If you don’t create art, you shouldn’t critique it

“Don’t critique unless you create.”

I read this statement on Nick McDonald’s scribblepreach blog recently, and in general, I think it’s true. He was discussing Christian movies, but I think the principle can be broadened to include all types of art, from novels and visual art forms to movies and music.

Here’s why. It’s easy to see flaws in a piece of art and criticize. The characters are stereotyped. The song is derivative of other, better works. This movie is unoriginal. My three-year-old can paint better than that! Etc.

But do you really know what goes into a novel? Do you know how to reveal a character’s personality through dialogue and action, description and reactions (both internal and external)? Do you know how to tell a story; not just set up a series of events that happen one after the other with no cause-effect relationship, but tell a story?

If you have never written fiction, you don’t know.

It’s an entirely different thing to be able to create a work that lives up to your standards. It’s difficult. Blood, toil, tears, and sweat—the whole Churchillian bit. What he had to offer Britain, and what artists have to offer in the creation of their art.

It’s not a fun hobby. It’s a serious job.

~~~~~~~~

I thought about this as I read the criticism of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. It revolves around a young girl who discovers that she is genetically male (intersex), and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

(It’s a riveting read: simultaneously a family saga and a coming of age story, literary and a page-turner, a tale of immigration and the American dream, racial conflict in Detroit and gender conflict in society and a young person’s psyche. In other words, it’s a lot like Cal, the narrator, who is both male and female, yet not comfortable in either category. I plan to write another blog post about it.)

Most of the criticism was positive. Yet there were a sizable minority that had reservations about the book’s depiction of intersex people, namely, some activists. Not all, but some criticized:

  • the use of the term “hermaphrodite” (in reference to the Greek myth).
  • Cal not being involved in intersex activism as an adult.
  • the use of a Greek family, incest, and intermarriage among close relatives as the reasons for Cal’s chromosomal disorder (the cause for his intersexuality).

Why Greeks? Why incest? How dare he use that term—it’s not the proper one!

Were these legitimate concerns? Sure. I’m not trying to knock these queer activists for being concerned about them. * But . . .

How many of these critics have tried to write a novel? If they have, was it any good? Did it meet their own standards of excellence?

It reminded me of an experience I had while writing my first novel, The Cruelest Month. I was posting it, chapter by chapter, on an online writing review site, where any member could comment.

About halfway through the novel, the young protagonist, Lucy, is diagnosed with bipolar I. She’s had a brief psychotic break, displays all the symptoms of bipolar disorder, and admits to her parents that this has led to some risky sexual behavior (among other things). Soon she’s in a psychiatrist’s office. The evidence is compelling—family history of mental illness and behavior that meets the DSM-IV criteria—and he begins her regimen of medicines and counseling.

One reviewer stated that she herself was bipolar and it wasn’t realistic for Lucy to accept her diagnosis so quickly. “She needs to be in denial and refuse to take meds!” this woman claimed.

But as the author, I knew a few things this woman didn’t. I knew my character; I knew what was coming for her and her family (including later struggles with the medicines); and I knew this: at this point in the book, Lucy being in denial would serve no purpose for the story. None. I’d be wasting precious words. I needed her to quickly accept the diagnosis so I could get on with the story.

Was that unrealistic? Do most bipolars struggle with accepting their diagnosis? Maybe.

But I was in a Catch-22.

⇒⇒⇒

Go in one direction and veer from even one statistically probable circumstance, and you’ll be accused of being unrealistic.

-and-

⇐⇐⇐

Go in the other direction and stick with every probable circumstance, meet every single criterion, make every single character trait fit with the most statistically likely thing for that particular group, and what do you end up with? A stereotype.

I’m betting that’s the same dilemma Eugenides faced.

He didn’t thoughtlessly accept stereotypes that perpetuate stigma or misconceptions about being intersex. Eugenides’ reasons for his artistic choices were well-considered—it took him nine years to write the book—and it boils down to this: he was writing about a character who was very different than him, so he used what he knew from personal experience whenever possible. Thus he used Greek customs (including the frequent intermarriage in rural, isolated parts of Greece years ago), a Detroit upbringing, and mythology, among other things. Cal as a male adult even looks like Eugenides. Makes sense to me.

It gave depth to Cal’s character, family history, and upbringing that otherwise might not have been there. In short, it served the story.

As writers, we make choices. Every choice we make has to serve the story. Some of them are hard. Am I being realistic when thus-and-such happens? Am I stereotyping a group of people? Is this destroying or perpetuating stigma? And, always, does this serve the story well? Is this any good?

These are questions I’ve asked about my depictions of characters, people ranging from conservative Christian women to pimps to bipolar patients to rapists to African-American teenage boys to wedding caterers. I’m sure many other writers do, too.

Until you’ve done the work of making those hard choices, you can’t know what’s involved in those decisions. You can’t understand the experience of writing fiction, which is different from the experience of writing non-fiction or critiques of fiction.

If you’ve written fiction, even as an amateur or dabbler, please, feel free to constructively criticize. My guess, though, is that you’ll be more sympathetic and grant the author more freedom in making those hard choices.

Why?

Because you’ve been there.

 *Please note that these critics were in the minority. The book was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award (for exploration of LGBT themes), and the majority of reviews in the intersex and queer press were positive.  

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15 thoughts on “If you don’t create art, you shouldn’t critique it

  1. quite like your entry here, especially this line “It’s an entirely different thing to be able to create a work that lives up to your standards” though i’m not a writer but a visual artist, can relate a lot to what you’re saying.

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    1. Thanks for adding your thoughts as a visual artist! I really enjoy art (I minored in art history and took lessons in painting and drawing as a teen), but I can’t create art well, so I don’t critique it. I can analyze it, like I did for my art history classes, looking for symbolism, themes, etc., or simply marvel at the beauty and power of a work, but I’d never presume to know how to create an artistic masterpiece, nor tell an artist what they “ought” to have done. I’ll leave that to the people like you who know what they’re talking about!

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  2. I always marvel at those critiques that say a writer didn’t tell the story the right way, as with your novel and Middlesex. I figure the writer told the story the writer wanted to tell. it might be well written and compelling or a piece of tripe, but I can’t criticize the writer for making the characters do things I don’t think they should have done.

    P.S. I love this line about creating: “It’s not a fun hobby. It’s a serious job.”

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    1. I’ll underscore my point about this not being a fun hobby. A fun hobby wouldn’t have left me sniffling and crying in despair over a pointless mess of a draft, wailing to God, “I can’t do this!!!!” (That’s what my “hobby” did this morning! I’m feeling better now.)

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      1. I’m sorry for the frustrations this morning, Laura. Is it bad of me to say that your comment also made me laugh a little out of solidarity and seeing myself in that frustration?

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      2. Not bad at all! Even when I’m wallowing in despair, I know I’m being slightly ridiculous to walk around my house crying and pulling my hair over plotline disasters! It’s fiction, for crying out loud!

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  3. There is a lot of what you say here, Laura, and a lot of what that article says, that resonate with me. When I review a book, I am usually very hesitant to give it one or two stars because I recognize and appreciate that writing a book is difficult. I also think that there are Christian movies that are pretty good. Moreover, what Tim says stands out to me: Can I criticize a book just because the characters did not act as I think they should act, or just because I disagree with what it is saying? Not everyone has to be like me. Still, I also think that readers and viewers should feel free to say what they honestly think. Amazon reviews are helpful to me because they let me know if a book is worth my time—-not that those reviews are infallible, by a long shot. Sometimes, when I review a book, I preface my criticism by saying that I’m not suggesting I can do better!

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    1. James, thanks for adding your thoughts. I’ve wrestled with how to review books, particularly books that just aren’t well-written. I think there’s a difference between honestly saying, “this wasn’t very good” (and giving examples of bad craftsmanship: for example, inconsistent characterization or spelling/grammar/punctuation errors) and ripping into a piece because it didn’t fit my agenda or views on how certain characters ought to act (which is what these particular critics were doing). It can be a fine line to walk between the two, though.

      I feel bad whenever I give 2 or 3 stars to a book. I usually back that up with lots of examples, and try to keep the tone respectful and highlight what strong points the book has.

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  4. This post and the comments make some great points, Laura. I write fiction too, and it is SO difficult! I’m working on a short story right now and am struggling so hard with it — and then I read a masterpiece like All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and just want to hurl my story on the floor in despair because I could never in a million years create something as good as Doerr wrote. So I do think being a writer myself has made me more appreciative of the difficulty of the process AND more admiring of really good writing — as long as the latter doesn’t discourage me so much that I give up on my own work!

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    1. Oh my goodness, I love that book by Doerr; I devoured it in one day! I’m going to reread it, too, just because there were so many lines and phrases that I just HAVE to list in my word-list notebook. Of course, we aren’t reading the first draft of All the Light We Cannot See. What reads so beautifully to us took blood, sweat, etc. on Doerr’s part. I seem to remember that he took 10 years to write the book, so maybe there’s hope for our novels and stories, too!

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  5. OK, so I can agree with you TO A DEGREE, but (that being said), I also believe that one has a right to one’s humble, subjective opinion of a piece of work whether that “piece of work” is a book, a piece of art, etc. In other words, I am of the humble opinion, that I do not have to be an artist to know whether or not I LIKE a piece of art or that I need to be an author to know whether or not I like a novel or not…While I believe you should be “knowledgeable” of whatever “piece” you’re criitquing if you’re doing this for a living, I don’t hold to the opinion that you need to be a “writer” to critique another “writer”, etc. As usual, though, you always give me “food for thought”, Sweet Pea!!! Hope tomorrow is less frustrating!!! 🙂 ❤

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    1. I agree with you more than you may realize! I make a distinction between criticism (like what’s done by formal book reviewers, etc., subject experts, or academics) and opinion (like what happens in a review on Amazon, etc.) Both are valid. I have plenty of opinions on movies, art, music, and I’m willing to share them somewhat. (I tend to try to give the artists/movie makers/musicians a bit of leeway, since I don’t know what goes into producing their work, but I definitely know if I do or don’t like it!) Sharing an opinion on why I do/don’t like a work is fine, as long as the reviewer remembers that characters don’t have to behave just like I think they should. (And being nasty and trashing a piece in a “review” just to be honest–I’ve seen in done, though not by anyone I know–well, that says more about the reviewer than the work!)

      But formally critiquing a work is different, in my view, because the person should know more about the subject and (ideally) be trained in the subject. It’s helpful if an art critic has more than just academic knowledge of painting! Unfortunately, some critics have an agenda and allow that agenda to influence how they see the work. That’s what I think happened with some of the critics of Middlesex, and to a lesser extent, the woman who critiqued my book chapter and told me how my character WOULD behave.

      So I think we do agree. I also think I should’ve made this distinction clearer in the post. 🙂

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      1. See? We DO agree (as usual!!) 🙂 (Not that I believe that you need to agree with someone that you “like”, in order to validate the fact that you “like them”, but that’s another topic for another day….) Have a good weekend, Laura! I’ve gotta get myself well (am current with an upper respiratory infection) and entertain my 2 out of state nieces and the older niece’s hubby. Love seeing them….just wish I was more “perky”….Oh well…it is what it is!! 🙂

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      2. Thanks, Laura! The Princess is now gainfully employed as of March 1st!!!! She’s still waiting for the “other shoe to drop” and is a little hesitant to celebrate, but we are feeling sooooo grateful and appreciative right now. We are truly so blessed. Thank you, Sweet Pea, for your thoughtful, kind concern!

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