Critiquing: When Writers & Readers Go On a Road Trip.
My writing analogy for this week revolves around a lesson I learned and then re-learned on many a childhood vacation: riding in a car with an angry driver is a special kind of terrifying. It's frightening and frustrating at once because passengers are powerless to affect the situation. (Ignore the Hollywood potential for grabbing the wheel or whatever. We're aiming at an analogy.)
The driver can stop or go, run into a wall or off the road, yell and scream and do whatever she wants. Passengers can only sit there and hope things work out for the best. If they intervene, they risk becoming targets or victims.
Arguing with a reader’s opinion of a story is a lot like throwing a tantrum while driving. Wrong or right, the passenger/critiquer may never want to ride with that writer again, and that's a reasonable reaction to inherently unreasonable behavior.
If I don't agree with a reader's points, I can take those ideas and figuratively put them in a box with the horrid blouse Uncle Romulus gave me last Christmas. I can ignore them. I can take one idea or many to heart and make changes. I can reject them all as silly in the privacy of my own mind. I can ask for second and third opinions from sources I trust to be brutally honest and go from there.
Whatever I decide to do, the decision is mine. I'm the author. The power to change or not is mine alone. As the one holding that power, it's my duty to accept observations with good grace and move on. Revving the engine, sighing and drumming fingers on the steering wheel, yelling at the passenger--a. k.a. questioning the reader's understanding, explaining what the writing meant to say, or outright insisting a reader is wrong for having a different take on my writing than I do--all those things are bad behaviors to be avoided.
Telling a reader she's wrong, or even that she misinterpreted something, is punching down on the already-powerless. It's discourteous at best, even tacky, and in some cases, depending on language choice and hostility, it borders on emotional abuse.
Reader-to-reader disagreement in a public critiquing environment is little better. We're all passengers in the same car (so to speak) but dismissing the validity of someone else's interpretation is pretty high up on the hubris scale, right up there with "I shouldn't have to take a turn sitting in the middle because I'm oldest" or "She elbowed me first."
Phrases like "But I saw it the way the author says," "I don't think that's right," and "I don't see it that way," are not things any other reader needs to hear from me. Nor does the writer, frankly, unless that point is offered as a separate private critique on request.
Why not? Isn't my opinion valid? It is, but only equally so, and public critiquing is not a democracy. Majority rule does not apply. Me agreeing or disagreeing proves nothing except that I feel the need to out-vote someone else. It is not a popularity contest. No opinion deserves to get voted off the island. No one else's life is improved by hearing my judgment of their opinion.
I can think "oh, that's baloney, I totally disagree" all I want, and I do. All the time. In. My. Head. But to keep the peace in the backseat, it's better that I shut up and watch the scenery. So to speak.
This metaphor explains why I seldom last long in most critique groups. Too many drivers can't resist lecturing the passengers all the time, and too many other kids in the back seat are constantly talking over me and elbowing me with their Very Important Opinions that Are Much More Right and Must Be Heard. One or two trips, and I lose all tolerance.
I have found a few exceptions, for which I am intensely grateful.
But if you ever wonder why I don't respond to questions about critiques or comment extensively on reviews, that's why. To mix my metaphors a bit, my readerly opinions are babies left on a writer's dashboard. I abadon them to their fate and don't care what happens to them. I'll spend the rest of the ride with my fingers in my ears so I won't know if anyone is yelling. It's easier on my nerves. And when I'm the driver/writer I will not question or respond because I so intensely dislike the way that feels from the receiving end.
Postscript: reviews online reviews present a different power dynamic, but erring on the side of silence is still safest for an author. And barring clear and obviously abusive reviews, I also think readers are better off voting our opinions though our own reviews than piling into existing disputes. But that's me.
As always, your mileage may vary. And that's okay.
Next time: discussion of ways to "break through writer's block" courtesy of a seminar I attended at the SFWA weekend.