“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.
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.
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.