How to Handle Criticism

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
Benjamin Franklin

The other day my husband and I were discussing who we were going to hire to put in an asphalt driveway after two different companies sent their men with estimates.

One of the men who came by wasn’t a very good speller but had been laying asphalt for 20 years. The other came with his wife and laptop, fancy postcards and a brand new truck. My husband was undecided since the estimates came in almost the same. He took to his own laptop and started reading local reviews. The bad speller’s company had a perfect 5 star rating. The fancier guy’s company had one bad review.

The wife of fancy guy responded to the bad review. Not good. She passive aggressively pushed the blame for the customer complaints onto the customer. She then described the death of a family member and various other personal issues that may have prevented her in 2014 from returning the disappointed customer’s phone calls. She pointed out that her company was a family run business and one bad review could really hurt its reputation.

At church the other day an artsy acquaintance and I were talking about swapping my book for her music CD. “What if we hate each other’s work?” she asked, jokingly.

Critics have been around since Satan grumbled about his place in heaven, yet pondering the asphalt situation (my husband chose the bad speller) left me thinking that maybe being a critic wasn’t the best way to pursue a happy life. There is a savage thrill in expressing a heavy-handed opinion with a superior toss of the head during a movie about super heroes. But is it really fun for those people around you?

On the rare occasion when I actually leave the house to go to a movie I ask my husband what the reviews are for the film. He usually responds, “Who cares? I want to make up my own mind.”

My husband takes a bad movie in stride. He’ll admit to a movie being less than he hoped but does not get worked up about it. He also never sits down to write bad reviews. I never do either. I may rant about something for a few days, or complain to my husband about a dumb book that’s really popular, but I have no desire to put pen to paper if in my mind the book or film or asphalt company deserves less than 4 stars.

Some people seem to think they’re doing the world a great service warning a buyer against a book, movie or driveway but sometimes silence is just as appropriate as words. A book with no reviews leaves just enough doubt in a reader’s mind without having the author’s reputation tarnished forever (or until an EMP STRIKE takes down all electronics). Only once did I check out a reviewer’s other reviews when she left a bizarrely personal and vicious attack/review. It was very eye-opening. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to live in her world of miserable negativity. I’m not sure I believe in karma exactly but wonder if in this age of YELP and Amazon we are not turning into the crows I see on my property who peck baby birds to death for fun.

the-noon-recess-winslow-homerWhen I used to teach 5th graders, the rule was that the kids had to think of three nice things to say about a fledgling writer’s efforts before the pecking began. My eleven-year-old students very easily learned this skill and the young writers flourished. Adults sometimes seem to think it would take too much time for such civility.

Critical thinking and perceptive critiques certainly have their place and it is almost never worth it to respond to criticism with whining or defensiveness, but I wonder if my mother’s advice, “if you have nothing good to say . . .” isn’t something we all should consider now and again. Maybe we should even consider what our true motives are at times. I can usually tell when I’m just in the mood to be a bitch (so can everyone else).

Once someone close to me said, “Well, it’s not like you’re the best writer who ever lived.”

REALLY? Who knew?  The person is someone I know loves me and her words came out wrong (or did they?) but they still annoy me . . . a little.

In the old myths the gods pecked at and destroyed each other in battles of ego, jealousy or stupidity. What kid didn’t love reading about such battles? But none of us are gods. We play them in critique groups or in dark movie theaters and basically just annoy and rob joy from others (again, I do realize that sometimes criticism is good and appropriate).

There may be some people who produce junk on purpose, but most artists and asphalt layers are just trying to do their best in life. Silence is golden in many (most cases).

My singer acquaintance at church and I decided that if we didn’t like each other’s work we’d say nothing. That way we could each pretend that maybe the other person hadn’t yet found time to read or listen to the works that bared our souls.

What about you? What’s your favorite example of toxic criticism? What has been someone’s most helpful criticism in your life?

PS~How great are the looks on the critics’ faces in the above painting?

HOW TO SPOT TOXIC FEEDBACK

I REWROTE MY NOVEL THROUGH A CRITIQUE GROUP AND LOST MY WAY

HOW TO HANDLE CRITICISM: THE TOP  TIPS FROM THE LAST 2500 YEARS

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22 thoughts on “How to Handle Criticism

  1. This pretty much sums up why, even though I write about food, I don’t do restaurant reviews. I know how hard the work is. I know everyone has a bad night from time to time. I know how much rides on the success of a restaurant. (I’m not talking just not great. Truly horrifying I could criticize. But there would have to be serious issues.)

    I remember being asked to do an interview of a chef at home, to talk about what his family life was like, including who did the cooking at home. They chef and his wife were charming, the kids were adorable, relationships were lovely and close and warm. When I later went to his restaurant and the food was just okay, I thanked God that I was only writing about his family, as it would have broken my heart to say anything bad about his food, knowing how delightful he and his family were.

    I love building up — and I love that you got your students to do that, with the good things about writing first. Fabulous idea.

    As for taking criticism, that’s probably not my strong suit — though that depends on how it’s given. I always consider suggestions, but I struggle with attacks and even with harsh criticism. So something to work on — learning how to deal with the toxic stuff.

    But this is a great post. Hope it gets widely read, as it’s something I think could benefit many. And yes — I love the faces of the critics in the painting. I suspect their minds are as dark as the shadows that almost hide them.

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  2. If I have nothing good to say, I just keep quiet. There’s this new restaurant that used to have so many diners at lunch hour….. but their food is bad, there’s no just right, it’s either too salty or very bland. But I think my mother told the cashier to fire their cooks. ( We do want this restaurant to succeed ) As time went buy, we noticed there were less and less people dining at their restaurant. I’m sure the only thing that keeps this restaurant from going under are their grilled and barbecued dishes, which customers buy ” to go “.

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  3. All criticism – whether it’s a book, a play, or a piece of art – should be done with great circumspection. I was prompted to start the original Rogues & Vagabonds because I was sick to my back teeth of the usual suspects who made appalling judgements at the expense of the actors or director. Or, indeed, because the critics towed the party line. I heard that Sheridan Morley when working for the Daily Mail wrote a review that was not particularly positive about The Sound of Music and when submitting his copy, was told he had to make it more favourable. He did. That was never going to happen with R&V. One theatre actually contacted me to take down a review about a production that they were hoping to transfer. I refused. These are the reviews I’m slowly transferring to the R&V blog when I’m not reblogging other theatre or film posts. Bar one professional critic, my reviewers were actors, directors, theatre lovers and so forth.The best way is to always find something positive before focusing on the parts that don’t work and why you think that is but without being nasty or dismissive. The latter approach gains nothing for anyone involved.

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    • I think about the horrible things said about Lindsay Lohan (she reminds me of my daughter). As we were all subjected to constant snide stories about her drug and family problems I felt heart-broken for her. How can “critics” have such fun at a young girl’s expense especially when we all know many of these young people are being pimped out for big money? I hate seeing very young movie stars. So often we get to see sensitive souls being crushed under the weight of public opinion. I saw a recent Instagram post of Lindsay’s. It was a picture of her as a young child in one of her first movies looking beautifully innocent and adorable. It makes me so sad.

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  4. Being a reviewer or critic or whatever is something I’d never consider. As you say, probably bad karma. Besides, I’ve often heard it said that the critics are those who aren’t good enough to do their own stuf. How’s that for a snide comment? 🙂

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  5. OK I am that son of Satan, I criticised last week in comments section of the British Guardian newspaper. But in my defence, this criticism was directed toward — against — a published author selling thousands of copies who had just been lauded (again) with a literary prize (and £10,000) so I guess he can suck it in. The author was Francis Spufford and the book was Golden Hill. The judges praised his meticulous historical research about his New York of 1746. They praised his use of an 18th century style of English. And yet and yet… his research was slight to poor. That is a matter of fact, not opinion. His use of language made Downton Abbey read like Shakespeare (now that is opinion, I grant you). His two black characters were two dimensional ciphers, though the novel was about the liberation of those oppressed.
    And I had the book recommended to me by someone I trust. I wanted to like it, but it made me so angry that this author’s path was so much more successful than a great number of others whose work I respect. I ended up reading with a pencil in hand circling the neologisms and dodgy facts like some old schoolmarm.
    I take all your points about the unpublished, the self published and the garage band. You’re right and I never would, but I suppose I just lost it when I read the reviews that described in some detail this emperor’s new clothes, when I could see he did not have a stitch on.

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    • You have made my day! I had a good laugh imagining you (a shadowy figure) with pencil in hand. I do tend to scribble in books more than I should myself. 🙂 and happily circle typos (only if the author is really IMPORTANT.

      I totally get the annoyance you feel when something is held up as the greatest thing when we all know it’s trash. LOL. I complain all the time about super hero movies and children’s cartoons. In some instances something just has to be said. (I think it’s less satanic to complain about super successful people–haha).

      My sister and I were just laughing at a very successful artist’s interview. My sister knows her personally, and she’s a real jerk but because she’s pushy and pretentious she gets to spend her summers at very prestigious artists colonies. 🙂 Are we just being bitter? Not sure, but it was great fun watching the interview.

      Yes, you are the son of Satan–but I guess we all are at times.

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    • I LOVE Popeye (and the Jeeps!!!). Bugs Bunny is pretty great as well. There’s an episode where Daffy Duck is so competitive with Bugs on stage that he dresses in a devil’s costume and blows himself up to WOW the crowd. It got me as a kid.

      Scooby Doo is where it all started to go downhill for me.

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  6. I think criticism is one of those things that is much harder to do well than it looks. Just about everyone who reads a book or watches a film can express their own opinion on it. Real, practical criticism is a lot more than that, though. You have to understand the medium and be able to recognize the techniques used and be able to express more than just a personal opinion, but an objective rating of the skill of the artist. You have to be able to give a reader or viewer or listener the information needed to make a purchasing decision. Given that the critic doesn’t know me or my tastes, that’s not an easy thing to do. Anyone can say, “I don’t like Westerns, so I didn’t like this book.” Being able to recognize what makes a good Western and express that a particular work is well or poorly done even if you don’t happen to like that particular genre is a lot harder.

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    • SO TRUE! There was a South Park episode a couple of years back where everyone was posting reviews for everything . It was very funny.

      I agree that if you don’t like a genre it’s probably not a good idea for you to write a review (unless it’s a good one 🙂 ).

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  7. Reviews are so subjective and I usually assume that I’m just not the perfect audience for a book or movie if I didn’t like it. I don’t leave negative reviews. Of course when it comes to a service where I was genuinely poorly treated or the work was particularly substandard, then I might go ahead. I’d still be nice about it, though. A bad review, if handled badly, reflects on the reviewer, too I think.

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    • Totally agree. Reading the asphalt wife’s very angry response to her customer was cringe-worthy. Even a bad review if done with the right heart can sometimes be useful. Review sites tend to make some of us feel like experts ( experts who don’t have to face the creators when they leave a negative review). It’s a very safe place for mean people to hide. 🙂

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  8. I taught Hebrew to beginning bar and bat mitzvah students at our temple for many years in preparation for them to read Torah at their service. This was not conversational Hebrew but prayer decoding and comprehension so they could decode with skill, read with fluency, and understand a bit of what it meant. It was not conversational Hebrew to make one comfortable in Israel while visiting.

    There are a hundred reasons why Hebrew is so very difficult to teach to young American children (and probably French, Spanish, and Norwegian kids as well,) and I won’t go into them or detail the controversy of beginning to teach Hebrew at age six or seven. Suffice to say that internalizing weekly classroom lessons requires kids to practice daily at home, but that is often without anyone who knows the skill better than the child trying to learn it. In other words, it is really hard, not impossible, but very hard.

    One of my strategies was to sit with every child one-on-one for about three minutes of every lesson, to listen to them read, determine their strengths and difficulties, and suggest methods of improving. That was in addition to group lessons and about ten other tasks I was supposed to incorporate in each session. And classroom management –you were a teacher, Adrienne, you know what it’s like.

    One day I turned to look at the youngster sitting next to me while we worked on her Hebrew. All at once I saw the child, not the frustrated, struggling student. And I said something to her about how incredibly sensitive I found her earlier interpretation of a section of prayer. Her face lit up and she smiled back and we continued with the lesson. But she tried a bit more and left with less tension.

    The next student to sit by my side was a boy. I told him what a great and natural leader he was. He answered that no one had told him he had leadership skills, and I assured him that he did.
    A few days ago I ran into his mother who told me that he’s now tutoring younger children at the elementary school and helping younger Boy Scouts work through their badges. I already knew that the girl had won an essay contest at school and was getting praise for her expressive writing skills. Did I influence them or only intuit their strengths? Or did I simply make learning Hebrew more about building personal relationships than covering ground?

    After that first day when I saw the little person next to me, I made sure every single child I worked with at those one-on-one sessions knew the unique specialness that I saw within them.

    You’ve written an outstanding article, Adrienne, and I appreciate how thoughtfully you’ve expressed the topic. I am still way too often way too critical, though in my later years I’m learning to be kinder, more patient. Being a critiquer does not mean nor should it encourage a person to destroy someone else. I’ve always loved the works of Thomas Hardy, yet at least one of his books and quite a few of his poems are just plain frivolous. But the best of his works are sublime and approach the greatest of world literature.

    Who am I to criticize greatness when I am as your friend told you, not the best writer who ever lived? It isn’t just to find something nice to say or say nothing, but to say something useful or simply shut up.
    I’ve been working on an article about bad book reviews to be published on my blog in a few months. I hope you’ll recognize it and comment should you read it.

    An awfully long reply here – you are welcome to delete if you’d like.
    Always with my respect,
    Shari.

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    • LOL, Why would I delete? You’re so funny!

      Whenever someone was kind to me in school I worked so much harder. Thank you for sharing your teaching experience–it’s inspired me tonight.

      Like you, I am often far more critical than I should be–but tomorrow’s another day. 🙂

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