One of the maxims for good living that was drilled into me in my childhood was the Midwestern guide to community cohesion: Unsolicited advice is never welcome.
We pretend kindness, and deliver cruelty. We just know that if only our friend did this one thing, their life would be so much better. But no. If you can’t say something nice…
One of the hard parts of this directive, though, is defining “unsolicited.” And we all define that very differently. I gave Nora a handbag once, one that she’d admired at a show. She was delighted with it (as was I), and she showed it to a close friend, gushing about how much she loved it. “I’d like it a lot better without the embroidery,” that friend said. Under what condition did that friend feel warranted to offer that critique in that circumstance?
“Don’t you want me to be honest?” we’ll hear people say? And if the answer is that you’re honestly going to be mean spirited about something, then no. No I don’t.
Yelp, for instance, is nothing more than unsolicited advice. Sure, I mean, Yelp solicits it, but that’s not the same as the hapless restaurant or nail salon or community college that bears the brunt of it. (I mean, the definition of the word yelp is “a short, sharp cry, especially one of pain or alarm.” The very name of the app evokes a beaten dog.) The outcome of Web 2.0 is nothing but unsolicited advice, which sometimes can be unbelievably abusive. (At least with Web 3.0, there won’t be any people: it’ll just be data points from your fridge and your thermostat and your car, all condensing into an info fog that we won’t need to actively engage at all. Our machines will talk about us behind our backs.)
When you get a gift, you know enough to not say, “Golly, this isn’t made very well at all.” When someone makes you dinner, you don’t say, “I don’t know what you did to this salmon, but you should never do it again.” When someone shows you their grandchildren’s photos, you don’t say, “What’s wrong with that one?” You may well say those things later, to your spouse, but even then… why? To what end?
Sometimes, though, we actively do seek out critique. And even that’s a hard task.
I have a friend in my writing group who recently finished his creative writing MFA. He talks about a common and unfortunate habit in his program that they called “fan fictioning:” rather than address what the writer is trying to do with their story, the reviewer makes it into their own. “Maybe Dan should just be living with his father and not the whole family, that would show more about how isolated he is. And maybe instead of bowling, Dan’s dad could be interested in, like, modern dance, so that we’d really see how much of an outlier his obsessions make him.” And so on. It has become the critic’s story, no longer the writer’s, and the critique is no longer helpful.
All of our words for criticism (including “criticism”) are dangerous. In architecture school, we had “critiques” or just “crits,” which everybody knew were going to be aggressive and hostile. in writing programs, we have “workshop,” which just invites every participant to grab their tools and fuck around with your story while you sit helplessly with your microphone muted. We place our work before a “jury” or a “panel,” which isn’t going to go well; the best we can hope for is to be acquitted or paroled. Our work might be “reviewed blind,” which sometimes feels more apt than might have been intended. Sometimes we’re allowed to “defend” our work, which means it’s come under attack.
No matter what form criticism or advice takes, the fundamental fact is that we’ve engaged in an action that we find meaningful… we’ve done it to the best of our ability… and now we put the results on the table for the judgment of others. How can that be anything but emotionally fraught? How can we want anything other than someone to say “well done”?
The time for advice is during the making, not after. When you’re laying out a piece of work, and say “I’m not sure what I should do here…” When you’ve made a cocktail and it’s pretty good but not quite, and you say, “what do you think this needs?”
I taught an informal fiction course last summer, and I gave feedback on student work every week. You just have to. If you let people go the whole eight weeks, finish a story and send it to you, then you’re left with only two possibilities: “Good job!” or “ehh…” But if the critique comes steadily during the building, then the resulting project is going to be as good as that person can make it during that time, and you can talk honestly and happily about the ways that it’s grown. If we just get the finished thing dumped on the desk, we’re faced with something more like a binary yes/no judgment, a much higher-stakes response.
I’ve written quite a few novels—nine and a half, to be exact—but have shown most of them to relatively few people. There really is something fragile about the early stages of a book, when even we don’t know yet what it’ll be; the imposition of a second sensibility could enlarge it or derail it, and we know it isn’t properly made yet, so we keep it under wraps. And that just makes the unveiling even more fraught. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours to make this story exactly what I want it to be. And it probably won’t be exactly what you want it to be. So where does that leave us?
For my most recent novel, I had thirty copies printed out in a pleasing design; printing has gotten cheap enough, and page layout software good enough, that I could have them done for five or six bucks apiece, inexpensive enough to give to friends as something nicer than a Word file. I’ve given about twenty of them away, about three months ago. And I’ve heard back from four readers.
But really, what do I want to hear? I want to hear that it was astonishing, that they hadn’t read another novel that good in years. I mean, let’s be honest, we don’t do this work unless we care enormously about it. And we don’t give it to others unless we want them to care about it, too. We intend it as a gift, sort of… but it’s also a burden, because we’re soliciting their good review.
The notoriously conservative football coach (and enormously creative, hostile critic) Woody Hayes once said, “There’s only three things that can happen when you throw the ball, and two of ’em are bad.” Well, there’s only three things that can happen when you give somebody your book, too, and two of ’em are bad. They can love it; that’s good. They can ignore it in the swarm and swirl of life; that’s bad. Or they can tell you they didn’t like it; that’s bad, too.