The Tyranny of the Critique

Why do I shed some peer critiques like mountain rain off Goretex, whereas others drill down into the core of my confidence?  Why are some criticisms a welcome and joyful experience whereas others are simply belittling? This post is starting as a rumination, and over the next few weeks will turn into an analysis. Please keep coming back… and add your own comments below.

What makes a critique OK?

  • A pre-planned, delineated set of critiquing criteria
  • A written critique
  • When it is delivered in private
  • When it is delivered by someone whose opinion I value
  • When the critique is emotionless and objective
  • When it is a critique of a polished ‘as good as I can make it’ draft
  • When it is a piece that is complete in itself
  • When the critic identifies the nature of the criticism
  • When the critic frames their criticism as personal preference
  • When the critic queries word choice
  • When the criticism is specific

What makes a critique not OK?

  • Ad hoc critiquing adopted piecemeal by the critic there and then
  • A verbal, ‘in person’ critique
  • When it is delivered in public
  • When it is delivered by someone whose opinion I do not value
  • An emotionally charged critique
  • When it is a critique of a first or early draft
  • When it is a critique of a random section and the critic is not familiar with the earlier sections
  • When the critic frames their criticism as me doing wrong
  • When the critic substitutes their own words for mine
  • When the criticism is general
  • When I don’t agree with it

Tips for preparing work for critiquing

  1. Polish it as much as time and skill will allow. That way the critic will be focusing on the remaining errors or weaknesses, rather than the things you already knew you had to edit or research. You will get a better quality of critique.
  2. Place ‘to be researched’ passages or words in [square brackets], and tell the critic this is what they are.
  3. Only solicit critiques from people whose opinion you trust.

Choosing tense and viewpoint

This is the post excerpt.

I have been writing The Scottish Exiles for almost 4 years. Much of this time has been spent fiddling with tense and viewpoint, Cmd F and Replace being my tools of choice. It is not simply a technical decision of ‘Who is speaking?’ and ‘When did it happen?’ It is a question of:

What impression do I want to give my readers?

Rosa is alone on the moor. We are accompanying her in the action, in her loneliness and fear. She has no one to talk to, and she is thinking thoughts and feeling emotions about what has happened to her, debating with herself her current predicament and how she is going to resolve it.

At first glance, it would seem sensible to write this as follows:

  • In the first person, because we need to be inside her head. How else are we going to know how she is feeling or what is she planning?
  • In the present tense, for the immediacy that this brings, the closeness to the action.

But this has raised a secondary issue:

When is she telling us her story?

Will the present tense give the impression that she is gabbling out loud to herself or the wildlife?  Even if we suspend the absolute literal implication of a present tense account, the question still remains: how do we know about the story? Is Rosa recounting it later? In which case, wouldn’t she be speaking in the past tense?

Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale uses the present tense for the ‘now’ of the story and the past tense for recounting the past. It is a story set in a dystopian future where reference must be made to a previous time, as is The Scottish Exiles. Atwood’s use of the present tense does not suggest Offred is talking aloud to herself. It rather gives the impression that this is current, that ‘this is what we do’ as opposed to ‘this is what we did’. It is a new regime, and being a handmaid has lot of rules and conventions.

I am tempted to follow suit. However, in Atwood’s classic we find that the stories were taped. Does this make any difference? No, not really – because she isn’t talking into a dictaphone while she is doing it. She recounts it later – after she escapes, the academics think.

So is it all about atmosphere?

There is an approach that I am calling ‘onomatopoeic narrative’. Not in the strict sense of one word sounding like its meaning, like ‘tinkle’, but in the general way the prose is written giving the atmosphere of what is being written about. An example might be Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing, where the character has a breakdown – reflected in the novel, which falls apart as she has the breakdown, words falling off the page.

Is it always a good plan to give this layer of meaning to the narrative? I would identify one good example of not doing this: where the character is boring. I am not sure it is a good plan for the character to drone on for pages just to make a point to the reader.

Creating a Dystopian Storyworld

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is an example of establishing the plausibility of a future dystopian storyworld. Sufficient background is given for it not to have just come out of the blue, and the final chapter, where academics review the era in a more distant future, explains more of this.

Atwood creates a series of social concepts to build her world, and contrasts these with the protagonist’s reminiscences and memories of former times. Some of these seem a little trite, almost infantile. I would question the realism of this, in as much that one might expect the protagonist to distance herself, refer to the ‘so-called’ [whatever it is]. She evidently doesn’t accept the world and its concepts; I think she might question language a little more.

Taking the dystopian society ‘backward’ (regressive, old fashioned, impoverished) is a useful device for avoiding speculation about future technology, and thereby ‘dating’ the novel. As a 2017 reader of a 1983 book I do notice the lack of reference to mobile phones and the author’s computer references (which at the time of writing were barely in use). But this doesn’t feel wrong – because Gilead has gone ‘backwards’.

View all my reviews