Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cornered by Criticism

It's been months now since my last entry here. I've been two-timing you, giving my attention to another blog, this one called "Your First Page." There, I invite authors to submit (anonymously) up to the first 350 words of a manuscript-in-progress, and offer a free critique. To date I've commented on 40 first pages.

It's been a lot of work, and fun. I worried first that no one would send me their pages, then that I'd be overwhelmed with submissions. Neither worry has materialized. I get a trickle of pages every week—usually no more than five or six—just enough to keep up with. When I've done 100 I'll stop.

I've enjoyed the process. Each page presents a sort of puzzle, or several puzzles. First, I have to decide what's working and not, and why. That's probably the easier part. The next task is to contextualize the issues raised by a first page. To give an example, one of the last pages I commented on was from a detective or crime novel. And so, along with the critique, I did a short historical overview of detective fiction. That sort of thing.

Then there's the challenge of offering advice and criticism that's honest without being brutal or condescending, or worse, belittling--a trap I fallen into at least once. The author let me know it. As his comment reveals he was angry. I don't blame him. In the end I made good, and he has since become one of the blog's biggest fans. You might say we "met cute."

Belittling people is one of the risks one runs when offering criticism—especially when trying to make the criticism relevant and entertaining not just to the authors of the works in question, but to others. Attempts at humor can easily come off as condescension, as humor at the expense of the authors who have bravely offered their works to public scrutiny.

There's an even worse risk with respect to my own writing. Criticism and creativity are at odds. I used to not think so; I used to tell myself, "Why can't critical commentary be an art form like any other?" Sure there's an art to it. Whenever we shape thoughts into paragraphs we create something. But it's a heady art, an intellectual art, and art that engages the brain, not the heart. And the more time you spend in your brain the less well you know your heart, until it atrophies, its tissues dry out and harden.

Have I sacrificed my own creativity at the alter of criticism? Will I finally be one of those who (as one critic said of my work recently) can't, therefore he teaches? I never wanted to be a teacher who writes; I wanted to be a writer who teaches. Speaking of another kind of art, actor Paul Schofield described himself between performances as an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the next role. Outside of his roles the actor has nothing to say or add. This is why (Schofield said) interviews with actors are terribly boring. There is nothing beyond the art itself. Any discussion or analysis of that art diminishes both the art and the performer. Between roles, the actor should disappear, or at least keep his mouth shut.

Schofield's words touched me. All this writing I do about writing—how much has it diminished me? Am I strangling myself? Cutting off the blood supply to my own creative work, turning it into dry criticism? It that what I really want, to be a critic and not an artist? For years now I've wondered if teaching has hurt or helped me as an artist. Now I worry and wonder if it's too late, if I've poisoned the well of inspiration with all my critical ink. Am I creating, or destroying?

Whatever we do with a generous spirit is creative. Whether we write criticism or poetry, whether we're paid or not, whether it's published in the Paris Review or the Cappuccino Foam Review (or nowhere at all) doesn't matter. What matters is intent. If the intent is pure, the work will be pure. If we write out of generosity and not out of ambition, whatever we write can rise to art.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I thought your comments about my novel were really incisive.