Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pondering Criticism

by Hannah Roveto

From a letter by Shelby Foote to Walker Percy:

"I think a writer's mistakes are infinitely more interesting than any editor's "corrections" (and mind you, a critic is only an editor-once-removed) -- I think no one can have the view of the book the writer himself has, the CREATIVE view... It sometimes happens that certain scenes have no evident function; the critic says, Take this out. But these very scenes work in some way to bring out the total effect, heighten the contiguous scenes, and give the whole book its peculiar individuality. Yet any smart editor would have cut them -- I'm not talking about a dummy, I mean really smart: the speed of the book would have been picked up, the reading would go better... but don't you see? It wouldn't be the same book. A man must learn from his mistakes (even granting he was wrong) -- from MAKING them, not from being saved from them."

Foote goes on to say each book has its own problems, but still, "A man must write for himself, and then he must accept the penalties -- including the possibility of damnation."

I've reread this letter several times in the past two days, thinking of it in light of our last group meeting. The first chunk of my revisions were read (positive reaction!) and we also discussed reviews. (Three votes to "read once," one vote to ignore altogether.)

Shelby Foote is onto something. The weight criticism is given must come from the writer, and nowhere else. Commentary must be screened in light of how much we trust and respect the reviewer (so pick people you trust on your journey!), and its usefulness in identifying mistakes. If in our heart of hearts what lies on the page is something we have to go forward with, then we've made our choice; no matter the reaction, it was the right choice.

My mother is an artist, a jeweler, and even pieces made as recently as a year ago are sometimes melted down. She has learned a new technique. She has changed, improved, and those pieces reflect a lesser benchmark. Some pieces she believed in, that others said weren't right for their shows, have gone on to be in museums and in gorgeous coffee table books. Some pieces she has "outgrown" but saved get rave reviews. She doesn't agree with them, either, any longer. What I see in her is that she is never her review, and she is not even her work. The work reflects a side of her at one particular point in time. She knows this, deep in her heart, and continues to learn and to evolve. As Shelby Foote notes, "Life is long and the individual facets of Art are fleeting, except of course in the long view: which no writer ever takes, being a peculiar sort of fool, and therefore wise."


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Dear Hannah, what a wonderful reflection on our last meeting. Thanks for this insightful post.

And yes, positive reaction to your pages indeed!


Lisa said...

Great insights in this post and I'm glad you shared your mother's experiences in another medium. To me, this piece reinforces the concept that a good writer understands her art and her craft and has written each line with intention, so only she can truly assess whether editorial changes improve the book or not.

Since an editor is charged with making the book as marketable as possible, her agenda to generate revenue may be at odds with the writers artistic agenda (depending on the writer). A book that sells more is not necessarily a better book. In fact, it's probably not.

I think when assessing critique or editorial input a writer has to have the confidence in her work and the humility to listen and assess everything, but she also needs to understand the agenda of the person providing input and assess it within the proper context.

Last night I was reading a published author's blog and she talked about some editorial changes her publisher wanted made to add more back story (I thought this was different, since I always assume the tendency is to cut and cut more). The author made them and the book is 10,000 words longer. She felt the book was better without the changes, but deferred to her editors wishes.

Maybe in the end, many of these decisions come down to how strongly the writer feels about her intent versus how important it is to be published. I don't know. This is a really interesting subject, since a writer these days probably has access to far more input and critique than at any other time.

I always have a lurking fear of a sort of creative leveling phenomenon that can happen if people focus too closely on edits to meet current market demands and lose sight of the writer's intent.

Larramie said...

You mentioned your mother's art in last week's comments, Hannah, and I was totally fascinated. How much you must innately know from her, let alone keep learning.

The universal given, though, is that true/genuine beauty never fades...only trends.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

To rediscover Foote's letter (in Frederick Busch's "Letter to a Fiction Writer") after our meeting made his thoughts all the stronger for me, Lynne! And Lisa, yes, it is hard to know when to take edits/revisions/criticism and when not. Marketable is not bad per se; goodness knows there are books that could have used a bit more of a good agent/editor's help! The bottom line is keeping the work true to yourself, though. And thank you, Larramie... I'd forgotten I'd mentioned my mom last week! She absolutely has shown me a lot about being an artist as well as a person.

Shauna Roberts said...

Interesting post AND comments. Much food for though.

Myself, I'm still at the stage where other people's comments usually make my book better.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I had/have a mad crush on Shelby Foote (I know he's dead, but not really). I love his perspective and will print this out to read and read again. Thanks, Hannah. And yes, what a revision you did!