Saturday, May 08, 2010

King of the Hill

The hardest part of writing is giving up your project to an editor, but dealing with criticism from novice writers whose manuscripts and abilities are different and their experience theoretical. At face value, there is a mean-spiritedness that comes with the criticism that is palpable, especially immediately after having gone through their manuscript and pointed out pages of errors: grammar, punctuation, spelling, awkward sentences and lack of clarity. It is like playing King of the Hill and the critic is determined to drag you down. The best thing is to thank them for their time and comments and ignore what amounts to a temper tantrum. It is very hard to do.

The first instinct is to remind them of your background and track record in relation to the lack of their own. It is a petty move and should be avoided at all costs. Deflate their attack with polite civility and move on.

No writer is perfect and writers who have been published tend to be a little more prickly when approached by novices and amateurs. It is human nature, and not the best side of human nature at that. Everyone has an opinion and some people are out for blood. Do not oblige them. Remember that no matter how well the book is written, how beautifully the language flows on the page, someone, and often several someones, are going to most of the book, and often all of it. No one is able to write a book or story that will appeal to everyone. Look at the history of the rivalries between published authors.

J.R.R. Tolkien despised Shakespeare and considered him a hack with no talent, which is why he decided to give the world and Britain his Middle Earth tales so that at Britain would be known for talented writing and writers . . . at least one of them anyway. He was appalled that anyone considered Shakespeare great and thought Shakespeare's writing on a par with limericks and puns. Personally, I'm a fan of Shakespeare. I'm also a fan of Tolkien.

Look through the writings of any published author and you will find other authors they despised. Mark Twain thought Jane Austen should be dug up and beaten with her own bones because her writing was insipid and bloodless. A list of the top fifty rivalries and criticisms of well known writings can be found at It is a revelation.

Criticism is subjective even among editor, publishers and critics and certainly among readers. Writers and people who love vampire fiction have their favorites and cannot be swayed by argument. They like what they like. So, too, with novice writers criticizing a published author's darlings. To allow oneself to become so entrenched in one's own greatness and infallibility is to end up like writers who began penning stories that flowed like the Colorado River during spring thaw and ended several books later with bloated stories in which hundreds of pages that should have been edited out were not. It happens to everyone who attains any degree of fame. Once a writer reaches the pinnacle of his profession, no one can tell him that his prose does not sparkle.

Writers need to open themselves and their work to novices once they stand as King of the Hill, of only to keep them humble and willing to submit to criticism that might help their work. There is truth to be found even in mean-spirited slash and burn criticism. You just have to look harder and be willing to concede that even amateurs have a point once in a while.

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