Friday, June 30, 2006

ALL In My Mouth

My taste, that is.
It happened again.
Read a short story on-line.
Thought it was a superior piece of work - even though I'm not fond of "literary" fiction.
It got trashed.
In fact, this happens all the time.
I'll read various excerpts up for critique, entries in contests, all sorts of snippet stuff, and think this is so good.
Or I read a piece and go gah, blah - but everyone else emotes that the item is just so wonderful, wonderful.
It seems my taste, along with my critical faculties, is out to lunch, out of step, out of line, and a damned spot.
By and large, this is Not A Good Thing.
The major value of reading critiques and examples is to train one's eye to note the faults and failures, the pitfalls and prejudices, so one can apply the lessons learned in editing and revising one's own work.
Words to the wise, object lessons and all that.
Admittedly, my approach is to first absorb the example as a whole, the total impression arc before bedevilling with ( or delving into) the details - unless some blatant thumb of error sticks its broad self in my eye first off.
Techniques can be learned. Heart and vision cannot.
Neither do I assume that what I read is amateur slop-crap and therefore automatically fraught with failure and typical mistakes.
Have worried that my learning curve is way behind the crest - because WTF is rapidly becoming a daily part of my mental vocabulary and my eyebrows in danger of residing just below my hairline.
I am seriously concerned that I'm on a different train - that I just don't get it.
No. Not a Good Thing.


Erik Ivan James said...

Um, I don't see how you could be on the wrong train since you qualify as the train's Engineer.

Ric said...

Excellent answer, Erik.

Is it good? Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I have discovered people will trash a piece for a variety of reasons. And, if my work is similar, can't for the life of me figure out why.

You should not worry about this.

Joyce Carol Oates - supposed great writer - I can't read her stuff, makes me ill.

Stephen King - trashy writer, according to the critics - I love his stuff. William Goldman, too.

Not to mention the continued trashing of Nicholas Sparks - too syrupy, too sugary.

Odd, none of these experts point out that Sparks or King could easily buy every Oates book ever printed.

Depends, I suppose, on what you're going for - literary recognition or cold hard cash. Ideal would be a combination of the two - but there are a few million of us trying to figure that combo out.

Bernita said...

Maybe, Erik, but it just seems there's a lot of debris on the track that I don't recognize.

Thinking of unpublished writers, Ric, stuff that in my ignorance I think should highball out of the yard...

Erik Ivan James said...

That's what the "cowcatcher" on the front of the engine is for, Dear Gal.

Carla said...

Trashed by who? And yes, I often find myself thinking the same thing. Tend to shrug and reflect that it takes all sorts and "one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other".

Bernita said...

Clever. Erik!

The whole range, Carla, sibling writers to editors.
I sometimes feel my critical eyes need glasses.

Jim said...

Don't worry. It happens to me, too. Lately I've read a lot of flash fiction from various locations, and a number of those stories leave commenters just raving about how good they are. And I look at them and think, 'That's it? That's all there was? That wasn't very well-written at all. The rhythm was all off. Or the grammar or spelling was bungled. Or the plot didn't flow all that smoothly.' I've come to realize that I seem to look at different things than a lot of other readers. I like to think I have a more wholistic approach to my critiques of stories, taking into account not just how well the story resonated with me but also the mechanics of the writing itself. If everything seems to be in place well and the story works for me, then I can give it two thumbs up. A lot of stories I've read, though, only get one thumb up, one thumb down or even both thumbs down. So then I end up confused as to why other people rave about the same story that has, to me, some glaring problems. I haven't quite decided what to make of it all yet.

Anonymous said...

Bernita, what is it about the pieces you like, which subsequently get criticized? And conversely, what is it you don't like about the pieces which subsequently get praised?

I do disagree slightly with one point in your post. You value the soul and idea of the story higher than technique, because technique can be learned. I think for a writer to make it to the next level, the writer must achieve both. However, technique must be nailed first. The greatest idea won't fly without technique. On the other hand, a so-so story could get published if the technique is sterling.

For me, technique has done its job if the paper falls away and you live the story. If at any point, you stop to ponder a word or sentence and the magic is interrupted, the technique needs work.

Bernita said...

That's exactly the position I find myself in, Jim.
I don't know quite what to make of it, and naturally assume the beam is in mine own eye.

Jason, to me the emotion, the resonance, the concept, the soul ALWAYS trumps the mechanics.
I don't see it as a 50-50, though I understand the two parts are inter-related. I see it as 60-40.
Something technically perfect, without soul is a bland and hollow exercize in mechanics.
Naturally, obvious and appaling errors in technique put a piece out of the running.
Perhaps my confusion stems from the fact that much critique tends to be unbalanced. The emphasis is placed on errors in mechanics and little on what the writer has done right.

Jaye Wells said...

This happens to me too, Bernita. I'd be surprised if it didn't happen to most of us. It's almost impossible to turn off your writer brain, especially when reading unpubbed people's work. In addition, as much as we all focus on higher level issues like craft and theme, sometimes it's just a matter of personal taste.

Keep in mind, too, that on blogland is an imperfect medium, with popularity contests and flattery just like the real world. Others have the same issue you mentioned. However, instead of saying 'Not for me,' they think something is wrong with their taste, so they praise the writing too.

December Quinn said...

I do exactly the same thing, Bernita, read something and think it's fantastic only to see other people hate it, and vice versa. I have the same reaction you do, too-if I like this, and I like my own work...what does that say about my own work?

Don't have any supportive words...just to say I feel the same way.

Bernita said...

Concluding that it's not "me" but "them" is an easy out, Jaye.
I'm always suspicious of easy outs to a conundrum.
I do think that excluding personal taste from the mix is a vital necessity in critique.

Anonymous said...

Bernita, you're absolutely right about critiques being unbalanced. I've felt the same thing. Whenever I'm asked for a critique, I always begin with what's done well, then point out suggestions. Knowing what worked is just as important as what didn't. Maybe more so.

Bernita said...

Thank you, December.
Have been dismayed with this slowly growing realization and the consequences to improving one's own writing.

Jaye Wells said...

Perhaps I don't understand your conundrum then. It appeared you were trying to understand why your taste sometimes seemed out of step. My only purpose was to point out that it may not be as out of step as it appears.

Bernita said...

I am certain your critiques are always fair and balanced, Jason.
I agree that reference to what works is vital, if a writer is to improve.
One never assumes that if something isn't trashed it's therefore quite fine.

Thank you, Jaye. I get you now.
True, the medium does contribute to haste and casual toss-offs. Herd instinct may also be a factor.

Savannah Jordan said...

Every famous writer has someone out there that doesn't like their work either as a whole, or some certain aspect. I cannot bring myself to read Dan Brown. Look at how popular he is. Don't sweat the small stuff, or small minds, Bernita.

kmfrontain said...

Gotta agree with Savannah, and most everyone else. No one writer will get the approval of every reader, regardless of his/her published state. I also agree with you, Bernita, that a writer's first concern is catching that emotional interest of the reader, because without it, even after technical fixes, we won't really want to read. For unplublished work, I can waive technical boo boos to some degree, especially in a crit forum where the writer is learning. If something gets on the net for general readers at all, I think it should have at least some polish.

And I don't think it's fair to yourself to think you can't see writing flaws just because some or even a slew of people like something you didn't, or vice versa. For you to honestly compare your opinion to the opinion of other critiquers, you'd have to see how they write, wouldn't you? And if they don't appeal, or aren't even in the same leaque, genre, writing style as your own, then at least you know why you didn't agree. It may be that simple.

Bernita said...

Ah, thank you Savannah and KM.
~feeling a little less like a very stupid black sheep now ~

Dakota Knight said...

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...that applies to critiques too. Recently, I seem some things that aren't very good, in my humble opinion. Although I can't claim to be the most grammatically astute person in the world, errors are still the first thing I notice. It usually throws me off. In one certain genre I read, it's so bad that you'll actually read comments from readers saying, "The book was poorly edited, but I loved the story...and I'm buying the next one." I try to take into account how long the person has been writing (if I can) sometimes. I don't expect the same type of writing from a beginner than I would from an "expert." I also look for a consistent voice. I'm also kind of worried...readers will have a chance to critique my work soon.

Dakota Knight said...

Like I said, I usually see errors. It should be "seen" instead of "seem" on my previous comment.

Candice Gilmer said...

When I'm reading for pleasure, that's one thing -- then I usually allow certain things to not bother me as much as they could, (bad grammar, spelling errors, etc).

However, when reading something to critique it is a completely different ball game...

And I'm not one to mince words, either. If you ask me what I think, I'm going to tell you, point blank. I don't intend to hurt anyone's feelings, but I'm sure I have, and I always try to buffer any negotive stuff with a couple of positive comments, because no matter what the work, there'll be something that I do like.

But one of my major pet peeves is simply how the story is told. I don't "do" paragraph upon paragraph of explanation -- I make my point and move on. And when reading something that's paragraph upon paragraph of exposition, I tend to curl up my sharp editing knives and get to work.

Bernita said...

Have seen that same complaint, Dakota.
Usually on a romance board.
Don't think your readers will be disappointed. Has assassins in it, does it not?
Personally, I'm quite fond of assassin protagonists.

Think we all agree that too much exposition is a bad thing, Candice.

Scott said...

I did a guest review on Fringes blog, and I had a spot-on duplicate of your described reaction. The piece ended without apparent resolution. I don't demand that it be a happy ending, but I want to understand it. I start to doubt myself when I read a piece that has me scratching my head.

Anyway, my critique was responded to by the editor of the website that published the piece. He said that the author had originally ended it how I expected it to, and found it to be too "obvious." I felt better knowing the author felt the same way, and as far as I was concerned, the editor blew the piece.

I honestly think that short stories, the kind you find in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, are geared to people that fawn over the emperor who is parading in his underwear. Maybe some people get it, but I am betting that most don't. I'm not going to worry about it.

Technique is very key though, but it is not everything. Just like science and faith are meant to mesh in moderation. Both are technique and soul are needed, and one cannot shine without the other.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Scott.
I firmly agree.
Personally, I feel that such "artistic" endings are a cheat - that the writer welches on the invisible contract with the reader to provide a conclusion to his insight, his idea.
I often think it's the result of being afraid to commit. So one sees the excuse "Well, life is like that."
Certainly, "life is like that," but this is fiction - where the writer is the deus, and I usually and strongly dislike it when he doesn't have his machine in order.

Scott said...

Totally. Have the brass ones to end the story and make your stand. You either suck today or you don't. As Flood likes to say, you need to dare to. You are so right, this is fiction dad burn it.

Bernita said...

Thank you again, Scott.
Such endings are one of my secret pet hates.
BTW, people, Scott just made a sale.
Go and read about it all and rejoice with him.

Gabriele C. said...

One of the reasons I left my online crit group (after some of the membership changed) was that I did not care about the stories I had to crit, yet the others kept finding good things more than bad in the stuff. Not to mention they didn't find the bad things in my texts, either. And look what the Crabby Cows found. ;)

Though I don't care about most of the flash pieces they like; I suppose I don't care about flash fiction anyway.

When I look at the published books I like versus those that ended up against the wall, I can only say I have a very eclectic taste, style as well as genre.

M.E Ellis said...

I went through a phase like that. It'll pass.


archer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
archer said...

CRITIC: What did you think of the performance?

MAURICE RAVEL: It was awful.


MAURICE RAVEL: It was Beethoven.

Bernita said...

I suspect I do too, Gabriele but I try not to let my taste be the criteria to invalidate a piece of work.

I hope the stage you mean is questioning my own judgement, Michelle.

I don't set out to be different or difficult about what I read, Archer. No automatic reaching for my Luger.
Otherwise, I'm not on your train...

archer said...

No, no; I just meant that having individual taste puts you in very good company.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Archer.
Sorry, both dim and twitchy today.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I agree Bernita, but I'm used to it, and therefore don't pay any attention any more that others don't like the same pieces that I do.

It's the same way with movies. Me and the DH love a movie and the critics trash it! WTF!...LOL!

Bhaswati said...

Liking/disliking what you read is always going to be subjective. I might love what disgusts you and vice versa. What you speak of isn't just happening to you, as you can see. Happens to me plenty of times. I read something and it goes off a tangent for me, yet I see others raving the piece. My immediate conclusion is I am too daft to get it (I believe there is truth in that, really).

As for praising works I don't fully "get," well, I am guilty of that. I sometimes leave comments of appreciation just to show support for a fellow writer. A few good words never hurt. For the stories I can't understand at all, I prefer to keep quiet.

As a toddler in writing fiction, I am curious as to what you mean by "artistic" endings. Please educate me!

Bernita said...

It's just a personal term, Bhaswati, for the inclusive,no denouement, up-in-the-air endings often found in certain types of literary writing.
I consider it bad, sophmoric technique.
I do excuse the technique, even cautiously approve of it, as a "to-be-continued" in a series.
Usually there though, the central action is concluded and the reader is given clear indication that other threads will continue and are to be resolved in any sequels.

Bhaswati said...

Ah those endings. Yes, I can't agree with you more on those. They leave you thinking "Er, what happened there?" and not in a satisfactory way.

I much prefer a story well told and comprehensible to stories with "deep meanings" that keep you looking for the meaning all the while. Similar to my inability to understand abstract art. I may appreciate it on the surface, but it's not likely to touch my soul.

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