rule is the author is not allowed to respond with anything other than “Thank you.” Hoping to prevent the typical tirade of that bastard, The Egotistical Author, a group session will structure its proceedings strictly, preventing people from falling into the “self-defense” rant associated with our favorite stereotype.

The arguments in promotion of the “Silent Treatment” make sense—an author won’t be allowed to defend or explain himself to his readers, so if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. Plus, when in a controlled and secure situation, a peer is more likely to actually speak up than when someone might start screaming at her.

These make sense to me in a contextual sense, but, unfortunately, my priorities are different than the above. The way I see it (respectively): A manufactured criticism session in which people are reading work to give feedback rather than enjoy can’t give a “real” reaction to the story anyway. Next, just because someone’s not speaking doesn’t mean I’m not worried about them hating me. Giving a space for someone to talk freely encourages lack of censor, which is fine for helpful and considerate souls (granted, many people) who need that set up (less people), but not for others, say, The Egotistical Author, there to prove his superiority and knowledge. And, most importantly, criticisms can be fun discussions, once we get over the “being attacked” stage. But nothing makes a person feel like being attacked more than being unable to do anything about it.

While a fine short-term solution, I find not engaging a dialogue problematic for the long-term.

1) The situation is temporary and artificial.

Currently Americans are attempting to remove the concept of winners and losers from our children’s vocabulary. Everyone gets a ribbon, there are no hurt feelings, “no child left behind,” and all that nonsense.

My community was a big part of this, and I have to say I hate them for it. It can’t last forever, and the moment that I got into a truly competitive world, I didn’t know how to function. It disturbed me immensely, and I learned the very hard way that life was no longer set up for me to do what I wanted. The school-created opportunities, their secure, dictated situations weren’t like the “real world.” The contests, the plays, the events, the workshops, hell, even the projects themselves were not just sitting there for the taking. Young people are catered to (as I believe, in terms of opportunities, is a good thing), people dishing out a good amount of money so I may be in a play or have a teacher give me feedback on my writing. But anyone who wishes to continue with the same activities after school soon learns that those same opportunities depend on self-reliance. We have to fight for what we want, we have to force ourselves to do the best possible job we can. If you fail to do your work, if you piss everyone off, if you just don’t do good work, you may not get another opportunity again.

Writer’s groups, classrooms, and chat rooms that ask for a “no response” policy are creating a temporary and artificial world. (Granted, maybe forum moderators don’t care.) It solves the immediate issue of no fights being in the classroom, but it doesn’t help people once they leave that world.

Criticism and how to handle criticism needs to be learned. Neither is an innate trait or an easy skill. It can only be learned through practice and feedback.

Authors need to learn how to say no to someone important in a well-thought out and non-offensive way. They need to learn how to ask questions, how to understand what someone is telling them without sounding like they’re “questioning.” They need to learn how to respond to people who truly are just being horrible jerks (we all know at least one) without starting a screaming match. And a writer who is not conveying his message needs to learn how, and the critic is more able to give useful suggestions that if she actually knows what that message is.

And because authors will be critics at some point in their career (even if it just for themselves), it is important to practice giving feedback, expressing thoughts well, and saying things in a way that will make others respect him rather than thinking he’s a tremendous dick. By getting responses to his responses, he is better equipped to critiquing next time.

Yes, no response will prevent arguments from happening, but it won’t help anyone learn how to prevent arguments when that shield is gone.

2) It promotes a “versus” mentality instead of a collaborative one.

When I criticize this “no response” attitude, the first reaction is always, “You just want to defend yourself!”

Because that would do a lot of good.

I’m not going to pretend that I am immune to getting hurt, feeling defensive, saying things I shouldn't, misbehaving in a critique, or anything else that manifests in “unacceptable” behavior. In fact, I’m not going to even try and prove that I’m not defensive because it doesn’t affect my point.

The perception of the critic versus the author is a counterproductive yet common one. They’re on the same side, and the moment everyone involved accepts that, the situation will be better. This idea of “defending yourself,” is exactly the problem, and the fact that this is people’s first image of the hypothetical situation just tells us how horribly communal it is.

Of course we feel that people are trying to attack us. Writing is a highly competitive field and no matter how good of a person someone is, she still wants to prove her value in the world, and that is inversely linked to the value of those around her.

I’m not saying it’s stupid to think people aren’t just trying to help you; considering how cynical I am, I believe it’s a sure bet. I’m saying that promoting that attitude will not lead to a good experience.

By making the assumption that the author’s reaction will be hostile, it indicates that he should feel hostile. By tying his hands and forcing him to face people who may or may not know how they talk to others, it causes the author to brace before he has even heard a word. By creating an atmosphere that values one side over the other, it widens the gap between them. But when encouraging an open dialogue that is about listening and speaking, both parties are more inclined to feel they’re able to get their point across, not be misinterpreted, and are willing to expend the energy used to shut down to the dialogue. At worst, by being forced to respond, they won’t be able to just sneak away into their own heads.

Will they listen? Will they behave as they should? Will they stop trying to one-up each other? Nope. Not at first. Not unless they’re special and unique. But by facing the ramifications of their actions by seeing others’ responses (author and critic) teaches them to listen, to behave, and to drop the competition far sooner than teaching passive-aggressiveness does.

3) True respect is believing the other person has a point and trying to understand it.

There is one man in my writers’ group who I couldn’t disagree with more. He is an old political essayist, Republican, sexist, bigoted rule-follower. I am a young science-fiction/fantasy writer, filled-with-such-apathy-to-politics-it-would-be-too-much-effort-to-quanitify girl who couldn’t identify a boundary, let alone follow it.

About 90% of the revisions made to my manuscript were his suggestions.

Why? Because, while he was not my intended audience, while he prioritizes things I don’t (in literature and in life), while he doesn’t understand where I’m coming from, he always helps me understand him.

I am the sort of person who assumes that every new stranger knows what he’s talking about. I, often to a fault, have high respect for the criticism of others, always believe they have a good point, I’m just not seeing it.

But, for the reason expressed above, it’s hard to communicate that to someone who is worrying about how I perceive him. While it is the minority, there are those that, when asked to elaborate, will freeze up, get upset, and believe the author doesn’t respect their opinion. These are often the people who create the “no response” ruling. They see respect as full-blown faith.

I understand there are people who trust experts explicitly. I envy them in a way. It certainly makes life easier when you can trust the decisions others make for you. But I don’t consider respect blind-faith. It’s not about always thinking someone’s right, but what you do when you think they’re wrong.

Now I may not respect this man’s political viewpoints, while I may not think it’s the end of the world if he doesn’t like what I’ve written, I listen when he talks. When I don’t understand what he’s saying, when I feel I disagree, I believe there is something I’m missing, that I’m misinterpreting. This isn’t uncommon for me. So I ask questions. We talk it out until I understand. He doesn’t get upset, he doesn’t worry about proving he’s right. Because we are able to have an open dialogue, he has more than one opportunity to say what he wants, and I have more than one opportunity to understand it.

Removing the ability to discuss feedback promotes the attitude that respect is about immediate acceptance, that people only deserve one chance to “be right or wrong.”

This does a disservice to both critic and the author.

4) Successful blind obedience requires starting at the same perspective.

Perspective is what makes people different from each other. We take our memories, our moods, are passions, our futures, our experiences and bring them into every decision we make, into every interpretation.

Two people entering into a situation will have two different perspectives. Those perspectives can merge, they can look at things in the same way, but they need a signal to find out where the other person is. And, for that matter, they need to find out where they are first.

Our perspective is so ingrained that we’re not even aware of it, not even aware that we might be making abnormal assumptions. The biggest cause for miscommunication in constructive criticism is making conjectures that are true from where we stand, but not necessarily viewable from someone else’s point of view. It is important for the critic to show the author where she’s coming from—and, at times, the author to show the critic where he’s coming from—in order for him to see what she does.

My very respected bigot from above told me once that he had “so many questions,” when reading my book. “It was too confusing,” he said.

“What do I need to explain more?”

He didn’t seem to know. He just kept reiterating, “Too many questions,” unable to tell me exactly what it was he didn’t understand.

Now, had this been a place where I couldn’t respond, that’s all I would have gotten. I would have known he was dissatisfied with the number of unanswered hints in the opening, and I would have either had to ignore it or go through and try to guess as to what he wanted to be clearer.

But we kept talking, and he finally he said, “Well, for example, are we in outer space? Because it seems like we’re not.”

I was stunned. I had no idea why he thought that should be explained. Then I thought about it, and I realized: To him, “Science Fiction” meant space. From the perspective of someone who didn’t read it, he just assumed that it would be on another planet, and when it wasn’t, he was confused—or rather, had “so many questions.”

Had I taken my book home and crawled through it trying to find everything he questioned, I would have never guessed that he was confused about it not being in space. From my perspective, “dystopian future,” said “Earth” or “Earth-like.” For him, science fiction said, “Other planet.”

Back when I didn’t understand how much I didn’t understand the criticism given to me, I would take stuff home and do what was asked of me (every once in a while). I would then return with worse results, according to both me and the critic. I’ve seen this happen to other authors also; it’s a decently common phenomenon. If the writer tries to do what the critic tells him exactly without really understanding the why or the what, he is unlikely to have solved their problem.

Discussion illuminates differences in perspective that one-sided reviews will gloss over, blissfully unaware of incongruity within the listener’s mind.

5) The best answer is based around the author’s vision, not the generally accepted solutions.

Once I was told with a dismayed shrug, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Not only is every person in the room going to have their own perspective, but they’re going to have their own goals and tastes. This is important in a feedback session because perfectly good solutions will be rejected for nothing other than not being what the author wanted.

And that’s a good thing.

What will keep consistency in a book, what will allow the author to gauge the quality and success of his work, is his own personal vision. Writing is too subjective, too comparative an art form, for culturally accepted blanket-solutions to rule all.

Many critics are smart, opinionated, and helpful, but they can only go so far if they don’t understand where the author is coming from.

A writer has every right to say no to any piece of advice. But anyone who’s not been satisfied with his work and not known why, anyone who has sought out outsider perspective and yet found himself more confused, not moving forward, doesn’t want to just say no. He wants answers, he wants solutions, and he wants help. And, if the point is self-satisfaction, then being told that the best solution is not to go in the direction he wants won’t help.

A lot of criticism comes in this form. Most feedback writers get asks them to take whatever is different about their story and “cut the crap.” Whether it be switching P.O.V.’s, using weird words, telling a story backward, or having sparkling vampires, most comments will say that what makes a story unique is what makes it bad.

Hell, the author might agree. There is a very fine line between being creative and looking like you’re trying to be creative, and so these comments can be helpful.

But it can also stifle creativity.

The most helpful criticisms are the ones that takes the author’s goals and tastes into consideration. Instead of suggesting pure eradication of the “weirdness” the critic gives ideas how to make it more palatable; she tries to solve her problem while keeping the author’s stipulations in mind. This often leads to novel writing (see what I did there?), opening the box rather than trapping him inside of it.

This can’t happen very well when the critic doesn’t know anything about the author’s vision.

I think it’s great to have a response before the peer understands what the author is going for, but then there needs to be a second part of that, in which she is able to digest her actual response with his desired response. How did she feel, and why didn’t she feel how she was supposed to? The answer to those questions are some of the most helpful realizations the writer can get, and it can only come from an outside source, from someone who is able to have a better insight into the actual reaction without his perception, goals, or tastes considered.

Criticism, no matter the negative stereotypes imposed on it, no matter the authors’ hopes for humility, is a collaborative process meant to help the author. He needs to recognize this, of course, not be a jerk, be grateful, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to be bolted down and gagged. Everyone has something useful to say, but sometimes it’s only by asking, clarifying, and encouraging that we will get it out of them.