“In many ways, the work of a critic is very easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
– Restaurant critic Anton Ego, Ratatouille
Common career advice is to always ask for feedback when your application or interview was unsuccessful. My aversion to feedback or criticism had been deeply entrenched from childhood. I think this was because of two reasons: the way the feedback was given and I conflated criticism of my work with criticism of myself.
From my earliest memories, feedback was more of a command: I should or shouldn’t do it this way or that. It’s human nature not to like being told what to do and so I would naturally rebel: I would get defensive, shout, sometimes burst into tears. Once I did this, the focus obviously shifted away from the work to me.
I also believed that the criticism of my work was actually a criticism of who I was. I remember asking for feedback from a job interview. The interviewer emailed me back saying that one of my answers was “a bit odd”. As soon as I read this I burst into tears since only an odd person would make an odd answer. “I’m odd!” I wailed to my Mum down the phone.
It is understandable why criticism is hard to take, as Oliver Burkeman reminds us in his Guardian column: “We want to feel we’re learning and improving, but we also want to be appreciated for who we are. So even when feedback’s delivered perfectly, we’re primed to react badly, because both needs can’t be met at once.” It’s this tension which causes us to flinch instinctively when receiving criticism, no matter how hard we try to welcome it.
Since I took criticism personally, I thought I had to accept it all and make the changes, without taking the time to think through whether the criticism was actually correct. I did it as a form of people pleasing: if I changed something to suit this criticism, I would also suit the critic. This is an impossible task, especially as people have different views. Therefore, I ended up pleasing nobody, least of all myself.
The epiphany came when I recently submitted a short story to a writers’ group. Most of the critics were positive about my story, accept for a couple of them. The first negative criticism was that my story was not convincing; it was a cliché no different from any other story. The second was that my writing style was too informal and chatty. I immediately wanted to defend my work but instead, I kept quiet and thanked the critics. I respected their honesty and took their views on board.
The key – however – was that I had the freedom to decide whether to accept or reject the criticism. I could do this because I showed up, and the purpose of writing the piece was not to please anyone, but to tell a story. Having confidence in my ability made the criticism much easier to handle, and much less personal. In fact, criticism is – by and large – not personal.
Oliver Burkeman emphasises that it’s better to focus more on how we deal with feedback rather than how it is delivered, especially due to the tension mentioned above: “We all need to get better at hearing feedback,” he advises, but, “that doesn’t entail always accepting it.” What’s more, we ought not to get defensive when we get feedback that we consider unfair. Instead, we ought to try to see where that viewpoint is coming from and to demand more clarity if needs be.
It’s only by subjecting our work to the criticism of others that we can improve it. But it’s also worth remembering the above quote: the job of the critic is easy, and our work will always be more meaningful than the criticism attached to it.