Beauty is in the Eye…of the Critic

“’Tis hard to say if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill…”

            ~Alexander Pope

Have any of you ever read Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism? If you haven’t, please do. You can find it on Project Gutenberg for free. It’s both fantastically hilarious and absolutely spot-on. First of all, it’s written in rhyme, and second it does so much to teach about how to give constructive criticism.

I’ve posted about workshopping before. Workshops are the most transformative resource for a draft if they’re used properly both by the givers and the receiver of feedback. The better you are at receiving criticism, the better you’ll be at giving it, too—if only because you know intuitively what kind of feedback is both useful and palatable. The truth almost always hurts, but there’s always a way to tell it so that at least it doesn’t come off as a personal insult.

“Each burns alike who can or cannot write
Or with a rival’s or an eunuch’s spite”

These two lines from Alexander Pope’s essay resonate with me a lot. No matter how much we try to avoid it, writing can be fairly competitive. It’s super easy to start comparing your work with someone else’s—and always, of course, with a favorable eye to your own. I know there were times, especially in my first workshop, where I had to check myself. There was one writer in particular whose seeming arrogance (he argued with every statement made by the class and seemed to have an acute interest in making derogatory comments toward my own work) bothered me to the point that I certainly set him up as a rival in my mind. I couldn’t offer feedback to him because I knew, even if he didn’t, that it would be condescending at best and venomous at worst.

This story I’m telling you occurred in my first year of grad school. First year writing students are, I think, so prone to ego conflation it’s appalling. You go into your first workshop thinking pretty highly of your work, get feedback, get defensive, and pretty soon the world is your enemy.

He and I were in another workshop together the following semester. By the time that class was over, I not only had a great deal of respect for him as a person but as a creator as well. If he published a book, I can say without question that I would want to buy a copy.

Why the change?

It’s simple—we learned to give and receive feedback. We—and in this I speak of everyone in the workshops, because everyone goes through this learning curve—learned to couch our language so that other people knew that we were trying to be supportive and trying to help the work improve. We stopped critiquing and making assumptions about the writer and started looking at what the work was or wasn’t doing.

There’s always going to be someone or something that rubs you the wrong way. The key is to not let it into the feedback you give. Gentle honesty goes a lot further than brazen truth.

Once you know and “mark that point where sense and dullness meet” in yourself—your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer—your criticism actually takes on value. How can we be taken seriously if we don’t even know our own mistakes? That alone can delegitimize everything we say before it’s even out of our mouths.

There’s a good deal of satire and sarcasm in Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, but there is also a great deal of advice that’s worth any writer’s time. In his lofty metaphors and grandiose flourishes, he exposes the true nature of the beast: that to be a critic of others, one first has to be a critic of herself. He also provides valuable insight into how that careful impartiality in our assessments of ourselves and others should look:

“The learned reflect on what before they knew
Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame,
Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
Averse alike to flatter, or offend,
Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.”

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