Criticism and the Writer

Let’s face it: Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight saga, has taken some serious knocks from other writers. Yes, some of those writers may be jealous of Meyer’s success. Some of those writers may legitimately think that Meyer is successful beyond reason for no reason.

When is it okay to criticize a writer, and how should one go about it?

Woolf was on both sides of this coin–the critic and the criticized. As she grew older, Woolf became far more cerebral about criticism but still reacted rather passionately to it. She debated about how to act toward the writers leveling crits at her:

“What should be my attitude–clearly Arnold Bennett and Wells took the criticism of their youngers the wrong way. The right way is not to resent; not to be longsuffering and Christian and submissive either.” ~V.W. A Writer’s Diary

I think that there is a balance to strike. As a writer, a public figure, you are open to criticism, differences of opinion, and outright insult. If something is unfair or unbalanced, I think that writers can and should address it–but sometimes, ya just don’t have to. Stephenie Meyer doesn’t have to respond to her critics anymore than Stephen King or J.K. Rowling; numbers speak for themselves. Plus, there’s enough coverage on all sides that Meyer, King, and Rowling only have to write, not respond.

But writers, I think, are inherently critical of one another. And I think that there is a place for it. The rules? Behave professionally. Critique thoroughly.

Woolf was a critic too. Several of her best known books are critical. A Room of One’s Own is a book-length send up of then-current understandings of women and literature. (Go read it. Right now.)

In The Common Reader she levels criticism at Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dante, Chaucer, and Joseph Conrad. Woolf is even-handed in her criticism, gearing it more toward understanding the authors, their process, and how their storytelling developed. (In my opinion, this is more the type of criticism that should be leveled at Meyer–not “she sucks” but “what works and how it works”)

Following is an example of a critique of Jane Austen. Woolf states earlier in the essay that to understand Austen’s great work, a reader must look at her ‘second rate’ works (juvenalia, incomplete manuscripts, etc. as a contrast to the pieces that were complete, edited, and ‘pretty.’)

“…we should never have guessed what pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her pen to go through. [If we just had her completed, perfect novels] Here [in the incomplete, imperfect pieces] we perceive that she was no conjuror after all. Like other writers, she had to create the atmosphere in which her own peculiar genius could bear fruit.” ~V.W. The Common Reader

As writers, when we criticize, it should be for edification purposes. It should not be to tear down another writer. If we have something negative to say it should be in the form of “This did not work because XYZ.” NOT: “This sucks, and she’s a crappy writer, and I can’t believe that this shit was published.”

Have you been the recipient of unfair or harsh criticism? How did you deal with it? Should writers criticize other writers at all?

Criticism Mentors Virginia Woolf

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Oooh, similar thoughts floating around again. My WILAWF post was about learning to write from The Da Vinci code.

    Criticism often feels harsh and unfair at first. Then, with a little distance, it's easier to look at a little more rationally. I still may not agree, but at least I can usually see where the critic was coming from. At least with our group.

    I have a hard time when I write reviews on Goodreads (or critiques for CWC, to be honest). I'll pick a nit here or there, but for the most part I really try to stay positive. Because we know this stuff is hard to do at all, much less well. And no one gets it 100% right.

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