Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Critiquing and the Curse of Insightfulness

Ever had a situation occur where you're critiquing someone's story or reviewing a novel and you get this really weird vibe?

I'm not talking about a vibe the writer intentionally put into the story. Something about the writer's own issues. I'm talking about the old phrase: "A bad novel tells about its author." Heck, even a great story can tell too much about its author.

Sometimes you -- the critiquer-- sense that something is not quite right. Others may not sense it -- which makes you look like a total nut-case.

It happens in various ways.

Consider a short story written by a friend of mine. I will only describe this friend as "light-skinned."
In her story, she wrote about how the way her neighborhood changed. Apparently, all was well in this great black and white integrated neighborhood, then some dark-skinned Caribbeans (or might have been Jamaicans) came and ruined the neighborhoods, getting their dark hands -- like monkeys-- into everything. Okay, so I said, "I understand this story is written from the main character's POV but this doesn't work for me. Not that I have a problem with a prejudice protagonist. But there is a certain passion and anger here that --yes, although the MC is angry-- feels odd to me."

The author's response: "It's the MC's pov."

Well, whatever... But I will state that this type of character shows up way too much in this writer's work.

Then there is the black Christian writer friend -- dark-skinned like me-- whose non-fiction piece was about how bad blacks were ruining it for good blacks...and whose EVERY novel has a black woman with green eyes. If this woman has written a story about a tragic mulatto once, she has written it a zillion times. Oh, she doesn't come out and say "tragic mulatto" but she always has ignorant dark-skinned black characters set up against good green-eyed black character. Is this self-loathing or what?

Okay, so I'm talking about a certain consistency. That's because I don't want to be wrong or unfair. Why assume a guy is bigoted against religious folks or Jewish folks or Blacks or Asians or Mexicans only because of one story? 

But sometimes....ONE story is often what one needs. Because when one challenges some aspect of the story, the writer's reaction is a bit over-the-top. This is because the story is too close to the author's heart. And when they challenge you on why you have challenged them, it feels like they're trying to convince everyone of the nobility of their character's choice and behavior when in fact what is going on is quite atrocious -- the way the story is written.  

The thing is... I can deal with any kind of plot in a story. Seriously. I have a terrible honesty. A true witness delivers souls, as the Bible says. So I tend to go all honest in my stories. If someone comes up to me and says, "this or that about this story seems to be about your situation," I will probably say yes. Or if someone thinks I've created a character in a "bad light" and they therefore feel they cannot like a particular character, I will probably say, "Yes, I've created her in a bad light purposely. I am being honest. The character is like me. If you don't like her, that's too bad. Do you judge everyone based on their horrible character traits? Are you so perfect?" Yeah, I'd probably say that.

But when there is something terribly dishonest and veiled in the way the narrator has presented certain characters or situations to the reader, well, I have to scream foul, because something feels inherently dishonest.. Yep, dishonest. Because there is something vaguely self-serving and unreliable about the POV, about the narration, about the rationalizations, about the whole set-up. Why can't the character simply come out and say or do the wrong thing? Why must the character be seen as right (and the story has to go through a zillion hoops to prove the rightness of the character)? Why can't the character simply be someone who is wrong, has made the wrong choice, and the author is gonna let it stand, bare before us with no rationalizations? Because the write is not being honest....and this is the hardest story to critique because you're up against a writer who either knows she is wrong (but will defend it to the death) or who believes she (oops, her character) is right and will close her eyes to any kind of truth you throw at her?

Obviously stories like these are nestled high on a point in the writers' own life and it almost makes the critiquer wonder if the writer or someone she knows has done this kind of thing and rationalized it away in a similar way. It screams of a writer who is trying to pretend that there is not an issue when there is and unfortunately those stories are the most aggravating to read...

The story as it is presented will give readers two different reactions. Some might see the story the way the reader wants everyone to see it (I so will not say what I want to say about readers who encourage writers in their delusions) and some will really dislike the main character and wonder about the author. The scary thing is that a few years after the story is published, if the writer is sane and has matured....the writer will re-read the story, and they will understand exactly what the critiquer meant to say and will be surprised at their own dishonesty. (I won't even talk about the writers who didn't grow or mature.) By then, of course, the writer will have lost a friend because A) the writer didn't want to acknowledge she had allowed her neuroses to create a false story or B) the critiquer will have lost all patience with the writers' dishonesty. The curse of insightfulness alas is that the critiquer often never quite realizes she is about to step into the mire...so it's difficult to stop one's self until after the writer has thrown a hissy fit and gone into full-blown victim mode.. 

Just saying. 


Jessica B. Fry said...

The terrifying thing is that every novel and story tells something of the writer in some way. The writer's pretense that it says nothing accomplishes at most making herself look unaware. Some readers may miss the obvious, but readers who delve into the depths of a story often can see that there is something off in the story. Something almost artificial in the way that it is constructed. That the story is a wish fulfillment or self abuse of some sort or another.

An excellent post, as usual, Carole. You never fail to deliver poignant insight. The truth about people is that while there may be certain stereotypes that are true about some individuals, those stereotypes are not true of all. And in a story, it is good to explore all of the characters to ensure that following a prejudice or a stereotype or challenging it (as in the feminist Mary Sue of Wiccan fantasy and the abused woman trope) is being done because that is truly what the story is to be about. In this way, at the end of the day, the story is a true story with fully developed characters, even when they are minor, because they are either prejudiced or loving because that is who they really are and not what we wish they were.

Yes, I know! It's thrilling. After quite a bit, I finally figured out how to unsync from my shut down blogger account and I can now view and post to blogs again! Wonderful day!

Carole McDonnell said...

YAY!!! I've been missing your posts. I'm sure that tons of people have been as well.

Other folks seem to be having trouble posting here as well. Yeah, browser issues.

And so right, we have to allow a character to breathe, especially when writing about the type of folks we dislike or the types we admire. I've created some very nasty church people, some very selfish Peter Pan guys, and some very dependent wounded Christian women. But they were generally human. Not because those characters began that way, but because by the time my critiquers told me my characters were problematical, I accepted that they were and did my best to write a story that felt truly like mine.

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