Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Awkward Critique

So, in general, I assume most people reading this blog are either writers or Russian spambots (Здравствуйте, робот тараканов!). Assuming you are the former, you're probably in a critique circle of some kind, either online or in person. And statistics dictate if you are, eventually someone is going to hand you something painful.

And I don't just mean the kind of painful where homophone errors proliferate a like spell-check proof rabbit plague across the hot Australian terrain of their story, I mean the kind of painful where it's a story in which black people are all poor because they're lazy criminals, or women exist only to tempt unsuspecting men to evil and ruin, or you WILL go to Hell unless you follow X religious doctrine. And you're going to read this story and have to say something to this person. Because that's what critique groups are there for. (Alternately, their story may make the blanket assumption that anyone religious is pants-on-head stupid, that all men are monsters waiting for their chance to rape anyone they can, or that white people are all rich imperialists who are genetically incapable of compassion, you know, pick your poison).

What often makes this harder is that the person in question will very likely not agree that what you find to be a problematic aspect of their story is in any way problematic. People not listening to you in general is one of the hard parts about a critique group anyway, but it's worse in these cases because it's very hard not to put someone on the defensive with "hey, are you aware this sounds kind of racist?"

So, how do you let someone know that they're being potentially quite offensive? Honestly, the dynamics of your group figure into it a lot. Being polite and gentle always makes bad news easier to swallow, and as a general critique strategy, I find it helps to start with "I think what you were trying to accomplish here is ______, but it isn't working for me as it is because of ________" (eg. "I gather you're trying to show that your main character is kind of a likable rough around the edges guy, but for me as a reader the macho way he bonds with the guys by calling his girlfriend a dirty bitch is really off-putting and makes it hard to sympathize"). It's a hard problem because so much of this is context and tone, and what one writer can pull off in a compelling way (like the above example) another might just not be able to make look like anything other than meanspiritedness.

When possible, I try to bring this up to people privately, especially in an internet group. As hard as it is to keep from being defensive when just one person is telling you this, it's going to multiply for every additional person able to throw their two cents in.

I also try not to argue with people, because you almost never win. I let them know the read I'm getting off it and why (always, always point to specific examples), make my case, and if they say "no, I think you're wrong," that's it. We're both entitled to an opinion and in the end, it's their story, not mine. If someone's not at least a little open to the idea that they might be misrepresenting someone, or subverting a whole group of people for their own didactic narrative purpose, telling them twice is probably not going to be more effective than telling them once.

But I do think it's important to tell them once. After all, you're the critiquer, and it's a valid critique.  

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