Monday, October 2, 2017

She’d Be Less Harsh If She was Actually Blunt

The illustrious Paris Review (and I say that in full sincerity) posted a letter from the French novelist known as Colette, a woman nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1948. In the letter she gave some constructive criticism to her friend, Marguerite Moreno:

… I should like to talk earnestly to you about your copy for Les Annales. You still do not have quite the right touch. You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the “diary” effect. For the most part you have approached your gentlemen as though they were so many subjects assigned in class … For one portrait which works—Jarry—there are two others—Proust and Iturri, say—who don’t. They are just not sufficiently alive!

I am speaking to you now just as bluntly as I would speak to myself … You, who are magic itself when it comes to oral storytelling, lose most of your effects when you come to write. You leave out the color. For instance, your Proust—pages 3, 4, 5. If you were talking to me, this scene would be stunning. But in your written version what do I find? “Madame A. had a critical mind and brought ruthless judgments to bear … a chorus of flatterers agreed … the conversation took a bitter turn … mocking exclamations, derisive remarks,” etc. Do you realize that in all that not one word makes me see and hear what you’re talking about? If you were telling me this in person, you would paint old Madame A. and her husband, Papa Anatole France, and the whole company in fifteen lines. You would transform your “untethered mischiefmaking” into a single line of dialogue, of heard conversation, and it would all come alive. No mere narration, for God’s sake! Concrete details and colors! And no need of summing up! I don’t give a damn whether or not you ask Proust’s pardon for having misunderstood him. Nor do I care whether or not Sardou was “one of the kings of the contemporary stage”! Do you see? And the same goes for Iturri. A “charming and delicate dinner party”—“a conversation which wandered from one subject to another”—what are you showing me with phrases like these? But nothing! Paint me a décor, with real guests and the food they are eating! Otherwise, it’s all dead! In spite of yourself, you’re thinking of Madame Brisson. And I forbid you to do so! Liberate yourself! And try, oh my dear heart, do try to conceal from us the fact that you loathe writing. Try also to pardon me for throwing all this on paper so hastily. I must dash. Write me at Blvd. Suchet. I love you, I hug you, and I am determined that you shall write “marvelous” things, do you hear? My paw to Pierre.

I’ll give her some credit for translation, but let’s face it, she could have been a lot less of an ass if she stopped trying to excuse her assholishness and just got to the point.

-The dairy effect needs more carelessness.

-Proust and Iturri aren’t sufficiently alive.

-On pages 3, 4, and 5, add more sight and sounds, including more detail on Madame A., her husband, and the whole company, but don’t spend too much time.

-Cut down on 'untethered mischief making' to a single line of dialogue.

-Less narration, more details and colors.

And so on and so forth.

I still wouldn’t critique someone in this manner, and I feel some of the above needs further discussion and explanation for me to fully understand the issue if I was receiving that feedback—though I haven’t read the story in question.

Sometimes being actually blunt isn’t the same as allowing yourself to speak down to a fellow writer, and in many cases, being straight and to the point is less offensive than putting in all that extra fluff apologizing for it.

The entire letter is unnecessarily rude and condescending, and I believe Colette’s real aim is to cathartically explain her feelings, not to give the most beneficial review possible.

Being from an author held in such esteem, it can be hard to criticize her methods, but this letter contains huge issues that every critique partner needs to consider before offering up their opinion.

1. Her efforts to compliment are forced and overshadowed by the following criticism, and cause the actual criticism to be stated in a way more insulting and less clear than if they had just been said on their own:

“You, who are magic itself when it comes to oral storytelling, lose most of your effects when you come to write. You leave out the color.”

Being good at oral storytelling is irrelevant here. The point is she needs more vivid details. I, personally, would be less offended to hear that a story 'needs more color' than to have it implied that I suck at writing even if it meant I was good at storytelling (which is probably not true considering how many people’s compliment in their compliment sandwich is false.)

2. Rhetorical questions are always insulting, ineffective, and often direct you right to a counterpoint.

“Do you realize that in all that not one word makes me see and hear what you’re talking about?”

Well, either I did realize it and I did it intentionally, which means you have to do more than just state you don’t think it’s a good idea to help me understand your position, or, no I didn’t realize and your implication that it is obvious is also insulting.

3. The accusation of “You did” over “I feel.”

“You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the ‘diary’ effect.”

“You” is often an attack and puts people on edge, which is why therapists and English teachers recommend not using it. People are more likely to listen to someone who is displaying their perspective rather than acting like that perspective is reality and the author’s perspective is wrong (all the while assuming what that perspective is). The statement here is that a diary must have carelessness and that is something Moreno definitely did not have. It is disparaging, of course, because though it must be that way, obviously Moreno has not realized it.

This might very well be the case, but it backs the author into a corner. If a writer is put in that situation—in which a critique tells her her book must be a certain way and that the writer has not achieved it—the writer must either admit her own incompetency in both taste and skills (and the critic’s superiority), or find a reason why the critic is wrong. And, when dealing with absolutes, it is pretty easy to find arguments that disprove the overly simplified criticism.

Even when you want to use someone’s feedback, if they deliberately make it hard for you to swallow, you’re more likely to tell them to go screw themselves.

Plus, most criticism is flexible, and subjective, and if there is any doubt about the critic’s opinion, it becomes imperative to analyze and be critical of that opinion, or you might make a bad choice despite doing what they suggest. Implementation requires pretty strong understanding.

Sometimes authors make fully analyzed and carefully considered choices only to have someone else go, “Obviously that was a silly mistake! Let me fix that to the clear proper way for you!” Not only is it demeaning, but when they give no credit to the writer’s vision or decision skills, it can be a sign that they actually haven’t put any thought into it at all, but just want you to do everything their way. People who think the answer is obvious and universal are less likely to be those who have dealt with the issue a lot.

4. She acts like reading is an imposition, and writing better is a personal favor.

“No mere narration, for God’s sake!”

This, for me, is the word, “Please.”

By blowing it out of proportion it is likely she thinks she is cutting the tension, but it’s really just an unnecessarily embellishment that makes it sound like the writing is so bad it’s a huge, painful ordeal. Maybe it is, but is it really beneficial to tell the author that? It is demoralizing and yet not actually informative. As I’ve stated many times before, you only say please out of proper etiquette, begging, or to not look like an asshole, none of which lessen the blow that someone hated your choices, just tells you how much they really did.

I’ve seen many people look disgusted at the writers who “forced them” to give feedback, and it just makes the speaker seem arrogant. These folks are often getting off on venting, making their complete revulsion for the writer's choices even more personal than it needs to be.

Because criticism can be fun to give, especially when you stop censoring yourself, people who have deliberately put themselves in the position to give you feedback have no right to act like your writing is a huge imposition.

5. Trying to be clever and funny at the expense of the writer.

“And try, oh my dear heart, do try to conceal from us the fact that you loathe writing.”

I once received a private criticism in which the person, filled with disdain, pointed out a typo and made a pointed joke: “I find that whenever people write about typos, they always have one. Thank you for not straying from that tradition.”

And thank you for knowing your audience.

(The article was not about typos, though the sentence was a comment on how bad I am at finding them. Something Freudian, I suppose.)

When it comes to making fun of someone, it’s a good idea to consider if it’s actually going to be funny to that individual. I did laugh at Colette’s comment, and I believe that the Madame Brissone she is speaking of might be a past writing teacher, which would make the comment more reasonable to Moreno, in which case, I don’t see a problem with it.

However, it could easily be an amusing attack on her writing ability, a common tactic for less secure critics. And while it did make me laugh, it wasn’t a letter for me; it was a letter to the butt of the joke. Even if this isn’t the case, it made me think of the times I’ve seen this happen, and I have to say it’s a bad move.

Trying to be clever holds its own set of problems, like muddling the point for the sake of wordplay. When someone tries to be clever in a way that won’t appeal to the only other person in the room, it shows the criticism as what it’s truly about: the critic.

Which, in the end, is what causes the letter to fall short. Most of the wording is harsher than it needs to be. Colette's letter is not phrased in the most diplomatic way, nor the most friendly. It is not intended for the audience of Moreno, but for the catharsis of Colette's pent up opinion while reading. It makes Colette feel smart and good at the cost of Moreno.

The article in Paris Review is called “Speaking Bluntly,” and the word “blunt” most people interpret to mean as honest.

This isn’t really blunt though. It’s a long, repetitive list of faults fluffed up with condescending embellishments and insincere apologies. If she had actually gotten to the point and said how she was feeling rather than adding in rhetorical questions, forcing irrelevant compliments, and trying to be funny, it would have actually been a lot more palatable and clear. As it is, this gives several examples on how to handle advice in the worst way possible. It is much better to just state the changes she’d like to have seen rather than tacking on disparaging additions like “Do you realize” and wasting space claiming that she’s just as hard on herself.

People often confused being “blunt” with cathartic purging. But sometimes it's better to just stick with the facts.

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