Criticism, criticism

I enjoyed this article breaking down the recent Sarah Dessen YA dust-up. It’s correct: criticism isn’t hate, and using a large platform to stifle criticism is wrong. I was nodding along until this part:

Conflating constructive criticism with hatred is not only wrong, but extremely dangerous and damaging. Criticism is how we encourage growth and positive change, while shame and hatred serve to stifle both.

I don’t want to put words in the author’s mouth, but this comes very close to something I have heard before: that criticism written for a wider audience is good for an author’s growth. And I want to break that down here, for a moment. I’m going to focus only on arts criticism and not the criticism of an artist’s behavior (which have increasingly become conflated in the wider discussion; I will not be conflating them here myself).

First of all, I can tell you that criticism written for a wide audience is not written for the benefit of a writer. It’s an entirely different approach to a work. What is said in a useful critque and what is said in literary criticism are vastly different.

Here are the elements to a critique:

  1. The artist consented to one, the person giving the critique consented to give one. It is a relationship.
  2. Ideally, the person giving the critique has expertise in and likes something about the work, genre, or the artist. Otherwise, it tends not to be very useful.
  3. Good constructive critique recognizes what the artist is setting out to do and helps the artist do that, even if the person giving the critique doesn’t care for the thing the author set out to do.

Literary or review-style criticism doesn’t have to involve any of those things! A critic doesn’t need an author’s consent to criticize a book they put out. No relationship required. They don’t have to like it or have any expertise whatsoever to have the right to criticize it. They don’t even have to agree that what the artist set out to do was worthwhile in the first place!

Because of those (valid) differences, because it’s for an audience and not the author, an author usually won’t find much use in one. Sure, a good one will give the author warm fuzzies and is great for promoting a book. But many authors choose not to read reviews because good or bad, it’s not a constructive way to engage with their own work or the community.

So they don’t read reviews and ask readers not to bring bad reviews to their attention. Boy, do some people get fucking furious about this. See, the authorial requirement to take critique (which is, again, consensual and constructive for the author’s ends) as carte blanche to demand access to the author. And they are the customer, and they want access, so you’d better give it to them or else. And yeah, that “or else” absolutely includes threats of violence.

The willful conflation of critique and criticism– and further conflating critique of the author with both– isn’t really healthy. It ends up making all three much worse and much less useful for the intended audiences. And it allows a culture of toxic fandom, which willfully conflates an author setting boundaries on access with refusing criticism or critique.

That is not what happened with the Sarah Dessen case. That was unequivocally inappropriate on her (and other authors’) parts. Dessen is rich and has a huge platform, so in addition to being plain wrong for confusing criticism for cruelty, she ended up doing real harm to the critic. But most authors are not nearly as successful, rich, or high profile as Dessen. For most of us, it’s a sub-minimum wage second job, and so the balance of power actually tips far in favor of the consumer.

It is important to be very clear: the right to criticize is not the right to access, and setting boundaries around access is not a denial of a reader’s right to criticize. You have every right to write whatever you like, criticism included! But you don’t have a right to be read.

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