On Criticism

I went to this event the other day that was a celebration of an independent film that had been completed. In short, when I saw the footage from the trailer they showed I thought: Oh god, I’ve shot better videos on my iPhone—this looks like a soap opera from the early 90’s. Not only was the lighting poor and yellow-tinged, and the voiceovers seemed more like someone playing a recording over the video, and the script forced and unnatural—it seemed like this was something that had no constructive feedback during production.

And as everyone was standing around saying how great the video looked and how wonderful a cause it was for while they snacked on their cheese and wine, I just stood there wondering if everyone else saw how the actresses had makeup caked on, or that film was shot in fullscreen (or the cinematography equivalent) instead of widescreen. And when people asked my opinion, I merely said, “I would love to see the play this is based off.”

Because it’s true—the play looked stellar, even in the grainy footage they had of it. I’d rather watch that grainy footage on my phone than pay to see this film in theaters. And I felt like it wasn’t right to say, because I recalled a conversation I once started in my writing group.

It started with me saying this: “We’re not all good writers, and some of us never will be. And that’s okay, but we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.”

The blowback I received from this was tremendous—people said I was being rude and that how dare I? People assumed I thought I was one of the “good writers” out there.

But here’s the thing—we’re taught in school what bad writing is. Repetitive adjectives, gaping plotholes, mediocre grasp of the way you can manipulate language all register as “bad” writing. But, the longer I take a look at feedback for writing that is lacking in movement, boxy in wording, underconfident in prose—I see people starting with “This is great!” and moments later try to politely tell the person everything that is wrong with it.

And I think that’s a lot more harmful than blatantly saying, “This isn’t working for me, here’s what I think you need to work on.”

Why? Because it doesn’t force them to work harder—if they’re told that their work is great, but here are some suggestions, they don’t have any real motivation to make the changes because “it’s great, right?” Just the same that we can tell dancers they need to practice more, or that someone didn’t make the team, we shouldn’t look at criticizing art and saying that it isn’t good as “taboo” or discouraging.”

And the further assumption that everyone could become a writer just as great as the greats is another lie—the fact of the way the world works is that some people are better at things than theirs. While practice can take you a long way in improvement, skill plays into how good something could be as well. You can’t teach someone to be creative, to know how to create a believable plot, to find all the plotholes that they can’t see.

Because there are such things as “the greats” and “flops.” Not for a lack of effort, but for lack of genuine talent.

I would rather, at any point in my life, be told “This isn’t good, and here’s why it isn’t good—you need to fix these things.” And I’m not talking about “I don’t like dragons so this is terrible,” I’m talking about “Here is a huge plothole, this entire scene is boring filler, you’re telling not showing,” and things of that nature.

And if it’s a bad plot, too—“Okay, why would the tooth fairy decide to start stealing Christmas presents again? Because she lost her tooth and went into an alcoholic depression? What’s the connection to Santa?”

I’m just saying that telling someone that their work isn’t good isn’t inherently rude, and we need to stop treating it like it is. Being honest is the politest thing in the world, and white lies or sugar coating can be detrimental. I’m not advocating discouraging people from working at things—I think there’s always room for improvement and growth. Just the same, though, I do think there is a peak in all things, and the lie that “we can all become the greats” is a paradox because if we’re all the best, who is there to strive to be like?


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