Feedback: The New Writers Debate

uncle buck

Anyone who has ever belonged to a writers group has probably bumped up against this one. How to critique: What’s worth mentioning, how to deliver it, how much is too much, when to praise, if to praise. That last might seem a little odd if you are not a veteran of such sites, but the current mantra is simple: Be brutal. And thats not coming from those seeking to give feedback but those seeking to get it. Hit me baby, hard.

A new survey released concerning this topic in the commercial sphere states that: novices seek praise, while experts seek criticism. I can’t argue their conclusion as I can’t access their data – not without paying and I aint paying! This is the link so feel free to do so yourself. However it immediately raises questions – what constitutes an expert vs a novice? Is this a distinction between amateur and professional? Does it correlate with success? Length of time? And how might it be relevant to writers?

Put critics and writers into google and it’ll spit out pages that read much like this:

As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” Kurt Vonnegut

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.” John Osborne

And all of that was back when the only feedback anyone ever got apart from friends and family was perhaps an old English teacher and some folk in a leaky town hall who spent too much time debating whether the Last Stand or War and Peace was a better door stop.

The claim is that novices need reassurance in order to continue on the path. This seems at odds with so much of what I have been told on writer’s sites, from writers themselves, the same writers who seem to agree with the novice/expert divide this study cites and the conundrum bothers me.

I am assured repeatedly that each and every writer comes fresh to the slaughter writers group believing they have written a great masterpiece. That such radiant self belief is intrinsic to our process. The novice in this instance – the first time novelist – isn’t so much crossing their fingers and hoping for praise but rather expecting confirmation. The criticism which they then receive in its place is claimed as enlightening. And from then on, they claim to embrace the experts approach and demand the harshest of critiques.

When Jack Canfield (American self help guru) conceived the book Chicken Soup for the Soul he went to 123 publishers, each one of whom rejected him. Experts. Knowledgable, currently working in the field, the top of the field, gave him feedback, the kind of feedback surely only an idiot would ignore. And this is a man who says get feedback, whatever else you do, GET FEEDBACK. These people all told him that they could not sell it. And he ignored them. He says everyone else he talked to said they’d love to read a book like that. They – people not putting their livelihood, reputation and just plain old money where their mouth was – told him what he wanted to hear and they are the ones he listened to. He chose the praise, regardless of what he sought.

To return to the matter of the writers process, there again I find myself on the outside. My first novel I threw out. Not a word remains – I mean I was 14, but that was my novice period and I wouldn’t let anyone read it. I can’t remember feeling remotely positive about it. About anything I wrote back then, I remember only deep disappointment even despair that my bright shining ideas stuttered so utterly when I tried to capture them in words. I liked the ideas, the characters, the stories in my head. Even now and again I liked a line, a verse in a poem, even almost a whole poem. But it wasn’t that I believed them great in any objective way, I never considered myself a competent poet, but rather that I liked them. Purely subjective. Sometimes I think that was when I stopped trying to fit my writing to someone else’s ideas of good and simply sought to please myself. It was certainly my selfish, teenage angst phase. Self expression, cigarettes, too much vodka and a lot of unrequited love. Basically, that first conclusion of the study, the belief that the distinction between the expert and novice may owe more to needing encouragement not to give up early on, meets my own experience perfectly. I still need it. But what class does that put every other writer into if they never needed this?How does that divide us?

Chicken Soup for the Soul became a major bestseller and has since had around 200 sequels! I didn’t think it was possible to have 200 sequels.

Is the truth that the real distinction between expert and novice is that we are always one or the other? Will I always be a novice because I can’t take the leap of faith on my own work? While the Jack Canfields never doubt themselves and criticism can be left, picked and chosen from as they see fit? Is it not feedback but confidence we have truly measured?

His success might suggestthe feedback he got wasn’t just smoke up his ass. That’s another phrase they like in writer’s groups. We live to look down smugly upon those who need sunshine blown up their skirts or kilt (being all gender neutral as we are). The article cited above looks at the type of feedback given, the how and what rather than the who, yet the distinctive difference (beyond the obvious) between the feedback Jack Canfield chose to listen to and those he chose to ignore was their point of view. As I said, one set were working in the field, experts at the top of their game, their entire career built on finding books that the public wanted to read. The others had no expertise, no investment, no insight, but they were potentially the people who would ultimately be his audience.

The writer vs the reader feedback is frequently, endlessly, tediously debated. The problem of course is that most of us don’t have any access to reader feedback until we publish. Writers trying to be readers usually fail. Like the expert publisher, they can’t switch off their professional brains. And their professional brains are filled with rules of what should be, what has been, what was. If you present them with anything new, they don’t have any data to draw on. It can be argued this type of feedback is the type that leads to rip-offs of rip-offs of rip-offs and the ever decreasing sales that are still enough positive feedback to keep us wading in them.

Those who value writer feedback point out that readers cannot articulate why something doesn’t work for them. They can say they don’t like it, but that doesn’t necessarily help you fix it and if you put yourself into the field too early – say by self publishing – it can destroy your career before it even begins. Resounding silence might be the harshest critique of all.

There is a world of difference between someone learning and how we go about helping that process and the feedback that tells us whether a particular product on the market is working, or even if there is a market for such a product. Growing as a writer is not the same as succeeding within a professional sphere, one should precede the other and the needs and aims of any feedback must surely be very different. Yet self publishing has blurred those lines.

The biggest issue is whether writers are any more able to help than readers. I don’t believe that teachers are those that can’t. Like anything else its a skill, and the issue isn’t decided by whether or not you are a writer, but rather whether you have this rare, valuable ability to read and guide, encourage and evoke – perhaps even provoke – the best out of your student/critique of the day.

Neil Gaiman famously said (well famously to writers): If someone tells you something is wrong, they are almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Many writers, for good or ill, have bypassed the apprentice stage and gone straight to print. They’ll be the ones who are blissfully sure of their brilliance -but then apparently that’s everyone. In the Amazonian new age there is nothing stopping anyone from being an author, putting the highlight not on learning, but on selling. And I just don’t think they can be approached as the same.

When I first joined a writers site I was fascinated by the process of critique. What would other writers – like me, yes?… no? – have to say? How would they phrase it? Boldly, cruelly, delicately? Would we agree? I remain actually – bewilderingly – interested in other people’s opinions. It helps me figure out how people think and not just on the article in question. The interesting thing about reviews, is the problematic thing about feedback: what it really tells you, isn’t what its telling you.

At the first site, the overwhelming majority of reader-writers were positive to the point of mad enthusiasm. The kind of enthusiasm that makes you suspicious of a review on amazon. This didn’t tell me that the books were all bestsellers and booker prize winners – it told me a game was afoot. And it was. The aim of it being praise others so they vote for you, get enough votes and you get to place your book before a big time editor. A big time editor who seemed more inclined to see the book the way I did, although they still did the sandwich – praise, criticism, praise – before they rejected it.

I read a lot of reviews on amazon. There’s either far too many writers in the world, or the terminology/process isn’t quite as esoteric as we imagine. Certain phrases are getting as overused as literally is. Things like, one dimensional characters, gives us nothing to invest in, poor pacing, conventional plotting, far too much tell not enough show are rampant. And i’m not the only one reading. There is plenty of back and forth in the comments section and most of it is far from pleasant. I have seen fights break out between author and reviewer, between ‘friends’ of the author and reviewer. Maybe they aren’t experts? Is Anne Rice? According to the NY Times

Many authors are upset by the snide tone of some Amazon reviews; Ms. Rice decided to do something about it. She posted a blistering 1,200-word defense of her book on the site, laying in to those critics who, she said, were “interrogating this text from the wrong perspective

The article suggests that specificity is more useful than general advice. It goes further to suggest actionable advice, which seems like an addendum to the previous point, eg don’t say, I don’t like it, or be more humorous, rather suggest, focus more on his clumsiness, like you did in the first chapter. Aim to introduce it every time he comes on page. It cites the process followed by Pixar. A company, with many interlocking movable parts, focused on group work. Few writers have this kind of dynamic, and the structure makes a huge difference to both approach and result. A company has a product to sell, a writer has an ego to stroke. Even those of us who feel adequate can’t deny our very personal investment, however professional we may desire to be however much we value the idea of producing, mastering, quality. The author is his own boss, but the boss is rarely the creator in any other business. The architect is employed, the designer answers to a paying client, the journalist an editor. Feedback in such a situation is immediate, clear and not particularly negotiable.

I have a fantasy – I had it before I ever joined that first writers site. It involves me, a laptop and an editor.. There’s tears, there’s tantrums, there’s really fucking great advice.. Maybe everyone would secretly like a mentor.

Writers may be solitary but they also tend to flock together: they like being solitary together – Neil Gaiman

The Bloomsbury lot, the lost generation, Lewis and the inklings. Van Gogh dreamed of an artiste’s circle he named the Studio of the South, preparing the Yellow House for both himself and a fellow artist to work in. Paul Gauguin was its first and last guest, a visit which ended with Van Gogh one ear down. Tolkein may have converted Lewis to Christianity but Lewis failed to convert Tolkein to Narnia. In fact the inklings may have spent more time making fun of Amanda McKitterick Ross than giving one another useful feedback.

So what am I saying? – avoid all feedback? Only get it if you plan on selling your soul for a high amazon rank? Ignore everything this article says?

I’m saying I don’t know. I’m saying I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve given feedback and seen it do more harm than good. I’ve given feedback, had it accepted, yet the author has failed to continue with the work in question and I don’t fully understand why as it was potentially a great work. A best seller even, yes I liked it that much. I have even received feedback I suspected was on the money, yet I to failed to follow it through. The work has sat unopened for over a year now on my hard drive.

I tread very lightly – fearfully even – when it comes to giving my opinion on others works. I don’t review books on amazon, I don’t give much feedback to other writers any more, I don’t even do reviews of films that often, not even to friends, and when I do I tend towards kindness rather than truth. As for here where I do speak out, much of what I say isn’t built on anything except my deep belief in freedom and exploration, that commitment and vision cannot be substituted bysomebody else’s notion of rules. If I offer advice its to encourage examination and rethinking rather than build a formula to apply. Mostly I don’t speak up, not because I think who am I – although it frequently crosses my mind – but because I suspect the author is thinking, who am I?

Can feedback be useful? Some clearly believe its a very firm, essential yes, but for me, as a writer, the question must remain where, when and what kind? Was Jack Canfield successful because he listened to feedback, or because he persevered despite the feedback?

In light of this, I’m going to write a review, filled with spoilers, so be warned, one which will allow me to explore many of the issues raised in the article and maybe get a little closer to an answer. Or maybe not..

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3 thoughts on “Feedback: The New Writers Debate

  1. That was an excellent piece. Having given and received much criticism, some brutal some gushing, some helpful, some not, I relate to everything you said.

    I admit to never having heard of Amanda McKitterick Ros and having now read a sample on her Wiki entry I rather wish it had stayed that way.

    Meanwhile, I’m hoping to have the first chunk of Acts of the Servant out later this year and have restarted work on Saltus.

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