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In a Critique, It’s All Fiction

Perhaps my inner curmudgeon is blossoming a bit here, but as critics, our job is to evaluate the work objectively. We cannot assume that a piece of writing is from life experience. Nor can we give someone a pass because it is based on the hard knocks of life. That’s how Oprah just got embarrassed. She touted a book where James Frey had written a really bad novel, and when publishers rejected it because it was bad writing, he instead submitted it as autobiographical. He fooled a publisher, and he fooled Oprah. They were taken in because they wanted to believe. They wanted this heart-warming story of a man overcoming horrible obstacles.

So, when the first phrase in a critique is, “I think that you have a lot of courage to share this with us,” I start wondering how good the critique is. I have seen this sort of thing numerous times in numerous Internet fora. Put that aside. Let’s say the work in question is about a woman being raped or having an abortion because she has cancer. Although she may have gone through it, she also could be a 265 pound man who likes to fool with people. This might show more in a face-to-face writing group, but on the Internet, you do not know. So, don’t let the situation rule the critique. Let the writing rule. Assume it is fiction first. Does the author make it believable? Is it a compelling read? Are there things the author does that bother you? We aren’t here to judge verity or falsehood, or to pity or to scorn the author based on the content or actions of the characters. Our job as critics in a writing or art forum is to evaluate the writing or art.

This doesn’t take anything away from any author’s real experiences. It is to help people understand how to critique better. And, yes, it may hurt to have someone tell you that the experience you’ve gone through doesn’t sound believable or isn’t written well. But, if you put your work in a forum for critique, you should expect it. If you’re writing for therapy, don’t submit it to a writing forum. Submit it to your psychiatrist or psychologist. And, finally, know that putting a true experience out for critique is going to hurt, no matter how much you think you’re over it. The real experience is often more emotionally-laden than a fictional story, and when someone says, “That character as written isn’t believable,” you’ll have the urge to jump up and shout, “How dare you say I’m not believable! That’s not a character; it’s me!” When you find that urge, gently suppress it. Remember, you’ve posted it in a place that is about the writing, not the experience.

Happy writing and critiquing!

The Gnostic Poet

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