The Gift of Criticism

norman-rockwell1A few years ago I edited a student’s piece on Machiavelli; I had recruited it at the last minute for my students’ philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE and found that it needed clearer wording in places. When I presented him with the edits, he said that he accepted some but not all of them: that in a few places he was trying to say something else. We sat down to discuss this. In telling me what he meant, he found the right wording; by the end of our meeting, he had revised the piece to his satisfaction. This happened because he was open to the suggestions but strong enough to make his own decisions. Also, I saw past the particulars of my edits; I wanted to help him find his words, not replace them with mine.

This memory returns as I ponder two recent articles about Amy Cuddy and the power pose: Susan Dominus’s New York Times piece and Daniel Engber’s response in Slate. I find Engber’s article much clearer and more to the point–but he also has the benefit of hindsight, critique, and revision. Dominus may well follow up with some afterthoughts. She tackled a complex and heated topic and (from what I can see) did her best to present it fairly. Yet the article fails to distinguish adequately between personal attack and criticism. I posted a comment, which I am developing a little further here. This piece is not about Cuddy; it’s about criticism itself. (Regarding the power pose study, there are numerous recent comments–from many perspectives–in the article’s comment section and on Andrew Gelman’s blog.)

Here’s the key difference, as I see it, between criticism and personal attack: criticism gives you something concrete to consider, something about the issue at hand, be it your work, your actions, or even your personality. Its aim is to point out areas for improvement. It is not always correct or kind; sometimes critics can be vehement and unsympathetic, and sometimes they make mistakes or show biases. But if it is about the thing itself, if it analyzes strengths and weaknesses in a coherent way, it counts as criticism. By its nature it points toward improvement. It is not necessarily negative; it can recognize strengths and excellence.

Personal attack does not give you a chance to improve. Maybe it comes in the form of vague and veiled hints. Maybe it’s incoherent. Maybe it focuses on your personal life instead of the issue at hand. Maybe it gets said behind your back, without your knowledge. Or maybe it’s about something so fundamental to you that it’s unfair to expect you to change. In any case, when it comes to helpful content, there is no “there” there, at least no “there” that invites you in.

In that light, criticism is a gift, even when the delivery is not ideal. It offers working material. But our culture is not well attuned to criticism; we’re taught to hear the “yay” or “nay,” the “up” or “down,” not the subtler responses. For criticism to achieve its purpose, several conditions must exist.

First, institutions would have to make generous room for error, reexamination, and correction. Universities, schools, scientific organizations, publications should not only acknowledge error openly but treat it as part of intellectual life, not cause for shame or demotion.

Second, the person giving the criticism should do so as frankly and humbly as possible: laying the critique on the table without claiming superiority. There’s some disagreement over whether this should happen in private or public, by in person or online. As I see it, a published work can be criticized anywhere–online or offline, in public or private–but an unpublished work or private act should receive more discreet treatment. Published books get reviewed publicly, after all; there’s no suggestion that a reviewer should contact the author privately before saying something in the New York Review of Books. But if I send someone an unpublished manuscript for comment, I expect this person to reply to me alone (or me and my editor) and not to the world.

Third, the person receiving the criticism should learn to hear it and separate it from the emotion it may stir up. Even thoughtful, carefully worded criticism can be hard to hear. It takes some strength to sort out the upset feelings from the actual content of the words. It takes even more to decide which parts of the criticism to take, which to reject, and which to continue considering. Some criticism incites us to reconsider everything we have done; some draws attention to small (but important) details. To hear and use criticism well is to open oneself to profound improvement.

Just before the final manuscript of Republic of Noise was due, someone who read the manuscript offered me some far-ranging suggestions. I saw her points but didn’t want to apply them rashly, in a rush. To decide whether, how, and where to apply them, I would need much more time than I had. I decided to keep them in mind for the future. I am glad of this decision; the book was the way I wanted it, but her suggestions helped me with subsequent writing.

Why do I say that our culture isn’t set up well for criticism? We aren’t taught how to handle it. As a beginning teacher, I remember being told (at numerous “professional development” sessions) not to use red pen, since it could make a student feel bad; not to write on students’ work, but to use Post-its instead; and to limit the comments to two commendations and two general suggestions for improvement. While some of the gist is good (one should avoid overwhelming students or treat one’s own appraisal as the last word), it assumes students’ extreme fragility in the face of concrete, detailed suggestions. The more we treat criticism as devastating, the more fragile we make ourselves (both the critics and the recipients).

Hearing criticism–actually perceiving and considering its meaning–deserves continual practice. It requires immersion in the subject itself; you can’t practice criticism without practicing the thing criticized. It isn’t always fun, but it can lead to exhilaration: you see, on your own terms, a way of doing things better.

 

Image: Norman Rockwell, Jo and Her Publishor (this title may or may not be correct; I have also seen it as Jo and Her Publisher and Jo and Her Editor). This is one of his several illustrations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Chapter 14, Jo publishes two of her stories in a newspaper.

I made a few revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.

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2 Comments

  1. I really like this piece. You are right about criticism versus personal attacks. The latter causes a wall to go up that won’t come down and thus correction of the piece in question is thwarted. But if one sees criticism as a means of improving, of achieving your best because someone cared to call things to your attention, then you can indeed do your best. My first book went through some wrenching rewrites because of criticism by a skilled (and firm) editor who knew what she wanted. As hard as it was to work through those rewrites I felt confident at the end that I had given it my best effort and I had that editor to thank for it. I welcome criticism and accept it even though it can be a bitter pill to swallow at times.

    Reply
    • Thank you for this thoughtful comment; it brings out some points that I didn’t make in the piece (or didn’t make in the same way)–first, about walls going up, and second, about criticism as a sign of actual interest and caring.

      Reply

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